Women professionals and female consumers are tentatively knocking on the door of the financial services industry. Who’s opening it? Is anyone listening?

Fifteen years ago, these may have been curious questions. But today, there is urgency. Recruiting women to financial services and reaching out to the female consumer are not niche market nice-to-haves. It is a critical business strategy for survival in the 21st century.

The signs are all around us.

? 5 women start a business every minute in the U.S.

?Women control more than 27% of the world’s wealth.

? Millennial women are one-third of the U.S. working population.

The good news is that these highly educated women are looking for career opportunities and want guidance with their financial planning. A recent survey from Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. regarding attitudes about retirement planning and investing found that women are more likely than men to consult a financial advisor. The downside is that most women think wealth managers can better serve them, with nearly a quarter saying there is a “significant need for improvement,” according to a recent global study from Boston Consulting Group.

How do we bridge the gap?

The answer lies within the industry. Until we build up the ranks of women financial service professionals who share the female consumer’s experiences, we are missing a huge opportunity.

Recent data from higher education sectors indicate that American women, who now make up the majority of degree earners, including doctorates, are not only excellent candidates for careers in financial services but can simultaneously stand to benefit from financial services advice they may have once shrugged off. According to the federal Department of Labor, less than half of working women in the U.S. participate in a pension/retirement plan. Yet, retirement planning is among women’s greatest concern, according to MassMutual’s recent retirement study.

It is up to us to help them and, in turn, help us.

I have worked as an insurance agent in the field since the 1980s. I know the good, the bad and the ugly about starting out in this challenging profession. But I also know the story of succeeding both in this man’s business and for my female clients.

It’s time for me and other female financial professionals to work with the industry and its companies to undertake meaningful, full-time efforts to help women professionals realize their career potential while teaching female consumers they can and should manage their financial future with the guidance of a trained professional who understands their needs.

Those of us who enjoy the benefits of this business have a responsibility to open the doors for the next generation of successful financial services representatives. Today I am taking the next step in my career as a general agent to share that growth and experience to better recruit and retain female professionals and to better serve women clients in Detroit. I challenge other financial services leaders to do the same. By power of example, sharing our stories can become a big attractor.

Of course, we cannot do this alone. Financial services companies must commit time and resources beyond market segments to get the job done right. Future success and validity for the industry hinges on bringing more women to the conference table and retaining them once they are there.

To be sure, women are not the only ones who can connect with the female consumers. But recruiting women to the agency or a broker dealer can benefit male sales professionals by enhancing their ability to understand the female perspective, to ask questions and seek feedback from their female colleagues who may offer a different view on a sales challenge.

Successful female professionals in this business must use their voices to challenge the myth that this is a man’s business. I and my other female colleagues are actively offering support and mentoring at the office. We share childcare strategies in addition to prospecting tips.

Recruiting like peers is critical to retaining women in the business once they arrive. The ability to maintain relationships with other financial advisors who may have similar constraints at home or aspirations to align in a different specialty help women bond with each other and the career. Recruiting and retention build on one another and cannot be done in an either/or fashion.

Avoiding Paralysis

In this industry, we constantly encourage our clients to take action. Don’t get paralyzed, we say. It is better to take action than do nothing.

If you are stymied at where to start when thinking about how to recruit women to this business, ask a female financial advisor what got her here and what is keeping her here.

Reach out to professional organizations like Women in Insurance and Financial Services (WIFS) and others to gather insight and get going.

Otherwise you and this industry have a lot to lose.

Shelley Fiore, CLU, ChFC, CLTC, LIC is co-general agent of Detroit Financial Group LLC, Farmington Hills, Mich. She may be reached at sfiore@finsvcs.com.