When thinking about their retirement and savings needs, women investors want to know they are working with someone who understands and listens to them - they want to talk to a woman.

More than 60% of women who are small business owners prefer to speak with a female adviser, according to a recent American College study. However, there is a clear disconnect between the documented preference for female financial advisers by female business owners and the demographics of the financial industry. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show only 30.8% of personal financial advisers are women.

The issue is pervasive. A Boston Consulting Group study on women and consumerism that polled more than 12,000 women of diverse socioeconomic status across the globe found that women are more dissatisfied with the financial services industry than any other service sector that affects their daily lives.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of women are unhappy with the level of service they receive. They report being treated with disrespect and condescension, and being given poor advice specifically because of their gender.

And it's not just female clients that are getting the short end of the stick. Mary Quist-Newins, director, State Farm Center for Women and Financial Services at The American College, sites a "startling statistic" from the Institute for Women's Policy Research that finds the pay gap between female and male financial advisers is the largest out of 110 different occupations. On average, female advisers make 58 cents on the dollar compared to male advisers.

The fact is the market needs a much greater focus on females - both professionals and clients. Nancy Skeans wants to see it happen now, and she's starting with her own firm.


Emerging market

Partner and Managing Director at Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors in Pittsburgh, Skeans' personal financial services team is dominated by women: five females, four of which are investment advisers, versus two male, one of which is an investment adviser.

Even so, in the almost 20 years she's been in financial services, Skeans often feels like the odd woman out when attending industry conferences. From her estimation, attendance is typically less than 20% female - even as low as 10%. Also, she notes that presenters are usually male portfolio managers, although this has started to change in the last few years.

Indeed, Skeans' observation of a 10%-20% female crowd at industry events is likely on target, because even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs female advisers at the aforementioned 30.8%, the reality is much less than that, says The American College's Quist-Newins. The number of certified female advisers could be significantly lower because the government stats include other categories as well, such as female bank tellers. "It could be 20% - maybe," says Quist-Newins. "It's really hard because the definition is so ambiguous."

The Boston Consulting Group Global Inquiry into Women and Consumerism, the research that found such widespread dissatisfaction among women about the financial services industry, represents a wake-up call and an opportunity for forward-thinking financial institutions. Firms can provide services and products tailored to women's lifestyles, wipe out patronizing sales efforts while offering more education to women, says Quist-Newins. Male and female advisers "need to work in partnership more," she says. "We need to get more women in the business, because here's an opportunity."

Skeans sees the opportunity in action at Schneider Downs. She hears from colleagues that when women investors visit the firm's website they are more likely to call the office for an appointment because they noticed the team is female-dominated.

"We want to work with any individual who we fit well with - man, woman, couple, partnership - but we do reach out to women," Skeans says. "We value those relationships and we've been fortunate in the last few years to gather several new women clients for various reasons."

Of the individual accounts Skeans' team manages, approximately 30% belong to single women, 10% are single men, and 60% are married couples.

"I think it's definitely a growth area for women advisers to reach out to women because they do control the wealth in this country, at least from a numbers perspective. I don't know if they realize the control that they have," she adds.


Seeking their own adviser

The American College study that found the majority of women small business owners prefer to speak to a female adviser is the first of its kind to focus on this demographic. It's a landmark study, says Quist-Newins, as one in 11 women are business owners, and female-owned businesses are growing at twice the rate of male-owned ones. "This is an emerging market opportunity that no one has really researched," she says.

When asked the question, "Why do you prefer either a male or female?" some of the women surveyed said, "Men. Well, that is who is in the industry," Quist-Newins says.

Because there are more men to choose from in the industry it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, she adds.

Even so, female advisers may not be completely blameless for the situation, says Lydia Jett of Boston-based growth equity firm M/C Partners. In her experience, Jett notices that men do a slightly better job of sticking to a professional conversation. "Women, in an effort to exhibit we care about the person we're talking to, we tend to bend those conversations to make them more personal," says Jett, "and I wonder if that doesn't put us in a position where when someone is thinking about who they want to work with they think about who they have been talking with professionally as opposed to personally."

Interestingly, the American College study also found that 25% of males prefer to work with a female adviser. "That even exceeds the industry representation," Quist-Newins says. "I think that's notable because we certainly don't have one-out-of-four women in this industry - at least in the general financial advising community."

As another Boston Consulting Group study showed, women can feel alienated by a male adviser and "want a level playing field - they want the same attention, advice, terms and deals that men get - with advisers providing clear and objective recommendations based on their goals and profiles."

Skeans believes that women leave their adviser because they are not their adviser, they're their husband's adviser. "They've always been treated as a second-class citizen and sometimes they are not invited to the meetings or maybe they're not interested," she adds.

However, female clients are also guilty of perpetuating the situation, as Skeans points out that while some married clients will bring spouses, she's never had a female client meet with her without her husband. "Still in our society I think men dominate the conversations about money," says Skeans. "That will change; 20 years from now it will be completely different."

Women investors may be reluctant to speak up and then find less satisfaction with their investment adviser because they don't want to contradict what a male adviser is saying or question them since they are the "professional."

"This may be the reason why they walk out of the room disappointed. But women, they have to learn to take control," says Skeans. "If they're in a relationship with someone else, I believe that both people need to engage a couple times a year in an honest evaluation of what they're spending, saving and what their goals are. Should something happen to one or the other they both understand what they're doing with investing."


Feeling invisisble

While more than 40% of female respondents to The American College survey have consulted with a financial adviser about starting retirement plans compared to just 29% of males, only 24% of females versus 34% of males actually have a formal, written financial plan for managing income and expenses in retirement.

