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Every year on 8 March, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world. So what better time to reflect on what the future holds for women in the financial advice industry?

Financial Planning Magazine recently gathered a panel of industry professionals to discuss gender diversity and the issues facing female financial advisers and their clients. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: Why, in 2017, are we still talking about gender imbalance in financial services?

Maria Lykouras (ML) General Manager, Advice Licensee Services, Commonwealth Bank: When you look around the financial services industry, there is still a low number of women proportionally to the number of women in society. As a result, you see a lower representation of women in financial planning. A lot of effort and focus is required to bring more women into the profession. But I also think there hasn’t been enough female role models to encourage more women to want to join the financial services industry.

Marisa Broome (MB) – Principal, Wealth Advice: Women in the profession have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. If you look at the legal profession, it’s 50/50 in terms of gender balance, while current graduates out of business are about 55 per cent women, yet they are not opting for a financial services career role. I think the problem is a lack of flexibility for some people, and maybe it’s a career that appears too stressful for others because they don’t fully understand the options available to them.

Part of the FPA piece around student engagement is to explain to students what financial planning is all about because they don’t actually know. Financial planners are not investment advisers. There is confusion about the two.

Marianne Perkovic (MP) – Executive General Manager, Commonwealth Private: I don’t think anybody would say that gender imbalance doesn’t exist within the industry. The issue for me in getting more females into the profession is actually an issue about flexibility.

So, a couple of things as to why there are not a lot of women in this industry is that we haven’t had, until recently, our own education standards and tertiary degrees to get into financial planning. Instead, they’ve been economics and business-related accounting degrees, which have traditionally been more male dominated.

Then when you get to the workforce, we really need to understand that women are still the primary carers for either their children or ageing parents. And so, to really get to the heart of how we can actually improve the gender balance, it really comes down to flexibility in the workplace.

I think workplace flexibility has been tied up as just being a female issue, so that’s why it didn’t have male advocates to help encourage that. But I think work flexibility is the issue and solving that will actually enable more women to come through the workforce. In fact, it’s about making workplace flexibility a non-gender issue.

We have technology now that can really enable working outside an office type environment. So, I think women are in a great position to offer this type of flexibility, and this will promote more women in the workforce.

MB: The Gen Y expectation is for flexibility, career challenge and change. They’re pushing us for workplace flexibility.

Q: How is workplace flexibility addressed in your business? Is it something that is highlighted and being currently addressed?

Pippa Elliott (PE) – Director, Momentum Planning: We’re a team of six women and three of us are mothers. So, flexibility includes starting earlier and finishing earlier. It’s not so much about retention, but it’s about attraction. The other two advisers in my business had no intention of being advisers, but by encouraging them and showing them the flexibility that could be offered, that convinced them to become advisers.

I’m encouraged to hear that 40 per cent of students in financial planning are women. I think change is coming and I think moving from an industry to a profession is a key part of that.

Hugh Humphrey (HH) – General Manager, Wealth Management, Commonwealth Financial Planning: We’re achieving this by being a role model right from the top down. Ian Narev (Managing Director and CEO of the Commonwealth Bank Group) talks about it being of fundamental importance to the business and the expectation is that at every level, flexibility is created. And that’s encouraging.

I think traditionally, people associated flexibility with lower level roles that weren’t as demanding, such as job shared roles.
What CBA has recognised is you can’t just say you believe in flexibility and support it. You actually have to create the frameworks for that to happen. And at Commonwealth Financial Planning, we have a lot of different role types that can be done from different locations.

What’s interesting for me is that I think it demands a more sophisticated type of leadership, where people are thinking about how they create a flexible workplace environment and being thoughtful about creating opportunities for people. That’s because people still feel uncomfortable bringing up the conversation of flexibility, as they think it has negative connotations.

MP: I think it really comes back to Maria’s comment on role modelling. What was understood at a senior level was that you needed role models and you needed gender diversity. We’ve got a female chair now at the CBA and the Board has got a good mix of genders. Ian Narev’s management team has a gender split of 50/50 and that gender diversity is spreading through the business. We’re openly talking about programs, celebrating success and having people share their stories. It’s really created a different culture within the business.

