Stop losing talented advisors

September 21, 2018 | Last updated on September 21, 2018
8 min read
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Advisory services and construction have something in common, and it’s not just their respective skills in building solid foundations.

Rather, it’s their lack of women. An estimated 12% of Canadian construction workers are women, compared to 20-25% of advisors. Women make up roughly 47% of the Canadian workforce.

You might think the lack of women in construction would be explained by hazards such as harsh weather and high injury rates—turnoffs for women assumed to be risk averse. You might similarly attribute women’s poor turnout in financial services to their indifference to the subject matter. For example, in numerous surveys, women rate themselves generally less knowledgeable about finances than men rate themselves.

But such reasoning is based on false premises. Studies on risk reveal more nuance among risk-takers than gendered headlines might suggest, as well as bias in risk measurement. And the difference in women’s and men’s self-reporting of financial knowledge could well be a product of overconfidence on the part of men.

In an article about employing more women, Construction News describes an industry that’s not all drafty cabins, bricklaying and scant attention to workers’ health. Construction suffers from public misperceptions about its professionalism and career roles—sound familiar?

Such persistent false premises place women’s lack of industry participation at their own feet by suggesting it’s caused by their own low interest. That can lead to a failure to address real industry barriers for women.

With a wealth of research supporting the competitive advantage of diversity, firms that identify barriers and address them have lots to gain from women’s greater participation.

Reflecting real life

Canadian grads visiting PwC Canada’s career page will see diverse faces and a statement of PwC’s diversity and inclusion priority, plus information on various associated programs, including women in leadership, black professionals, early career professionals, GLEE (gays, lesbians and everyone else) and DAWN (disability, ability and wellness network).

When prospective professionals check out careers on PwC Indonesia’s website, they’ll discover a page promoting work-life balance that features a nursing room to support employees who are breastfeeding—an initiative that likely reflects the country’s healthcare challenges, but also normalizes women’s needs in the workplace.

When PwC Germany wanted to attract more women to its advisory practice, it created “career lounge” events at various locations. Select students, based on their CVs, attend the events to speak with women at the firm. As of 2016, the firm reports a rise in the number of women applicants (33%) and campus hires (42%).

Bias and corporate culture

However enlightened we may think we are as a society, implicit biases—held by both women and men—remain entrenched. “We don’t associate women with finance and investing,” especially in the high-net-worth space, says Sarah Kaplan, professor of strategic management and director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

That perception informs hiring and promotions when job descriptions and evaluations have gendered language, such as “must have a commanding presence,” she says.

If you think you’re immune to such biases, think again.

In her book, Own It: The Power of Women at Work, Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, describes a situation in which the senior management team at her former employer reviewed managing director candidates—a man and a woman. Though both were described using identical words, such as “aggressive,” and had identical performance, the man was praised and the woman chastised. In fact, the woman’s performance was largely chalked up to a strong market; the man’s, to his actions.

“Do you realize what we just did?” a male team member asked. A humbled Krawcheck writes: “We reversed course and promoted them both. And we brought in an executive coach […] to make us more aware of these biases.”

Krawcheck’s book further notes bias against ambitious women with a story about a bank director who mistakenly assumed no women were interested in a position reporting to the CEO. The kicker: the director was a woman.

Such lack of promotion and opportunity can lead to attrition being assumed as the result of women choosing work-life balance over advancement.

Global market data from Mercer show that women’s exit rates from financial services at mid-career are not only higher than men’s but also 20-30% higher than in other industries. In contrast, men in financial services at the same career levels are as likely or less likely to leave their employers than their peers in other industries.

Camilla Sutton, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, says her organization’s research suggests women become frustrated within their first four years of employment. “Usually peak frustration level is year five,” she says, “and that’s well before the time when they would be thinking about having families.”

The frustration is indicative of being less respected at work, receiving less pay and fewer opportunities, and failing to see their managers as role models. “On the list of things, work-life balance falls much lower,” says Sutton. “We don’t see an ambition gap.”

Similarly, in a 2015 PwC survey, the most common reason why millennial women in financial services left their last employer was lack of career progression (34%). A desire for greater work-life balance was cited by only 13%.

Case study: Mining

When Australian mining company St. Barbara Ltd. tried to employ more women, it developed strategies to counteract the main barriers: industry perception, a shrinking pipeline of qualified women, and site-based roles that require time away from family.

Keys to success were target-setting and measurement to focus on goals and demonstrate commitment, says a government report, as well as addressing recruitment, retention, advancement and pay equity.

Initiatives have included bias elimination on recruitment and performance panels, parental leave with return-to-work incentives, flexible work arrangements, mentorship and a support group for those in remote locations.

