True grit

For female advisers, getting ahead takes grit, grind and goals

Jul 28, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Liz Skinner

+ Zoom

Female financial advisers stand out in a crowd of their colleagues because of their small numbers in this male-dominated field.

More importantly, they stick out because they often are the most dynamic people in the room.

In a field where men often are taken more seriously than women, female advisers face more challenges and must be ¨technically savvy — as well as mentally tough — to break into the business and grow. The result is often an exceptional financial ¨professional.

“Women have had to work harder and have had to be tremendously resourceful and exhibit true grit to survive not only the entry process into this industry but also the promotion and growth process,” said Cecile Munoz, ¨president of U.S. Executive Search LLC, a recruiting firm. “At the end of the day, you end up with

executive leadership and female talent that is extremely competent, extremely talented and able to make very difficult decisions.”

Many successful female advisers admit that it hasn't been easy dealing with male managers, and sometimes clients who have the cultural bias that women don't belong on Wall Street or in any other part of the financial services industry.

Women — especially those of a younger age — have to demonstrate their intelligence and maturity first, then prove their skills as an adviser, said Heather Locus, a principal at Balasa Dinverno Foltz LLC.

“When women start in this industry, they have to be really good,” she said. “A man with the right look, they assume he knows things.”

The extra scrutiny that women in this business face pushed Ms. Locus early on to pay attention to details and be especially diligent on the job.

Low numbers

The obstacles women face from the get-go contribute to the low number of female advisers.

Only about 8% of client-facing financial advisers are women, according to the most recent research from Cerulli Associates Inc.

Erin Botsford, an adviser for 25 years, recalls a former branch manager in Panama City, Fla., who sent her off to broker training with the warning: “Honey, I don't want you to be disappointed when you fail. You are young, female and in the South — that's a recipe for disaster.”

Ms. Botsford, founder of The Botsford Group, which manages about $613 million in client assets, said that she made sure to send that manager a copy of the many awards and accolades she has received during her career, up until he died five years ago.

“I worked harder to prove him wrong,” she said.

'Someone's assistant'

Before Jane Williams became the first female adviser candidate hired by Merrill Lynch Royal Securities Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, in 1974, a manager told her that the firm was afraid to bring a woman on staff because they weren't sure how clients would react.

“They kept asking me how fast I could type and telling me that a good way to get in would be as someone's assistant,” said Ms. Williams, co-founder of Sand Hill Advisors Inc., which manages $1.1 billion in client assets.

“I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do. And I was incapable of typing well,” Ms. Williams said.

She recalls feeling fortunate when she was given a chance. She built a strong business for herself there and later did it again when she moved to a Merrill Lynch office in Palo Alto, Calif.

Ms. Williams and three male partners started Sand Hill in 1982, and even then she was initially given a “junior share” before becoming a full partner.

“Getting in the door is where the screen is the tightest for women,” she said.

For Melissa Motz, an adviser since 1996 and an accounting professional for more than a decade before that, the challenges of being a woman in the financial services business are still apparent.

Last month, the founder of Motz Wealth Management attended a golf event sponsored by a wholesaler, and she was the only female player on the course. After spending 18 holes with her colleagues, Ms. Motz discovered that she couldn't make the final move to the 19th hole — the clubhouse — because the private club doesn't allow women.

“Things have definitely changed for the better,” she said. “But it's still an old boy's network in a subtle way.”

Amy Sturtevant, now an RBC Wealth Management branch manager, said that at other firms, she felt she was at a disadvantage as a woman in situations where there was a conflict with a male broker over how an account was given out or who owned a particular relationship. Those conflicts always seemed to fall in favor of the male adviser, she said.

Going independent

Kimberlie Sonnenberg, who runs an eponymous firm, worked as an adviser for a large insurer before going independent four years ago.

At her former firm, she had to deal with a district manager who once publicly questioned her ability to understand a sports analogy — suggesting that he could craft a “cooking analogy” just for her.

Life on the independent side of the business is better for female advisers, Ms. Sonnenberg said.

“In the independent world, there is no hierarchy to get through,” she said.

Adviser Kassi Hyde said that older men and women typically don’t take her as seriously as they do male advisers, especially those on the older edge of the baby boomers and above.

“The older generations are not used to working with women in this industry,” said Ms. Hyde, who is with Independent Wealth Advisors Group Inc. “They are used to dealing with women in administrative roles, not sitting across the table from them.”

But members of the younger generations don’t seem to care that she is a woman, and Ms. Hyde hopes this signals an eventual leveling of the playing field for female advisers.

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