You also have to look at how you go about recruiting people. It’s actually trying to empower and enable those conversations at the front-end. And it needs to start from the top down.

So, if somebody from my team comes to me and says, ‘Somebody has asked about flexibility but the job can’t be flexible because it’s a client contact role’, I actually challenge that assessment and ask why it can’t be. As a profession, we have to challenge that type of traditional thinking.

We have a population that needs advice and as a profession, we need to have that gender balance to ensure that our clients are getting the right innovative solutions. And that all comes with gender diversity.

Q: How can the profession better support the financial outcomes of women to help them become more ‘future ready’?

ML: We’ve implemented a program where we have educated all of our advisers, both male and female, on the specific needs of women and how to address those needs. The program also includes how to promote financial planning to women, so that they can bring them in as clients and help work with them to educate them on what financial advice is and how we can support them into the future.

Jason Andriessen (JA) – General Manager, Marketing and Financial Planning, StatePlus: Picking up on what Pippa said about perception is important. The conversations I have had with new recruits, like why they considered financial planning, have been interesting. They thought financial planning was about transactions and money, about calculations and mathematics, and sales targets.

But it’s actually about caring, getting to know someone, helping them live according to their values, closing the financial gap and coaching them. It’s a real relationship. If we can work as a professional community to change that perception, I think that would really turn the dial around in attracting the right people into the profession.

MB: ‘A man is not a financial plan’, is something I talk to my children, friends and clients about, because some of them are financially illiterate. So, as a profession, there is a whole lot of financial literacy we have to do with consumers.
And we need to have positive news stories in the marketplace all the time, if we are to change people’s perception of our profession. We need to talk about the positive things we are doing.

MP: One of the important issues for women is the importance of superannuation, because they will have a break in their contributions. So, how do we actually make allowances for workplace leave and can that then be rolled forward to a larger contribution? That’s a piece I think the industry can look at.

The second piece is about wealth protection and the importance of insurance. Unfortunately, there are specific health issues affecting women they need to deal with. So, having income protection to secure their income if something happens, is another critical thing for women, which will absolutely help improve their retirement savings.

Michelle Tate-Lovery (MTL) – Principal Adviser and Director, United Financial Services: Financial planning is about having choices. When we teach kids about budgeting, it’s about understanding that financial independence, particularly when life gets complex, will allow you to have choices.

If you really think about what we’re all trying to do, it’s to live the best life we can, to have choices and flexibility. Financial planners need to be better versed in having these discussions and building plans to cater for choices.

MP: CBA has invested in a huge financial literacy program and a lot of that is driven at school. The latest thing we’ve got is a tele-porter, which incorporates goggles with an iPad, so we can make financial literacy fun for kids. We have integrated this initiative into how children learn in their everyday life and have discussions around finance in a fun learning environment. It’s these innovative solutions that can ultimately provide better financial outcomes for all Australians.

Q: Can encouraging more women to become financial planners help achieve the greater goal of providing more advice to more women?

MP: I certainly hope so. I don’t think women knowingly want to defer the decision-making to their husbands. I actually think if you empower women with knowledge and empower them with the opportunity to understand, then more women will feel comfortable discussing their financial affairs and working through it.

MB: I believe the increasing professionalism of financial planning is the key to providing advice to more Australians. I think the generations coming through don’t really care if they see a female or male planner, but they do care if they see someone who is knowledgeable.

I think the community expectation of financial advice is more than just investment advice. It’s aged care and a whole lot more, which might attract more women to the profession. And the hope is that by increasing the level of professionalism, this will encourage more people to seek advice.

JA: The research I’ve done indicates there’s not much evidence to suggest that women only want to deal with female financial planners. But there’s no doubt that attracting more women to the profession will help more people to make better decisions and make them more ‘future ready’. Professionalism will attract more women. We will have more role models and the profession will gain momentum.

MTL: I think we should attract both males and females from other non-finance disciplines to the profession. And if students of social science, psychology, communication and marketing could take electives in financial planning, I think you’d get a broader range of people who could add diversity to the profession.

