Increasing the number of women advisers an uphill climb

Theories abound, but little agreement on why it's so difficult to get more females into the adviser workforce

Jan 12, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

Efforts to recruit and retain female financial advisers continue to be an uphill battle across the financial services industry.

Despite near universal acknowledgment of the advantages of having more women working with clients, the hard data show a frustrating lack of results.

A new research report from InvestmentNews and State Street Global Advisors, "Women in advice: Inspiring the next generation of financial advisers," shows that women make up less than 16% of the total financial adviser population.

"There needs to be a culture shift at financial firms," said Catherine Seeber, vice president at CAPTRUST.

"I think a good statistic to consider would be how many females begin at financial firms and leave because they don't feel like they belong," she added.

In terms of the two-pronged challenge of first hiring and then retaining female financial advisers, Ms. Seeber said, "I think acquiring them has gotten easier, but the problem is retention."

"Employers desperately want females because they're learning that women make excellent financial advisers," she added. "I just can't put my finger on why there is a retention problem. Maybe they feel the career isn't what they expected, or maybe there's a culture that doesn't make them feel equal, but I wouldn't want to try and say there is one cause behind the retention problem."

In terms of strategies to add more women to the adviser ranks, flexible work schedules emerge as a consistent theme, but the less tangible concept of "culture" might be the part most difficult to nail down.

"Have a clear culture that everyone follows and is regularly tended by culture keepers," said Carolyn McClanahan, founder and director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners.

She also recommends allowing flexible work schedules for both women and men, "so they can take care of family, and if the company is big enough, make certain women are equally represented in positions of authority."

A large part of the problem of the women-adviser shortage begins with the raw numbers showing women just aren't migrating toward the industry in any significant way.

The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards data show women make up just 23.2% of certificant holders, a percentage that has been steady for the past 15 years.

Even as the total number of CFP certificant holders has climbed by more than 83% since 2003 to nearly 79,000, the percentage of women over the 15-year period has hovered between 23.1% and 23.9%.

Sara Gelsheimer, a wealth manager at Plancorp, reflects on her personal experience that there might be a perception issue preventing more women from pursuing the financial adviser ranks.

As a college student majoring in social work, Ms. Gelsheimer took a financial planning course just to learn some financial basics.

"I learned that financial planning was well beyond just selling products," she said.

In terms of making the industry more attractive to women, and then keeping them on board, Ms. Gelsheimer said firms need to embrace family-friendly policies.

"Firms needs to show that family life is not only not frowned upon, but valued," she added.

Shifting the corporate mindset is often easier said than done, because it involves rethinking and rebuilding the fabric and foundation of the way things have always been done, according to Shelley Zalis, chief executive of The Female Quotient, a consulting firm focused on equality in the workplace.

In terms of hiring more women, Ms. Zalis says the pipeline gets clogged early on by outdated hiring practices and "unconscious biases" that "usually has white men doing the hiring."

"If we want diversity in the talent pool, we should also have diversity in the recruiting team as well," she said. "And a lot of the job descriptions deter women from wanting to participate by using words like aggressive and assertive."

When it comes to retaining talent, Ms. Zalis said women often get stuck in the "messy middle," which is a stage of middle management where women are often gaining more responsibility at home and at work at the same time.

Addressing that challenge, she said, will require "rewriting the rules of today's modern workforce."

"Just look at traditional corporations today; most of the rules were written 100 years ago by men for men," Ms. Zalis said. "We should be thinking about the kind of culture that is needed for today's five generations of workers. Diversity is a great tactic for bringing in diverse talent, because it creates a sense of belonging. And when you put women in any equation the equation gets better."

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