When people picture a financial adviser, they typically think of a gray-haired guy who looks like Bernie Madoff, or perhaps a younger man like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The imagined portrait rarely resembles someone like me, a woman. And that underlying perception is fairly accurate.
Roughly less than 20 percent of financial advisers are women, a number that has barely budged for the past two decades despite rising gender equity in other fields. But what has this overwhelmingly male work force accomplished?
Banks and brokerage firms consistently rank rock bottom on lists of the most beloved companies and brands — and not by coincidence. A major basis of the distrust is rampant conflicts of interests. In 2015, the Department of Labor estimated that the cost of conflicted investment advice for retirement savers is more than $17 billion per year. Then there are the roots of the financial crisis last decade, several of which can be traced to advisers convincing clients that investing in high-risk subprime mortgages was a safe bet.
While neither sex is immune to shoddy behavior, research has shown that female investors are more likely than men to focus on a family’s financial goals over their own absolute investment performance. A study by the Warwick Business School concluded that women outperformed men at investing by 1.8 percent. For one, women avoid “lottery style” trading and are more likely to focus on shares with good track records or on overlooked yet productive funds.
Clare Francis, a director at Barclays Smart Investor, agreed with the researchers, who attributed the difference in performance to women’s judiciousness. “The stock market is often portrayed as a high-energy, risky environment,” she said. “But this analysis shows that taking a more long-term view about what to invest in, rather than picking eye-catching and potentially more volatile shares, is actually likely to provide a better return on your money.”
In one of my favorite papers, “Boys Will Be Boys,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Terrance Odean at U.C. Berkeley and Brad Barber at U.C. Davis found that accounts owned by women outperformed those of men because women traded a whopping 69 percent less than men and incurred less in trading costs. Why did the men trade more? The research indicates men regularly exhibit overconfidence in their ability.
Christine Lagarde, chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund, was one of many world leaders to remark that the 2008 crisis might have never happened if there had been more women in high-ranking positions to pull the reins on the testosterone-tinged frenzy. Instead, all told, $19.2 trillion of household wealth was lost in America alone.
As a result, finance in general, and the financial advice field in particular, continues to be viewed as an industry plagued with slick con artists. And it’s a shame because as much as we may trust our best friends and close relatives, we rarely disclose to them that most private and sensitive aspect of our personal information: the state of our money. That discretion is instead placed with your financial adviser, who ideally is one of the good guys (or gals) in your life.
He listens first. You can calculate to the penny how much you paid for his services last year. His company adheres to the fiduciary standard of putting clients’ interests first. Your financial plan does not conveniently lean on products that happen to pay him a hefty sales commission. Usually, you’re the one calling back, because he’s anticipating your needs before they arise.
Unfortunately, far too often, the opposite is true. I’ve heard and seen horror stories from the front lines: the guy who retires a couple of years after acquiring your business and hands you off to his son-in-law or a junior broker who just left business school. The mansplainer who takes only the husband seriously and barely lets a widow get a word in as he rejiggers her estate. Or the one who scales back his hours to two days a week but doesn’t bother to tell you because he has collected enough clients to fund a perpetual state of semiretirement — logging enough days with his second wife down in Florida to claim residency and avoid state income tax.
While gendering any ability or trait can make people uncomfortable in these forward-thinking times, which sex seems better equipped to help families nurture and protect their nest egg?
The gender gap in finance looks increasingly like not only an ethical quandary but also a financial blow to millions of households. And its persistence stems from both explicit historical exclusion and a self-selecting process, in which the crowd most attracted to finance’s clubby reputation pushes hardest to get in, then feels most at ease once there, perpetuating the reality.
Two generations ago, when newspapers still ran gender-segregated ads, there were virtually no women on Wall Street aside from the secretaries. But once women were begrudgingly welcomed to the business world, Wall Street was not their first choice. Male brokers largely worked for commissions alone — an “eat what you kill” mentality that did not appeal to women. Instead, professional women gravitated to stable sources of income in fields like law, education or medicine.
Those divides have a way of calcifying. The Chartered Financial Analyst Institute — the premier global association for investment professionals — surveyed its members in 2016 and found that 83 percent of women and 80 percent of men chose their career before age 25. Only 18 percent of its members are women.
The public doesn’t perceive brokers as loyal stewards of their clients and neither do enough young women considering career options. First, they’ll need to see it to believe it.
Informal mentorship is great, but women need institutional advocacy, not just someone who is willing to grab a cup of coffee and chat. Firms should also take a look at their investment committee members and client-facing advisers. If they’re mainly men, there’s a problem.
Harvard’s Kennedy School found the use of blind auditions for symphony orchestras increased the likelihood of female musicians’ being selected by as much as 30 percent — to the shock of many conductors who did not believe they were biased. The percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased by 15 percent over a 23-year period. Similarly innovative measures might be necessary to bring about change in the business world.
Whatever the paths taken, the future of finance should be female. It wouldn’t just be more fair. If the years of data are any indication, it’s a future in which all of us would make more money. Find me a good argument against that.
Blair duQuesnay (@BlairHduQuesnay) is an investment adviser for Ritholtz Wealth Management. She is the author of the personal finance blog The Belle Curve.