Earlier this week, I spoke at a conference on Private Wealth Management in Latin America. While that region may not be known for its cutting edge approach to women and wealth, I welcomed the opportunity to join a panel of “influential women in the private wealth management industry.” It was encouraging that the organizers thought it would be helpful to hear some women’s voices about the industry, professional development and working with female clients. This experience got me thinking back to some of the earlier work I’ve done in this area and gave me a chance to reflect on where things stand today. Since this kind of inquiry is at the heart of the “Building Bridges” column, I thought I’d share some observations.
Plus Ça Change?
Several of the attendees and panelists noted that they found a discrepancy between their married male and female clients. Many husbands expressed concern that their wives weren’t involved in the wealth planning process. At the same time, many wives admitted that they felt left out of the process or out of sync with the terminology used in meetings focused on their family wealth. None of this is new. These same issues have been raised for decades, despite work being done by firms to reach out to female clients and efforts of professionals like me who’ve been consistently working to bridge this gap. Further, there seemed to be an assumption that all families consist of husbands and wives, despite the demographic changes underway in all cultures. Married couples aren’t necessarily the norm, but they’re still the template used to define family clients. The comments made me think of the expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
How can this change? And, what can advisors do about it? In the case of married couples, wealth advisors can play a role in bridging this gap that would help both members of the couple achieve their goals. For a start, giving husbands some ideas on how to incorporate their wives into the process would go a long way. At a minimum, scheduling meetings to include both spouses should be the norm, not the exception. An advisor who helps a male client understand that his wife is actually probably very interested, but isn’t able to express it in a way that can be “heard” also might help increase compassion for this complicated dynamic. For wives, referring them to the myriad programs being offered exclusively to women should be standard, especially if the programs are designed to communicate financial, investment and estate planning information in language and environments that are comfortable for those women. The way in which an advisor approaches this topic will make a big difference in how the couple experiences it as well. Starting with compassion and helping the couple work together will help them achieve their goals. Further, recognizing that marriage may not necessarily be the norm for clients and addressing challenges of women and men who are single, divorced or widowed, with or without children, would go a long way to bridging additional gaps.
A Well-Balanced Team
I looked out on the audience and saw a group that had only a slightly higher percentage of female advisors than in past decades. Further, almost all of the professionals on panels during the day were male, and references to investment advisors generally assumed that the advisors were men. It would be easy to say that this discrepancy reflected the regional focus of the conference, but I’ve noticed this trend in wealth management to be on the rise over the past five to 10 years. It occurs to me that there’s been little pressure in the private wealth management industry to make sure that the composition of professionals generally reflects that of clients. By contrast, the field of corporate law has received pressure from clients to make sure that their lawyers reflect the diversity of corporations and their customers. There’s been little organized pressure in the field of private wealth. Forward looking financial institutions and professional firms are already ahead of this curve and ensure that their hiring practices ensure diversity in their team members. Other firms seem to be noticeably falling behind. It’s striking how many of the top executives are male and how many advisory boards of multi-family offices and financial institutions don’t include any women. This imbalance seems short-sighted in an industry that by definition serves both male and female clients.
A Better Way?
It’s too easy to dismiss the issue of gender within the private wealth management industry, even though on whole that’s what’s happened for too long. Indeed, given that women are about half the population and will increasingly own and control the majority of family resources, it’s neither a “niche” problem nor an unimportant one. For too long, male advisors have dominated discussions of “family wealth” in communication with their counterpart male clients. Female members of some high profile families have filed lawsuits attempting to remedy this problem. There must be a better way forward. When we think about “family,” we generally think about hearth and home, a table surrounded by both male and female members. It would help if private wealth advisors could similarly bring everyone to the wealth planning table.