When Helena Smeenk Pritchard began selling life insurance back in 1975, she encountered headwinds that many women of that era are likely to recognize: a general perception that only men were knowledgeable enough to give advice on financial products, especially on sophisticated matters such as life insurance.

Smeenk Pritchard, a life insurance sales trainer, coach, speaker, author and founder of Helena Smeenk Pritchard & Associates in London, Ont., says she rarely runs into this issue now. Clients, she adds, are simply looking for knowledgeable and experienced financial advisors to help them get on the right financial track.

Indeed, one of the main issues facing women who want to become financial advisors – or expand their existing practice – may be their own perceptions about their abilities, credibility and professional styles. Open doors are one thing; having the confidence to go through them can be another.

For example, Smeenk Pritchard says, in her experience, women advisors place heavy emphasis on their technical credentials and ability to explain the fine details of products to their clients: that’s an objective, external source of confidence for them.

Women also are more willing than men, she adds, to take the time to explain the ins and out of products to their clients, and to spend generous amounts of time exploring goals and ambitions with their clients and assessing their levels of risk tolerance.

There is a downside to this tendency among women advisors, however: too much reliance on the technical side of their talents and qualifications as a source of confidence. Notes Smeenk Pritchard: “Women advisors need to feel that they can quote from any chapter in the book. They feel a high need for a high level of education because, in their minds, therein lies their credibility. Men are not afflicted with the same high need to feel that they are a walking encyclopedia.”

Women, more so than men, also sometimes hang back in pursuing the sales aspect of the client/advisor relationship. While women are more likely than men to excel as teachers, some women are reluctant to go further to close a sale.

“While education helps women [make their case for a specific strategy],” Smeenk Pritchard notes, “clients don’t ask to buy. Advisors need to ask the client to buy – and that’s where some women advisors have trouble.”

Women advisors may find, however, that changing demographics are helping to tilt the marketplace a little more in their favour. That’s due to a number of factors: many more women are high income earners now and may be the chief bread winner in their family. Large numbers of older women also are finding themselves in control of significant sums when their husbands predecease them. Sara La Gamba, president of Toronto-based King Financial and Benefits Inc., admits to having been a little intimidated as a new advisor when she took over a book of business from an older advisor in 2009.

But La Gamba, who has been an advisor for six years, says she immediately connected with the women who were clients of the business. She quickly came to see that many women are, in fact, calling the shots in family finances. Notes La Gamba: “[Women] can be the key decision-makers on whether they want to work with someone or not.”

In a true indication that old gender biases are giving way, many female clients now express a preference for working with female advisors, says Cynthia Kett, principal with Stewart & Kett Financial Advisors Inc., an advice-only financial planning, accounting and tax planning firm in Toronto. And, given the rising affluence of women as a group, that can be a driving force for female advisors when building their books of business.

“Women are in a position to be in control of a good lot of wealth,” says Kett. “The good thing is that when women find themselves in a position of new wealth and financial responsibility, they do tend to step up to the plate and try to learn more so they can make good decisions.”

Women also tend to outlive their husbands, and many women remain single or get divorced. This puts pressure on them to look after themselves financially; thus, women in this position often are on the lookout for someone to help them, says Kett.

Indeed, the female client market can be very lucrative. Toronto based consulting firm Investor Economics Inc. reports that personal financial wealth controlled by Canadian women at the end of 2012 was estimated to be $1.1 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2024.

Women clients also are more likely to give referrals, notes La Gamba. On the flip side, however, women are also more likely to switch advisors if they are not satisfied, La Gamba says.

And while woman advisors may have both advantages and disadvantages in building their book, all advisors need to adhere to one main tenet, La Gamba notes: “[Financial advice] is a relationship profession.” IE

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