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Four Tools for Creating a Gender-Diverse Practice

October 23, 2014

If your firm is not on the diversity bandwagon, it needs to be.

My opinion was reinforced recently when a woman told me a financial advisor spoke only to her husband at a meeting, ignoring her completely. What made the oversight more distressing is that she is a managing director at a global wealth management firm, and her husband is an artist with little financial knowledge. More balanced gender representation at financial-planning firms can counter this kind of stereotyping.

That will only improve firms’ financial results. Women are economic powerhouses. The amount of wealth they control is increasing at a phenomenal rate, yet women remain dissatisfied with the service they get from the financial-advice industry. And no wonder: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women account for just over half of the U.S. population but only about 26% of advisors. Wealth management firms may not be attracting the best and the brightest.

But let’s face it — becoming an inclusive employer is no easy feat, and there is no quick fix. It takes a long-range commitment that targets the root issues through an approach strategically aligned with business objectives.

In terms of interventions, wealth management leaders must develop a customized action plan to:

Get all employees on board by making the business case for gender diversity. There is a cost when women are underrepresented, and there are tremendous rewards to be gained by creating an inclusive industry with engaged employees. Leaders of advisory firms must do more than pay lip service to these realities. Management must be visibly committed to progress, positioning women in leadership, continually challenging assumptions, and resolutely advocating for women.

Invite men at all levels to co-develop your strategy. For lasting success, the management team must make sure men at the firm are contributing their perspective and participating in the strategy. All employees must recognize that when women benefit, everyone benefits. Also, remember to apply extra scrutiny at critical junctures — such as hiring decisions, plum assignments and promotions. This will reduce the potential for unconscious stereotyping and bias, and ensure women get their fair share of opportunities to be tested and trusted.

Adopt a “zero-tolerance” stance toward poor people management. The practice’s leadership must set workforce goals and hard targets focused on merit-based advancement. The firm must hold individuals accountable for talent results, and insist that leaders develop their talent stewardship, sponsorship and mentorship skills.

Recognize the high cost of turnover, and implement career-path flexibility as a tool for retaining top talent. Respect employees’ personal and parental responsibilities and needs, and engage senior leaders to be role models for work-life effectiveness.

As part of these efforts, get to know your female talent, and demonstrate your investment in high-potential women with relationships, programs and networks. Firms can also offer sponsorship and mentorship programs, and encourage relationships between senior executives and high-potential women.

Gender diversity should not be viewed as a nice-to-have feature but as a necessity for your firm. Take a look at its male-female ratio right now, because you won’t know where you are going (and how to get there) unless you know where you are today. Do the representation, promotion or attrition levels differ for men and women? If so, why? In the end, the firm’s leadership is responsible for asking the right questions and creating the long-range plans that are crucial to a successful diversity strategy.