Realizing gender equity in financial services

Insights for advisors, marketers, and firms across the industry

As 2020 continues to spur cultural change, the financial services industry is evolving in tandem. Just last week, Citigroup named Jane Fraser as its next CEO, who will be the first-ever woman to lead a major Wall Street Bank. The industry has come a long way, and the way we approach marketing has too.

From images and photographs in your materials, to language and tone in your communications, to the people you hire in positions of influence and leadership, your brand can steward greater equality and diversity in our culture—or it can get stuck in time and consequently sidelined by the most powerful consumer force that’s ever existed.

Sullivan has worked with some of the biggest banks, wealth management firms, and asset managers in the US for the past 30 years. Here are a few things we’ve learned about the industry, the women that make it thrive, and how to keep bridging the gap toward gender equity.

For advisors, representation matters

The progress toward hiring more women, especially at the most senior leadership levels, is demonstrable—and fast—even as numbers remain significantly lower than the number of men who occupy these seats. Over a quarter of financial services firms now have more than 30% women at the executive committee level. Clearly, there is still much work to be done here.

Further, as of last year, women financial advisors represent just 15 to 20% of all advisors. Why is that?

Consider it a messaging gap. Brands need to communicate messages that explicitly highlight women’s potential to thrive in what they may narrowly perceive to be a cutthroat investment-driven industry. In fact, the profession entails as much relationship building as it does entrepreneurialism and sales.

Good financial advisors—and the firms that employ them—know that listening, empathy, trust-building, and relationships are what drive successful client interactions—and grow business.

Therefore, to correct misperceptions, brands should focus specifically on translating their value propositions to employer messaging. What about highlighting advisory careers as great opportunities to stay passionately engaged with work because of how relational the role of an advisor actually is? Or consider explicitly championing greater diversity because clients are asking for it—and the fact that women can bring that to the table. Or appeal to the most enterprising of women candidates who get to grow their practices and control their own schedules.

Once you understand the story you want to tell, it will also be much easier to identify the types of candidates you’re looking for. They will be the kind who align with the culture you want to create and the values you espouse.

Train your salesforce on every detail

Second, make sure your salesforce knows how to engage with female clients. They shouldn’t be treated any differently, but it still happens, often despite the best of intentions. That’s the power of unconscious bias.

recent industry-wide research study from Merrill revealed that 8% of women have reported a negative experience with an advisor based on a gender stereotype or assumption. It’s a small number, but still one the industry should strive to decrease.

This can play out in subtle and not so subtle ways—like where the advisor focuses visually. When meeting with heterosexual couples, eye-tracking technology showed that advisors spent 60% of their focal time on the man, assuming he was the financial decision-maker between the two.

In reality, Merrill recently found, 75 percent of women under 45 manage their own finances. Younger women (<55) come into marriage more financially independent than previous generations. And they’re often the primary financial decision-makers for their families.

This very real trend in money management means the industry has to step up even more to meet their expectations. Training on the use of specific word choice, behavioral cues, and other interpersonal applications can go a long way to helping your salesforce engage with women clients.

Don’t get left in the past. Embrace the future.

All of this ladders up to a key takeaway— brands who aren’t for women risk being left behind. In light of growing social, political, and economic change, brands that actively stand for and engage with all kinds of women are the ones that will thrive.

Your brand can continue to be a force for change toward gender equality. In the past, women may have been encouraged to actively meet the industry standard. Today, we need to recognize that women are already financially knowledgeable and powerful—and that the industry instead needs to meet them, wherever they are.