woman-jumping-risk

Study after study finds female investors more risk-averse than men. On the one hand, these results make a lot of sense. Some women—particularly older, single women—don’t have much financial knowledge or experience. Women also live longer and therefore want reliable savings.

But on the other hand, a record number of women are opening their own businesses, buying real estate and luxury automobiles. They’re also active participants in family finances, dragging their husbands to meet advisors who will create financial plans. This is not exactly risk-averse behaviour.

So what’s the real story here?

A study, called “The Impact of Difference in Risk Aversion on Expected Retirement Benefits of Men and Women,” examined the investment habits of people employed in the Australian university sector. While women were found to be more risk-averse, the distinction was slight, notes Stephen Horan, head of private wealth for The CFA Institute in Charlottesville, Va. The study’s results were published in the summer issue of the Financial Analysts Journal, which is peer-reviewed by The CFA Institute.

Read: Women don’t understand money…right?

“The difference amounts to about two percentage points and it’s not dramatic in terms of economic significance,” he says. “But it is detectable.” For example, the study’s authors found that if a male professor had 80% of his portfolio in stock, a woman of similar employment, age and income had about 78% of her portfolio invested that way.

One industry observer believes gender studies only provide part of the picture. Cristi Cooke is the owner of Majority Marketing, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that helps professionals better market their services to women. In her research, she finds women are in fact risk takers but they require more information and comprehension to make informed investment decisions. “[Gender studies] rarely get into what defines a woman’s level of risk,” she says. “The industry is still trying to clearly describe financial products to the market. Women aren’t getting the information they need to make decisions, so they take a step backwards and make lower risk decisions.”

Read: How women learn about finances

The fact that men’s portfolios are larger than women’s, though, contributing to the retirement accumulation gap, isn’t the result of risk aversion, says Horan, it’s really due to a difference in income. “Women save less because they earn less,” he says. “Is the answer to push them to take more risk and make up the difference? Absolutely not. The best prescription is financial education.”

In other words, it’s really financial knowledge, not gender, that influences risk tolerance. What advisors need to do, then, is improve that knowledge. Here are some tips to get started:

1. Ask more open-ended questions.

The questions you ask women don’t change per se. Rather it’s how you ask the question. Avoid questions that will give you a “yes” or “no” answer. Also avoid multiple-choice questionnaires, since the client will often have answers that aren’t listed. To start a conversation about risk, Cooke recommends this question: “What criteria would you use to decide whether an investment is too risky?” This allows the woman to define the question, not just the answer. She has more control and opportunity to communicate what she needs to know from you. Sheldon Rice, an investment advisor with Canaccord Capital in Ottawa, likes to engage in a conversation about her goals and dreams. He’ll ask, “What’s important about money to you?”

Next page: Married couples, active listening and laying out the options.

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