Skeans attributes the female falloff from speaking with a financial adviser to putting together an action plan to women investors being more likely to spend their money elsewhere when presented with the costs of doing a financial plan - which can be $3,500 or more, depending on the client.

Women are more financially burdened, generally, she says, and The American College's Quist-Newins agrees. Females have higher life risks, area more financially illiterate, live longer, earn less, are more likely to become disabled, and are more likely to become single, she says.

"When you put all those together it fills up pretty formidable risks," says Quist-Newins. "And people aren't marketing [to women]. ... LIMRA tells us that just half of female advisers market to women and 16% of males market to women, and yet we're half of the population - with higher financial risks. It's the hugest market opportunity ever."

At the same time, women need to take ownership of their own financial future. "If they don't feel like they're part of the conversation then they need to speak up or they need to move on and find an adviser that will make them part of the conversation," says Skeans. "Every one of us - male or female - we need to take responsibility for ourselves."


Recruiting women

If it wants to successfully meet the growing demand of women small business owners, "the financial services industry needs to do a better job or recruiting, training and retaining women as financial advisers," Quist-Newins says. "We will never crack this nut until we change the face of leadership in the industry."

Doing so starts with women mentoring other women. Jett, who has been with M/C Partners for three years, says mentorship is "extraordinarily important in finding success and getting to senior roles in any of these investment firms, and this financial services sector is probably not particularly good at helping to structure those relationships."

As a business student at Stanford University, Jett was president of the Women in Management club and found it to be an interesting way to advocate for women while on campus. Since then she has also led diversity recruiting initiatives at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan as well.

Ironically, Jett herself has never worked with another female in a firm since entering the industry in 2002. "It's very hard to visualize building your own career path when you don't have people ahead of you to exhibit what that might look like," she says.

Although difficult, Jett actively spends time recruiting women, and although the pool of female applicants is considerably smaller, "I do think it's important to keep bringing women up through the funnel and hope to keep them in along the way," says Jett.

Meanwhile, The Women's Leadership Academy at American Business College, created by Quist-Newins, is the first educational forum dedicated exclusively to the advancement of females in the industry. The academy is targeted toward women in senior field leadership positions and those contemplating leadership.

Bottom line, says Quist-Newins: "Failing to diversify could lead to significant missed economic opportunities for financial services companies, and reduced levels of financial security for women small business owners."




The gender divide

* 61% of women who are small business owners prefer to speak with a female adviser

* 30.8% of personal financial advisers are women

* 1 in 11 women are business owners

* 41% of women have consulted with a financial adviser about starting retirement plans versus 29% of men

* 24% of women versus 34% of men actually have a formal, written financial plan




Targeting women on wellness, too

Compared to men, women appear to take a more active role in their health care by joining worksite wellness programs. "We find that women tend to be the decision makers for themselves and their families," says Beena Thomas, vice president of health and wellness at OptumHealth.

A white paper by OptumHealth shows how differently the two genders engage when navigating their own health care.

Sixty percent of females versus 49% of their male counterparts have had physical exams or regular health-related screenings within the past year. Interestingly, despite the more active role that women take in managing their health, the white paper shows men (30%) are more likely than women (23%) to complete an online health questionnaire, according to the paper, "How Gender and Work Site Impact Employee Engagement."

"I think females tend to be more regular when it comes to these preventative annual-based screenings or five year screenings, which is why these workplace efforts are so popular," says Thomas.

"When vendors offer programs such as biometric screenings and we go into the workplace this is almost the first line of defense where employees understand about their health, since they probably haven't visited their doctor's in years. You can really see the popularity in workplace wellness programs."

Thomas assists and consults with large employers around driving a wellness strategy. From her experience she says that plan sponsors should ask the appropriate questions to see an uptick in participation rates.

First companies have to ask, "How can we refine our health and wellness strategy to really be relevant, effective and engaging," she says.

For those companies employing a majority of women they have to think, "What are some engagement tactics?" and "What are some of the communication platforms that might be leveraged to speak to the female population?" she adds.

Because so many females take an active role in their health care, there were higher participant results by females in the company's diabetes program, which features exercise and healthy weight, specifically.

"When we look at health and weight, physical appearance is really important to females," Thomas says.

Women often notice the "yo-yo effect" when they diet and struggle with numbers on the scale so it's important, Thomas says, that female employees find a wellness coach that can help them and offer opportunities to help them maintain a healthy weight.

One employer Thomas consults with offers Weight Watchers programs and uses the multi-modality approach where employees can go online, onsite, call, or venture into an actual Weight Watchers facility with questions or concerns.

When comparing data, Thomas and her team find that an abundance of mothers would call by phone with questions after work hours and when children went to sleep later in the evenings.

"It's interesting when you really dig deep into the demographics of an organization and the programs they're offering and where they're seeing the uptick," says Thomas.

A company's incentive design should constantly be evolving because free merchandise attracts more employees to join wellness programs, she says.

More plan sponsors are offering incentives geared toward an increase in participation for their maternity management programs, observes Thomas.

"An organization with 80%-plus female staff with more than half of the female population within child bearing years, [the company] wants to drive down costs of neo-natal intensive care unit babies so much that they may incentivize females with a free car seat for just being engaged in the workplace program," she adds. "This is a high-dollar item. For first time mothers this is a great incentive."

Other incentives Thomas says which attract female participants include company provided free breast pumps for women and lactation rooms to encourage new mothers to return to work.

"This client was really trying to manage their programs and policies as well as making organizational changes to support their high female population and drive down the NICU costs," says Thomas.

In evaluating why both genders use worksite wellness programs it is an important enabler to drive awareness of key risk factors.

"It's very exciting," says Thomas. "There are so many different venues that [companies] can incentivize participation." - Marli D. Riggs

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