The results:

  • The number of women recruited increased 20% year over year in 2016.
  • All women returned to work after parental leave (2009-2016) compared to 50% previously (2007-2009).
  • A target of 33% women board members was achieved ahead of schedule.
  • The firm-wide gender pay gap (unadjusted) fell to 16% from 43%, with ongoing targets (the adjusted pay gap was eliminated in 2013).

Such research indicates leadership and corporate culture must be addressed to retain women, Sutton says. For example, to provide women with the same opportunities as men, standard criteria should be used to match candidates to positions. “Firms that are very transparent about how they promote and what the criteria are for promotion typically have better gender balances,” she says.

Likewise, Barbara Stewart, a CFA charterholder and researcher on women and finance, says corporate culture must better serve women. For example, the industry’s masculine communication style, with its rote listing of figures, isn’t engaging, she says, recalling investment committee meetings.

“I would make up my own stories about the companies so that I could do a good job with my clients,” she says, adding that clients engaged better with those narratives. It’s about being more customer-focused, she adds.

Sometimes, women get sidelined by good intentions, says Sutton. For example, a mentor might advise a woman with young kids to make a career move to regulation, with its structured hours. Women should wait at least a year after returning from parental leave to make a significant career decision, she says.

“You don’t want people self-selecting out,” which impedes diversity growth at firms, says Nagar Rahmani, principal at Kensington Capital Partners in Toronto. (A research paper by Stewart focuses on the firm’s organically attained diversity; Stewart sits on the firm’s advisory board.)

Rahmani, who’s expecting her first child in September, says she’s created an “aggressive” plan to return to work, but she’s open to revisiting it—as is the firm, which has encouraged her to take more time as needed. To Rahmani, who honed her skills in venture capital, the firm’s diversity and flexibility are “normal.”

So, too, should be policy such as parental leave that addresses women’s lives. “We need to stop doing nothing” when it comes to updating policy, says Angela D’Angelo, vice-president of professional development and client experience at National Bank Financial Wealth Management. She suggests firms consult experienced women in advisory roles to understand the pain points of policies written for a mostly male environment.

For example, parental leave policies could include ways to remove financial stress for advisors, as entrepreneurs, as they build their families and businesses.

A common stress for those on parental leave is the potential loss of clients to whoever covers their books. That could be relieved through creative solutions—perhaps through a contract between the advisors detailing a payment or exchange when clients are lost, says D’Angelo.

As women and men increasingly share family responsibilities, such policy will likely become more accepted and benefit men as well.

“This is a gender question, it’s not a woman question,” says Sutton, referring to workplace diversity and inclusion. “It’s about redefining what is masculinity and what is women at work. Redefining those will create much better cultures.”

Tips to get women to the top

Camilla Sutton Camilla Sutton, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets:

  • Establish firm transparency in hiring, pay and promotions.
  • Have CEOs chair diversity inclusion councils to highlight firm commitment and accountability.
  • Suggest ways that people in management can engage all workers, such as inviting women to meetings with senior staff so they can observe.
  • People who require greater work flexibility (e.g., for family reasons) should proactively approach their firms with creative ideas. Generic policies or programs don’t work for everyone, and taking extended time off or a reduced role is a potentially harder route to long-term success.

Sarah Kaplan Sarah Kaplan, professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management:

  • Remove gendered language from job descriptions and retire the language of “fit,” which is a way to exclude those who don’t match the traditional advisor profile.
  • Position women to gain high-net-worth clients, potentially through active sponsorship. In the legal industry, quotas that put women on big files have moved the needle, she says.
  • Use gender quotas for co-ops, internships and mentorships.

Angela D’Angelo Angela D’Angelo, vice-president of professional development at National Bank Financial Wealth Management:

  • Develop programs for advisors to learn how to have the right conversations. For example, advisors should be taught to analyze their books and evaluate risk from failing to engage both spouses in discussions about goals and life events, which will have spillover effects as firms learn to better engage all their advisors.

Industry professionals can:

  • Ask for feedback about job performance and get a sponsor, says Sallie Krawcheck, Wall Street veteran and co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, in her book, Own It. She asks for feedback from bosses, employees and peers—sometimes asking three times until they realize she’s serious. Sutton says people she turned to for advice turned out to be sponsors, advocating for her behind the scenes.
  • Call out subtle gender bias in the workplace, which anyone can exhibit. Small-scale discussions in hallways or at lunch are valuable, such as casually asking an interrupter if they’re aware of their actions.
  • Encourage daughters to play team sports, which is highly correlated with business success, likely because of its failure lessons, says Krawcheck in her book.

Michelle Schriver is assistant editor of Advisor’s Edge. Email her at