In a season where all things female seem to be having a moment, there is scarcely a company out there that hasn’t launched a women’s initiative. Wealth management firms in particular seem to have woken up to long-standing gender biases in the financial services industry.
As a Certified Financial Planner professional myself, my LinkedIn feed is packed with personal finance articles targeting women, citing facts about the gender pay gap, percentage of female breadwinners and women’s longevity. Yet when I talk to my female colleagues, they share that they still often feel alone in a male-dominated industry, while the companies they work for pay lip service to inclusion and diversity. Thus, I was skeptical when the firm I work for asked me to help start a similar initiative. Was this just a marketing tactic wrapped up in a message of female empowerment, or could we really move the needle for women in finance?
Fast forward 18 months and it’s conference-room-cold as 60 women gather on a 90-degree Arizona day as a part of Mercer Advisors InvestHERs Summit. It’s a diverse room of women: those of us who care for clients and some who support our corporate functions like marketing and operations.
Rather than filing into seminar seating, we come together in a circle, each face representing a life impacted by the firm’s new women’s mentorship program. My eyes meet and acknowledge the new mom pumping between sessions, the advisor who acts as primary caretaker for her diabetic mother, the single mom trying to afford college, the executive who lost her spouse. We share best practices in client communications, brainstorm ideas for community involvement, and celebrate recent promotions and expanded fertility and parental leave policies.
We spend two days together, with much of the content delivered in partnership with Dimensional Fund Advisors. First up is Kara Duckworth, managing director of client experience for Mercer Advisors, who shares the purpose of the InvestHERs program—to be the wealth management firm of choice for women and the best place to work for women advisory professionals. We hear about exciting new developments, including recent scholarships targeting underrepresented groups in wealth management.
Next, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Karen Lee shares how the message is attracting new clients as well as industry attention, so much so that InvestHERs was recently recognized for Outstanding Achievement in Thought Leadership at the 2019 Wealth Management Industry Awards. She gives an overview of all the client resources developed internally by women—a newsletter focused entirely on women’s financial wellness, several podcasts, a women and wealth presentation, and more. Others in the room share their own ideas—women wine and wealth events, family legacy and values workshops, client appreciation events over an afternoon tea.
During the rest of our time, we learn about communication strategies and best practices for deepening relationships with female clients. We are all familiar with the gender pay gap but learn that women on average also take more breaks from full-time work, are hit harder in divorce, hold more cash and invest more conservatively than men, all of which present challenges to building wealth. We learn how to coach women through some of these issues and practice addressing their money concerns by connecting on an emotional level first rather than tackling financial fears with data alone, a skill that often comes more naturally to female advisors.
We even spend some time with a certified life coach. Rather than giving us the typical one-size-fits-all tips for women’s professional development, she introduces us to the Enneagram, which instead highlights the variety of ways we relate to the world as unique individuals. When used as a tool for cultivating self-awareness, the Enneagram helps us identify unhealthy patterns in our professional lives, understand how we navigate stress, and improve our relationships with each other and with our clients.
We also hear from Mercer CEO Dave Welling and Head of Client Service Josh Gustafson, the lone men in a sea of women, in an industry where it is so often the reverse. We nod in appreciation as they lend their support and speak with passion about the role of InvestHERs within our organization. We learn that together we make up just shy of 50% of the firm’s client-facing staff, more than double the industry average.
As the summit wraps up, we promise to see each other at the next InvestHERs breakfast or quarterly book club, and I leave with an undeniable sense of pride. I’m proud of this sisterhood around me and those who came before me and proud to be a part of an organization that puts actions to their words. I love how invigorated we are to try new ways to connect with our clients, to be vulnerable with them, and to become more self-aware in the process. Maybe this is just the cultural moment, maybe it is only an industry trend, but it certainly feels like more than that. I can’t deny there is something powerful about bringing women together, and that, I think, is something worth fighting for.
Note: The InvestHERs Summit took place on October 1-2, 2019, in Scottsdale Ariz. InvestHERs is Mercer Advisors’ women’s initiative, which is designed to attract women into the financial services industry as well as to better support women’s unique wealth management needs. Learn more at https://www.merceradvisors.com/women-and-wealth/
Jessica Caruso is San Francisco branch manager for Mercer Advisors