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by Catherine M. Seeber, CFP®

The lack of female advisers in the financial planning profession is “problematic” I hear, but “opportunistic” may be a more suitable descriptor.

The glass-half-full mentality represents the direction today’s planning community is taking when it comes to the women who represent it now and in the future. Take, for example, the fact that FPA will launch this month a Knowledge Circle, called Women and Finance, dedicated to leveraging the strengths women bring to the table as financial planners.

The landscape of financial advice is changing with the growth of female-centric affinity and community groups, industry-wide events, the increased population of female students in financial planning programs, and the willingness of successful female advisers to hire other females.

The concept of a financial planner is evolving. Financial planning has entered a period of thoughtful transformation, brought on by major shifts in investor and adviser demographics and outlooks, which should increase the number of female advisers. The perception of how financial planning is delivered has moved from reticent to approachable. To remain competitive and engaged with our clients, we have altered our planning approach to fit their needs. Advisory teams and technology now play a much larger role in day-to-day activities, empowering advisers to serve clients by relationship-building. This enables advisers to address the changing needs of clients when they need it. The very fabric of a good planner lends itself to the attributes consistently found in women: empathy, nurturing, good communication and listening skills, and the desire to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

A report by Cerulli Associates titled, “Advisor Metrics 2014: Capitalizing on Transitions and Consolidation” indicates that the total number of financial advisers has declined for the fifth consecutive year, which isn’t a big concern for Registered Investment Advisers. While it’s true that wirehouses remain the dominant traditional advisory distribution channel of wealth (and largely populated with male advisers), the market share of the RIA and dually registered channels is projected to increase to 28 percent in 2018 from 20 percent of total assets in 2013, according to Cerulli. There is a choice between working for an RIA firm that offers more of a work/life balance versus a corporate environment with less flexible working conditions—an additional reason why the RIA and dually registered firms are more conducive to the female adviser. Coincidentally, independent RIAs are the ones growing and these more flexible employers will be the ones attracting and retaining female talent.

Growing Opportunity

CFP Board engaged Fondulas Strategic Research to conduct its Women’s Initiative (WIN) study in 2013 and 2014 that found that role models, networks, and professional development efforts may be insufficient to support women in the financial planning profession. Though this provides a dim view, there appears to be a growing number of female-centric opportunities in recent years.

Nearly every industry conference offers a female-exclusive educational or networking track—Barron’s Top Women Advisors Summit, The Women’s Advisor Forum, the Women in Finance Investment Symposium, and the Women’s Conference—to name a few. Major brokerage and financial industry firms now offer networking, support, advisory councils, and special events geared just for women including Raymond James, TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, and Charles Schwab. The AIG Advisor Group branded its new initiative this past February, "Women FORWARD." Previously known as Generation I, this comprehensive program includes mentoring, training, and networking opportunities exclusively for female advisers.

Female-exclusive associations like the Financial Women’s Association; or broader financial associations in addition to FPA that have carved out groups and communities specifically to support the women in our profession include the Association for Financial Professionals and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. The Women’s Leadership Academy Summit from The American College is an educational forum dedicated solely for the advancement of women in financial services.

Progress at the College Level

If there is emerging support and infrastructure, where are all of the females? I emailed the department heads of 92 CFP Board registered programs that cover financial planning education at the college or university level and meet specific criteria for educating individuals who wish to fulfill the education component for obtaining CFP® certification. The question posed was simple: “Approximately what percentage of students in your financial planning registered program are female?” I received 20 responses and the range was from 12 to 60 percent, with a 34.55 percent average and 33 percent median.

John Grable, Ph.D., CFP®, head of the University of Georgia’s program and academic editor of the Journal, said his program has 60 percent female representation.
“This figure has been relatively stable,” he said. “The reason? Probably because our approach to financial planning is very much in the realm of behavioral financial planning. The approach, which incorporates psychology, counseling, and other people-centered courses, appeals directly to the way nearly all women want to practice planning.”

Some of these female students may be career changers. Many institutions offering CFP Board-approved educational programs design them specifically to attract high-achieving professionals looking to enhance their education without interrupting existing careers.

Increasing the Ranks

Although CFP Board’s 2014 WIN study indicated a “feminine famine,” the ranks of female advisers do appear to be growing.

A 2013 Fidelity Advisor Insights Study showed the number of female advisers with less than five years of experience increased by 40 percent from 2010 to 2013. Among the 813 advisers surveyed in this online, blind survey, the female advisers were more successful and more satisfied than their male counterparts, with 2 percent higher assets under management.

