Fintech one of few areas willing to give women a break

Historical barriers are less entrenched in financial technology, and women are taking full advantage of their chance to shine

Nov 17, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Ryan W. Neal

Financial services has long been an industry dominated by men, but Wall Street is hardly alone when it comes to gender inequality.

Silicon Valley is also overwhelmingly male. Though programmers were predominantly women when computers were first invented, studies show men hold between 66% and 75% of technology jobs today.

So it's safe to assume that where the two industries meet would be an especially difficult place for women. An examination of the leadership teams in financial technology — or fintech — shows there is indeed a gender gap but one that perhaps isn't as wide as the tech and financial industries at large. There are actually a number of women in top roles at established tech firms, fintech startups and traditional financial institutions.

For example, Neesha Hathi serves as Charles Schwab's executive vice president and chief digital officer. Her predecessor, Naureen Hassan, led the team behind Intelligent Portfolios, Schwab's foray into digital advice, before she brought her talents to Morgan Stanley as chief digital officer.

Estee Jimerson, one of InvestmentNews' Women to Watch, works as managing director and head of asset manager distribution at Envestnet, one of the largest fintech companies serving the industry. There is also Tricia Rothschild, chief product officer at Mornginstar, and Angela Pecoraro, CEO of Advicent, one of the first financial planning technology firms.

Among the startups, women like Cara Reisman, head of Betterment for Advisors, Jessica Liberi, eMoney Advisor's head of product, and Linda Ding, director of strategic marketing for Laserfiche, have all made a mark on the industry. This is far from a complete list.

One explanation for the increased visibility of women in the fintech business could be that it doesn't hold some of the institutional biases that create obstacles for women to excel. Women account for only 15.7% of financial advisers, according to Cerulli Associates, and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards reports women account for just 23.2% of CFP holders.

InvestmentNews research found work-life balance, a lack of opportunities and too few female role models as some of the barriers facing women in the financial advice industry.

Those barriers aren't as prevalent in fintech, where new ideas and companies are emerging all the time, said Danielle Fava, director of institutional product strategy and development at TD Ameritrade Institutional.

"Women can get into the [fintech] space and be a thought leader more easily than becoming a leading CFP," because those historical barriers are less entrenched, Ms. Fava said.

"I can become the expert in cryptocurrency custody because it's brand new. I can change the way that it moves forward," she said.

In her experience, women in fintech, and in financial services in general, are working hard to lift each other up and support one another. Women serving as a mentor to other women, a role Ms. Fava has embraced as well as benefited from, has also helped to push the needle on gender diversity, Ms. Fava said.

"My biggest supporters and fans and collaborates are women," she said. "You can see it. You can feel it."

Ms. Liberi agreed that fintech offers more opportunities to shake up the status quo, and said it was something that attracted her to eMoney, which boasts a 40% female leadership team.

Technology is key to making it easier for advisers to serve more clients, and this is an attractive proposition for many women, Ms. Liberi said. While finding more assets to manage is a good byproduct, technology also makes it easier to deliver more impactful services like financial planning to people who aren't ultra-wealthy.

"It's a refreshing way to think about technology's role in financial services," Ms. Liberi said.

Tricia Haskins, vice president of digital strategy and platform consulting at Fidelity Investments, added that the emphasis of adviser technology in 2018 is less about product sales and efficiency, and more about client relationships and bringing financial advice to traditionally underserved demographics. This in turn is helping to recruit more women into the advice profession.

"One of the great things that I really enjoy doing is working with a lot of advisers and firms to apply fintech to their business," Ms. Haskins said. "What I'm personally seeing is more women becoming advisers. Firms are seeing that there is a tremendous benefit."

Programs like Girls Who Code are helping re-introduce careers in coding and software development to many young women, said Lori Hardwick, co-founder and president of Advisor Innovation Labs.

Things have improved, but that doesn't mean the "good ol' boys club" is completely gone, Ms. Hardwick said. There is still a lot of unconscious bias keeping fintech a male-dominated field.

"If you look at the women who have succeeded in financial services, or any other male-dominated industry, you're going to find strong women. When we get an elbow, we elbow right back," Ms. Hardwick said.

The work won't be done until the entire industry represents society as a whole — with an even balance of men and women, Ms. Hardwick said. The industry isn't there yet and progress is slow, but more people understand that diversity and inclusion isn't about political correctness, it's about driving better outcomes, she said.

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