Advisors who overlook the woman’s role in household finances could be losing out on many opportunities

By Megan Harman | March 2011

Some of your female clients may be modest about their financial capabilities but, in reality, a high proportion of women are the primary financial decision-makers in their households. That’s one reason why it’s important to ensure that the advice you give is resonating with the female members of your client roster.

“We’ve been operating with the wrong assumption — that women are uncomfortable with financial matters,” says Barbara Stewart, portfolio manager at Cumberland Private Wealth Management Inc. in Toronto. “That’s a disconnect, and that’s not going to help the industry at all. The observed behaviour shows that women are managing well.”

Stewart recently commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 Canadian women by Angus Reid Public Opinion, and she has organized a series of focus groups that has studied women’s financial behaviour. Stewart wanted to challenge cultural stereotypes that often still portray women as meek, uncertain and uninformed on financial matters — characteristics, she says, that are not reflected in her client base. “It doesn’t make sense to me because, in my business, I deal with a lot of incredibly capable women,” Stewart says, adding that about half of her high net-worth clients are women.

As Stewart had suspected, the survey results confirm that women generally make financial decisions with a high level of competence. But because women tend to be modest and self-deprecating, they often give the impression of being less financially capable than they actually are.

“The results really defied so many of the stereotypes about Canadian women and money,” Stewart says. “The survey shows that women are confident and they’re financially literate.”

The survey showed that a staggering 89% of women have the final say on household spending decisions, and more than half of survey respondents control the budgeting and day-to-day banking in their households.

Women are also making headway on the earnings front. The survey report refers to another recent study by Catalyst Inc., a New York-based non-profit organization that promotes opportunity for women. Catalyst’s February 2010 study found that 18% of women in Canadian dual-earner families are the primary breadwinners, as measured in hourly earnings. That’s up from 14% in 1997.

These realities are not always reflected in client/advisor relationships, according to Ellen Rogin, president and founder of Strategic Financial Designs Inc. , a wealth-management firm in Northfield, Ill., and co-author of Great with Money: The Women’s Guide to Prosperity.

“Many advisors, when they’re talking with a couple, will focus most of their attention and the conversation on the man,” Rogin says. “That subtle focus on the man in the relationship is discounting the woman’s contribution or her ability to make decisions, or her input.”

By neglecting your female clients in this way, you could be missing out on a key business-building opportunity. When women feel engaged in a relationship with an advisor, they’re typically very loyal clients, Rogin says. They are also more inclined to provide referrals to advisors they are happy with.

Women also represent an opportunity for advisors, being a segment of the market that remains partially untapped. More than 70% of the women who participated in Stewart’s survey said they did not have a written financial plan in place.

“Women represent a huge opportunity for the financial services industry,” says Susan Misner, co-founder of Winnipeg-based Golden Girl Finance, a financial education website for women (www.goldengirlfinance.ca). “So, if you can get it right in connecting with them, it’s a great way to be growing your business.” IE