Happy businesswoman handshaking with client closing deal in an office interior with a window in the background
Antonio Guillem/123RF

It comes as no surprise that women are underrepresented in the financial services industry.

For the 2019 Report Card series, Investment Executive (IE) interviewed slightly more female advisors compared with the previous year (410 or 23.2% of all respondents, vs 393 or 22.5%), but the majority of advisors were men. Most of the women in the 2019 Report Card series came from the retail bank sector (where 39.4% of those surveyed were female, down from 42.5% in 2018), but there were minor but upward shifts in the brokerage and insurance spaces (where 18.4% and 23.5% were surveyed, up from 15.7% and 20.9%, respectively). In the dealer space, there was little change (19.3% vs 19.4%).

Based on the unprompted comments offered by some women in this year’s Report Card series, it seems day-to-day workplace culture isn’t always as inclusive as it could be, despite industry efforts to push for change. (IE asks about workplace strategy and culture, but does not ask specifically about diversity.)

“They need to treat women in this industry with more respect. They need to treat us equally and not pretend like they are doing favours for women each time they do something,” says an advisor in B.C. at a bank-owned brokerage firm. “They want more women in the industry but it’s tough for women to be here.”

While a couple of respondents mentioned rising board diversity and women’s networks, one insurance advisor in Alberta says, “It is still a man’s world. I wouldn’t want my daughter to come into the industry.”

Increasing diversity in the workplace has become an industry-wide focus, says Camilla Sutton, CEO and president of Women in Capital Markets, adding that she and her colleagues work closely with their sponsors to address this very issue.

“The reality is most firms have a tremendous desire and want, and they are allocating capital towards building gender diversity,” says Sutton. “At the senior leadership level, they recognize the benefits of having diversity. They are also feeling a lot of pressure from stakeholders.”

Still, Sutton is concerned with the speed at which progress is being made. “We certainly have had enough time to have achieved more than we have achieved, and I think a lot of people are really frustrated with how slow progress has been,” she says.

A look at gender-related Report Card comments from the past decade bears that judgment out. In 2008, there were 370 women (or 19.2% of all respondents that year) surveyed, and 329 (19.6% of all respondents) in 2014. In 2011 and 2015, the percentage of women interviewed spiked to 422 (or 23.2%) and 359 (or 23.1%) respondents, respectively (in all four years, most female respondents came from the banking sector, with the dealer space often second).

Multiple comments from 2008 indicated hurdles for female advisors.

“It’s an old boys’ network,” said an advisor in B.C. from a brokerage firm. “The environment for women is not good, although no one talks about it. There is the feeling of a patronizing atmosphere.”

A dealer advisor in Alberta said, “[There has been] positive progression, but we should see more women in management positions moving forward. The industry is still very much a boys’ club.”

Moving into 2009, skepticism was still evident despite a retail bank advisor in Ontario saying their community was “forward-thinking.”

As an advisor in Ontario at a brokerage firm observed, “[The firm] has said for years they are going to increase the number of female employees, but it’s not easy to find women in the business.”

Jumping ahead to 2015, when more than 20% of respondents were women, the research results suggested the tide was turning. Several respondents stressed there was a long way to go, but a brokerage advisor in B.C. said, “They are helping and working with women advisors in the business. They live up to their word, and they are constantly working to promote women in the industry.”

Looking at responses in this year’s Report Card series, there was optimism about and recognition of female advisors from both men and women.

A male advisor in Ontario at a bank-owned brokerage says, “We are hiring more women and adding more ethnic diversity.” Another in Ontario with an insurance agency says, “We made some transformational changes a couple years ago. The industry is moving away from the old boys’ club and I think we’ve done a good job.”

According to a female advisor in B.C. from a national brokerage firm, her firm has “everything laid out. [There are] goals [and] a lot of resources [going] into women’s seminars and training. There are measuring sticks for everything.”

Sutton says firm support is crucial.

“I do think the biggest difference between today and 20 years ago is that today we have the commitment from senior leadership advocating for diversity,” she says. “[Even] up until five years ago, diversity was [a] nice-to-have, but I don’t think there was a significant drive and authentic demand for it.”

The industry must continue to find a better way to accommodate women’s needs, adds Sutton.

“There are still a lot of question marks around how women manage things like maternity leave,” she says. “I still hear a lot of complaints and concerns about how clients are dealt with when somebody is on mat leave.”

Still, some firms have taken large strides in addressing that issue.

“They’ve become very supportive and easygoing […] They’re supportive of women advisors who want to have a family,” said a bank-owned brokerage advisor in the Prairies in 2017. “They have a pilot program where they keep the book for women on maternity leave so they can still have it when they get back.”

Looking ahead, what’s the best way to encourage industry-wide change?

Sutton says quotas may be necessary.

“I feel like we have been waiting for a really long time and, personally, I’m not prepared to wait another hundred years to see how the times evolve. I think implementing [gender] quotas over a set period of time is a reasonable next step,” she says.

A 2018 report from the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) showed upward momentum in both the number of women on the boards of TSX issuers. It also shows a significant increase in issuers adopting gender parity policies (42% of OSC’s sample vs 15% in 2015). This has occurred in part because the OSC and other provincial regulators have introduced “comply or explain” disclosure policies within the past five years.

The majority of female advisors surveyed in the Report Card who commented on industry diversity just wanted continued momentum.

“We can always add more women to the industry and find ways to do that in a positive way,” said a brokerage advisor in Ontario in 2016.