The Success Factor

By Romana King | May 1, 2010 | Last updated on May 1, 2010
9 min read

The next time you are shopping in the area, drop by and see me.

Imagine if this is how a client or broker attempted to initiate a business relationship with you? Lynne Triffon, CFP, R.F.P., vice-president and senior financial planner at T.E. Wealth, doesn’t have to imagine. It was the late 1980s and Triffon had just joined a fee-only financial planning firm (R.M. Paterson); at that time the concept of financial planning was not mainstream.

“I was a prospective referral source to this person,” recalls Triffon, “and his manner immediately put me off. I was quite certain he wouldn’t have expressed himself in the same way to a male colleague.”

Even today, women in the financial services industry report a “definite bias against women.” It’s a feeling backed up by data. Lots of data.

A 2005 study, Working Women in America, published by Oxford University Press, shows the gender wage gap exists in all strata of the workforce—blue collar, managerial, and professional occupations. According to the study authors (Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Gregg Carter), only 16% of the top executive positions in America’s largest corporations and enterprises are held by women. Additionally, the median weekly income of full-time working women is only 70.5% that of full-time working men.

Another study (An Examination of Whether and How Racial and Gender Biases Influence Customer Satisfaction, authored by David R. Hekman and colleagues) released just last year, supported the idea that occupational segregation—a phenomenon where men tend to be highly concentrated in the top professions, while women are over-represented in the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid professions—still exists at all work levels and in all industries. Six years earlier, a separate study (Women and Equality in the Workplace, by Janet Giele and Leslie Stebbins, 2003) had already determined that “sex typed” jobs—identified as male or female jobs—had a distinct pay difference: the stereotypically male-characterized occupations, in which at least 60-75% of the workers are men, are more highly paid than occupations in which 60-75% of the jobholders are women.

Battling the old-boys’ club Triffon recalls that in the early days of her career, “young men were fast tracked to the management stream in banks by virtue of being male. This was not on offer to similarly educated women,” she says. “Young men spent a short time as tellers as part of the management track; young women were stuck in the job indefinitely.”

Julie Tabler, an Edmonton, Alta.-based associate/financial planner at RBC Dominion Securities, can relate. After a successful 11-year sales career with the former Albertan telecom provider, she was “downsized, right-sized and out-sized.” She eventually chose to pursue a career in financial planning.

Since starting her new career seven years ago, she says, “There have been times when I felt like I was the odd woman out. Working in the wealth-management industry was similar to working for the phone company. All the upper-range managers were male-dominated and the majority of the sale roles, too. Women were, and still tend to be, hired three-to-one in the support roles—similar to the banking industry. In my experience, in the financial industry to date, women always have to ask for help, while men are proactively coached by management.”

Lenore Davis, R.F.P. and senior partner at the Victoria, B.C.-based Dixon, Davis & Company, a fee-only chartered financial planner’s firm, recognizes her main challenges in the financial industry were a “combination of gender, age and a lack of experience.”

She adds that “this combination, in a city whose financial decision-makers tended to be older men with a strong old-boys network to draw on,” was difficult to deal with. She remembers how her first manager referred to women as “the fairer sex.” But despite her manager’s obvious bias, he did at least recognize that women “of a certain attitude” would be useful in growing his branch.

Penny Gabrieau, CFP, started her career in 1982 as an administrative assistant. In 1987 she bought the insurance practice from the man who had first hired her and recalls that it took time for the insurance companies to take her seriously.

Almost immediately after purchasing the business, the president of a large carrier came to see the operation, recalls Gabrieau. “I remember the president saying to me ‘You don’t really sell insurance.’ What he meant was that all I was doing was filling out the applications.”

Confronted with this bias, Gabrieau asked him what he thought her firm was selling. When he responded “insurance,” she quickly retorted, “No, we’re selling relationships and planning.” It was this new focus—away from the product and on the relationship—that the “old mens’ club didn’t understand,” says Gabrieau. “This club had their thoughts on how to sell and my [relationship-building] approach was very foreign to them.”

Gabrieau firmly believes women are better communicators. “We have greater empathy; we can hear what is not being said. And that makes [women] natural planners and good salespeople.”

Despite the natural ease with which women connect, Gabrieau always felt that because she was a woman she would never get a second chance if she was wrong. This made her work harder. “As women, we get some latitude if we are ‘easy on the eyes.’ On the opposite side of the coin, it doesn’t matter what you look like if you give a client a wrong answer.”

Making lemonade For Gabrieau, Davis, Triffon, Tabler and many other women in the financial industry, the unspoken challenge has been finding ways to take advantage of potential disadvantages.

“When I started out, there were relatively few women in financial planning. In some ways, I think being a woman was an advantage that set me apart,” explains Triffon. “Women are natural relationship builders and that is a great asset in developing strong client relationships.” Triffon estimates that at least 90% of her firm’s business is built upon relationships. “[Now] I have a number of clients who prefer to deal with a woman; many women [clients] but also some male [clients].”

