What really deters women from staying in the financial advice profession

First of all, it's not about math! The real issues involve pushing poor products, no workplace flexibility and old-school bureaucracy.

Nov 20, 2017 @ 12:01 am

By Sophia Bera

Over the past few years I've had the pleasure of speaking at a few universities that boast some of the top certified financial planner programs in the country. What always surprises me is that the room is usually split pretty evenly among men and women. We are training a bunch of amazing millennials to become CFPs. And yet, when I go to conferences, the room is mainly filled with white men over 50.

We are literally pushing women out of this profession. It's time that we take some responsibility.

Let me start by telling you what it's not about: It's not about the math. Women are going through the CFP program, passing their classes and passing the exam (which involves math) ... and then struggling when they enter this field. Here are what I think are the biggest obstacles for women in financial planning.

Women don't want to sell ... products they don't believe in.

Many of the companies hiring new college grads are insurance companies or big broker-dealers. These jobs often involve writing down the names of your friends and family and selling them a crap ton of insurance or investment products for a commission when you are brand new to the profession and have no idea what you're doing! Many women come into this profession wanting to help people, and this is a huge moral conflict for them. They often don't know there are jobs in financial planning that don't involve selling, so they are pushed out of the profession by facing too much pressure to sell.

I felt the same way when I started taking my CFP classes. I wasn't sure if this profession was right for me because I liked the "life planning" perspective but kept hearing I had to start out at one of these big broker-dealers — that those were the only companies that would hire me.

Thank God my mentor at the time taught me about fee-only financial planning. Even though I went to work for a fee-based firm in the beginning, I learned a ton by working in the back office of a father-son financial planning firm in Minnesota. I look back now and I think of how scared I was to "sell" — that it had such a negative connotation, like a "used car salesman."

Now that I run my own firm, Gen Y Planning, the main part of my job is selling my services to young clients. I find sales so much fun now! But that's because I was able to create a service model that I'm passionate about at a price point I believe in.

Women want autonomy and flexibility.

Women want flexibility at all ages and stages of their careers and lives. Women want to be trusted to do their jobs, and think as long as the job gets done, why does it matter if they're in the office or working from home? Why can't they come in late after dropping the kids off at school? Why can't they leave work early to take a spin class? Why can't they go to Europe for a month in their 20s (as Australians do) and still have a job when they get back?

I only had two weeks of paid vacation for my first five years in financial planning. Do you know how little this is when all your friends are getting married in their 20s and live nowhere near you? I'm hoping that this has started to change for our profession, because it's simply not enough time to attend important events, see family for the holidays and actually take a week-long vacation.

(More: The long-term effect of lifestyle-friendly advisory practices)

Other countries are far more generous with their vacation time, and I don't understand why the U.S. is so far behind. I'm trying to build in six weeks of Gen Y Planning team time off next year, where we all take breaks at the same time: one week in the spring, two weeks in the summer, one week in the fall, and the last two weeks of the year. This year we will hit about four weeks off. My small virtual team is entirely location-independent, and I trust them to do their work.

I had a job in the past in which the boss wanted me to show up at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m., for no other reason than that he just "liked seeing me in the office." It was this old-school mentality that drove me bonkers! Interestingly, this isn't the case at that firm anymore. But it only changed after they hired a woman who was a mom who said, "I have to drop my kid off at school at 8:30 a.m. I will see you at 9 a.m." She was an amazing candidate for the position and they knew that, so they were flexible.

However, sometimes it feels as if having a child is the only justifiable reason for wanting a flexible schedule for women or men. Why can't people in financial planning want flexibility at any age for any reason?

Women are annoyed by bureaucracy.

Ambitious women don't like being told to wait in line.

The high value placed on "seniority" and "longevity at the firm," rather than "ambition" and "willingness to learn," is extremely frustrating for millennials — and many traditional financial planning firms are like this. Women want to be mentored and trained on how to work one-on-one with clients, rather than being thrown to the wolves, but they don't want to have to wait three years before they get to sit in on client meetings. Women who want to grow their careers rapidly want to be sitting in on client meetings from Day One so they can learn how to work directly with clients and grow into an amazing financial planner.

At the first firm I worked for, so many other CFPs had started before me that even though I had been there for 2½ years, I was going to have to wait another year or two to even observe a client meeting. I ended up leaving to work at a firm where I sat in on client meetings every week, and eventually began leading certain parts of the meetings.

Realizing there's a long line of CFPs waiting to work directly with clients ahead of you, even though your skill set may be better suited for it, could be a reason we are losing ambitious women to jobs in marketing, sales and technology — where they can experience a faster career trajectory.

Another problem is the experience requirement needed to use the CFP marks. There are many amazing women who are career changers and having a tough time meeting the experience requirement. The need for 4,000 hours working directly under a CFP or 6,000 hours at a financial planning firm makes it nearly impossible for part-time workers and career changers to get their CFP within five years of passing the exam. Many of these are women; some are military spouses who aren't able to go to a financial planning job in person because they live in remote areas (which is the exact struggle my associate planner is having now). How is she less qualified to use the CFP mark than a recent college grad who did an internship and works in the back office of a broker-dealer for a few years? I think we need to look at the type of experience people are acquiring instead of simply the number of hours.

It seems the CFP Board of Standards Inc. can't wrap their head around nontraditional career paths. But it is my hope they will begin to look at this diversity of work experience (virtual, part-time work for multiple firms) as an asset, and will be more accommodating in how to meet the experience requirement in the future. With all of their women's initiatives, hopefully they will hold up a mirror to see what they can do to support women in financial planning.

When you ask women what they like about being a financial planner, the answer you'll hear most is: "I love helping people." I believe as financial planners we also have a duty and an obligation to help each other. I think it starts by taking small steps within our own firms to create change. I hope you'll join me so we don't lose any more smart, talented, ambitious women to other, more flexible, professions.

Sophia Bera is the founder of Gen Y Planning.


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