Survey participants were from multiple firm types, worked primarily with individual investors, and managed a minimum of $10 million in individual or household investable assets. Firm types included a mix of large and small IBDs, regional broker-dealers, RIAs, insurance companies, wirehouses, and banks, with findings weighted to reflect industry composition.

According to Barron’s Top 100 Women Financial Advisors in the U.S., many of the high-ranked individuals found their way into the business as a second calling.

Kimberlee Orth, the fourth-highest ranking female adviser, started her career in computers. She earned her degree in business administration from the University of Delaware and her first job was with Tandy Corp. The article reported that a friend suggested Orth become a CFP® professional 30 years ago.

“To me, being an adviser is a calling—almost like being a teacher, a nurse, or a priest,” Orth was quoted as saying.

In breakout sessions at industry conferences where I’ve facilitated conversations with female advisers, there is almost always a personal experience that motivated a participant to choose financial planning as a second career. My decision as a prior corporate accountant to become a CFP® professional was spurred by the incredulous discovery that my mother was unable to subscribe to a local newspaper because she had no established credit in her own name as a stay-at-home mom. My own calling became one of educating others to save them the same embarrassment.

Women Hiring Women

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the empty portion of the glass. Why does the percentage of women CFP® professionals remain flat at 23 percent, according to the CFP Board? Are they still unaware of the career offering? Are they still unaware of what financial planners do?

Some still strongly believe that men are favored over women when it comes to hiring a financial planner. Subtle biases still exist, though that can’t be proven easily, as biases are rarely admitted and almost always internal. A CFP Board whitepaper titled “Making More Room for Women in the Financial Planning Profession,” reported that 43 percent of clients prefer hiring men and 40 percent would rather hire women.

When it comes to women hiring women, take, for instance, REP. magazine’s Top 25 Women-Owned RIAs, a list of firms engaged in financial planning services ranked by asset management and firm ownership. Only 13 of the 41 (32 percent) top positions were female, excluding the founder(s). I compared this to the percentage of the top 12 firms in the non-gender specific RIA Leaders Top 20 Firms list. Roughly 33.3 percent of those respective leadership teams were female, with the vast majority having male founders/CEOs. In this very rough calculation, there doesn’t appear to be a bias exclusive to males hiring males.

But back to the glass being half full. Recruiting shifts have added to the demand for young, educated planners in CFP Board registered programs. Firms that historically recruit only established professionals with a book of business have warmed to the concept that recent graduates (including female graduates) are essential to a firm’s success. Firm owners determine whether to hire an experienced adviser or an entry-level person to train. The ultimate goal in hiring staff is fourfold:

  • To serve the best needs of your clients efficiently and effectively (manpower)
  • To add more intellect to your firm (brainpower)
  • To grow your firm (power of expansion)
  • To build a line of persons to succeed the rights and duties of another (displacement power)

Luke Dean, Ph.D., financial planning program director at Utah Valley University, said his program is made up of one-third females and boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.

“I receive a lot of calls from financial planning firm owners asking how to hire our students as an intern or as a new hire,” Dean said. “The majority of the calls I get from firm owners around the country include them asking how they can hire our best female students. I am happy to see how much demand there is for female talent in the industry, and our female students tend to have multiple job offers, and get slightly higher starting pay” (because of multiple job offers).

The U.S. News & World Report’s list of 100 Best Jobs of 2015 ranks financial adviser in the 25th position. The ranking uses growth, salary, job prospects, employment rate, stress level, and work/life balance in the scoring measurements. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also anticipates a 27 percent growth in personal financial advisers this decade. The industry shift from big banks, brokerage houses, and insurance companies to independent RIAs will make the difference.

Some issues that still need attention are salary dispersions, book of business requirements of some firms, and the increasing number of online advisory tools that may dissuade some from looking for that human touch.

Finance has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but women can not only outrival their male counterparts but accomplish the right work/life balance in their financial careers. There are abundant opportunities to work in our industry if you are educated, self-motivated, analytical, and empathetic.

The one downfall of my own glass-half-full declaration: I now have to wait in line for the restroom at industry conferences. 

Catherine M. Seeber, CFP®, is a principal and senior financial adviser at Wescott Financial Advisory Group with offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boca Raton and Miami, Florida, and San Francisco, California. She serves on the Board of Directors for FPA.

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FPA Launches Women and Finance Knowledge Circle

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