Davis believes women entering the business should get educated. “I distinguish between the industry (sales of products) and the profession (financial planning),” she explains. “The industry supports success in terms of production. Production depends on constant effort and sustained pressure. These things are not always conducive to quality family life, so anyone who has the goal to succeed at a really, really high level of production will find themselves compromising on that side of things.

“Unfortunately, women still take the dominant role in family life, so in that respect, the industry isn’t particularly well suited to them. The financial planning profession is something that is a bit more manageable—it shouldn’t require production in terms of sales quotas—in order to succeed. If a woman chooses to set up her practice in a measured manner, there is no reason she shouldn’t achieve her professional and life-balance goals.”

In fact, this has been Karen Diamond’s experience. She entered the industry in 1993 to facilitate a business servicing arrangement with her husband, who was an established advisor. At that time she had a business degree with an accounting major, so “it seemed a good fit.”

She recalls being a woman had no impact as she could manage her own time, and work around her children’s schedules and needs. And, she could be selective in choosing who she wanted to work with as clients. Since entering the industry, Diamond’s achieved a number of designations, including the financial planner designation in 1993; her CSC in 1995; her CFP in 1998; and her R.F.P. designation in 2002.

She acknowledges that, as a woman, she was limited to the number of relationships she could build that evolved out of “male bonding activities,” such as golfing. “But I didn’t need to [worry] because I could [always] find clients who didn’t care about that part of the relationship.”

While Diamond has been confronted with stereotypes—for example, some potential clients or business associates simply assume she works in her husband’s practice as his assistant—she is not bothered by these assumptions. “My husband treats me with respect and as an equal at our office and has always done so, whether we are in private or in the company of clients or associates.”

When the shoe fits And there are benefits to being a woman.

“I’d be lying if I said I’d never played up the ‘woman to woman’ aspect of my services,” admits Davis.

Still, she believes her career was not built based on her gender, but on her abilities. “I have always maintained that money doesn’t distinguish on the basis of gender. My strength has been my ability to communicate in both spoken and written word, along with a good appreciation for the human condition with all its warts and beauty.”

Davis found that being a woman made it easier to identify her target client. “I overcame these challenges by identifying female business owners as a target market for most of my efforts.” When that didn’t work, she used the male-partner card. “Forming Dixon Davis & Company, with Howard Dixon, also allowed me to play the, ‘Gee, maybe my male partner can answer that question for us’ card when circumstances conspired to frustrate my efforts to be believed.”

Despite the challenges, Davis adamantly believes the industry is, in the end, a meritocracy. “If you produce, you survive.”

Like many women, Davis felt uncomfortable at sales conferences when the “atmosphere degenerated (as it tended to) into locker room banter.”

But she never felt threatened. Rather than retreat, Davis used her hobbies and passions as a way of developing a comfort level around unsupportive or less-than-inclusive atmospheres. “I spent time playing as the only woman on a men’s ice hockey team and played racquetball against men all the way through my sports career.” From these experiences, and through her years in the industry, Davis has found that “if you are good enough, the gender stuff disappears.”

For Dawn Hawley, a 35-year industry veteran, proving herself has simply been part of the experience. “As a woman, you have to first prove yourself and obtain the respect of others in the field. Once you have established those, you can then proceed to make a difference in the world we work in.”

And that is why her favourite accomplishment is having earned the respect of her industry peers.

Hawley admits that “sometimes [being a woman] was a help; sometimes it was a hindrance.” But in the end, it didn’t matter. She explains that “once people knew me and worked with me I did not have a [gender] challenge.” Part persistence, part communication, and part knowledge—this has been Hawley’s formula for success. “Know more than anyone; knowledge is power in our world.”

Gabrieau’s solution was also straightforward: Ignore the production numbers and “just keep working.”

Mentorship Factor Good mentors are also key to survival for anyone in the industry. They can make the difference between believing goals are achievable, and walking away from a career.

Triffon credits the support of Bob Paterson, the principal at R.M. Paterson & Associates, the firm where she started her career. “Paterson was a wonderful mentor and encouraged me to take on as much as I was capable of. There were no gender issues for me internally.”

Davis also believes she benefited from mentorship. “I had two great mentors at Mutual Life—Helen Donald Crisp and Howard Dixon. Both helped me to stay focused on the task at hand and not get distracted by what outsiders might be bleating on about as it relates to gender imbalance.”

Still Barriers to Overcome Despite these solutions, women still face systemic challenges while working in the industry.

“The industry has made it easier for women to work in this field,” confesses Tabler, “but family commitments still play a factor for some women. If you can find a firm and develop a team where the workload can be shared and compensation split appropriately, I think women have the advantage.”

Gabrieau agrees. “I believe the industry is now much more supportive of women [but that’s because] we have demanded that they be supportive.”

  • Romana King/b> is managing editor, Canadian Insurance.

Romana King