I know there is a big education push by the profession, but the students I’m seeing at Griffith and Deakin Universities are still entering the workforce with the unfortunate misconception that financial planning is all transactional; it’s about investments and numbers. We’re a people profession and there are no people skills being taught. There are no language skills being taught around how to simplify complex issues into everyday language. Those sorts of skills need to be practised and encouraged.

Q: Are you seeing new recruits coming from other non-finance related disciplines?

ML: We have had recruits come out of teaching and nursing. They bring this great ability to mentor and coach clients, which has had a significant positive impact.

MP: The profession has some set educational requirements. Unfortunately, because of the education requirements for the role of financial planners, we can’t take people from other disciplines. So, the actual course in financial planning needs to ensure it does have other disciplines and attributes attached to it, so that it’s not just about finance.

MB: That’s why only 14 of the 30 courses that are currently offered in Australia are accredited, because they have to have all those relevant components that make up financial planning.
I think we have a really strong message to send to this new education body that will be setting the new framework up, because it’s going to start setting the framework of the approved degree. The profession can actually provide feedback on the sort of attributes a preferred degree should include.

Q: What needs to be done to better support women in the profession?

MP: I do think it’s about flexibility and it’s also absolutely about having male advocates – we need more male advocates. I have males in my team who say they are really trying hard at promoting gender diversity, but then I go to a forum and there’s no women in attendance or I’m the only woman there.

So, I think we just need to really break down that mindset and have more men look around where they are - whether they’re in a meeting or at a forum and so forth - and question, ‘Have I got good gender diversity’. And in the workplace, we actually have to promote more women to roles where we think there needs to be some gender diversity.

There’s no one silver bullet. It’s a combination of factors we need to introduce. But there is a shift happening in the industry. For example, it’s great going to the FPA Professionals Congress and seeing so many women attending and presenting.

When it comes to gender diversity and empowerment, we all have a part to play.

Q: So, when it comes to gender diversity, should promotion happen based on gender or ability?

MP: This is a hard issue. I would love the day when this didn’t happen because the better person, irrespective of gender, got the job. But we have to stare into reality and realise that unless we actually have quotas, change won’t happen. That’s because, unfortunately, the better person always ends up being a male. Why is that? Because they have been in the industry longer, while females are likely to have had a career break to raise children, meaning they may have three or four skills that are missing.

All women hate it when this topic is raised because you think ‘yes, it’s got to be the right person for the job’. But unfortunately, I think we’re still looking at a few more years yet, where we have to make allowances in order to encourage more women to join the profession.

JA: I agree with that. We need an intentional approach to effect change.

MB: Interestingly, the Institute of Company Directors is saying it’s actually the thinking process you need diversity in, and whether that comes from a woman or somebody from a different ethnic background, you need to have diversity in the thought-process.

HH: If we’re to crack this nut of helping more people get advice, then advisers need to reflect the communities in which they’re operating. So, you can’t just have one group dominating the industry or we’ll never be able to service all the different communities, whether it’s gender, ethnic or otherwise.

Q: How do we get more advocates to support the diversity challenge within the profession?

PE: Flexibility is not just about women. Programs that offer flexibility to men and women will create what we’re looking for. When it’s not just about women, when it’s about everybody, it becomes inclusive.

HH: We look at what might get in the way of males advocating: is it a lack of understanding, is it a fear or concern, is it an inherent bias – conscious or unconscious? It’s important to address those issues, talk openly about them and empower people to make changes.

MP: Ultimately, you have to passionately believe in gender diversity, or any diversity for that matter. When we recruit people, we really need to say: ‘Do you support and promote diversity in the workplace?’ And if people aren’t advocating for it or are making change difficult, we have to proactively remove those people from the workplace. Because with them in there, they are the roadblocks to change.

You wouldn’t recruit a planner now who hasn’t the right education standards. Well, we shouldn’t be recruiting people who are going to stifle gender diversity in the workplace.

MTL: I also think mentoring is absolutely important. I have been involved with many mentoring groups, predominantly mentoring males.
I think mentoring in a structured way is an investment in people for the future. If you get it right, that ripple effect is prolific. And it’s another great way of culturing male advocates, in a supportive environment, for gender diversity.

This article first appeared in the Financial Planning Association of Australia’s (FPA) Financial Planning Magazine in February 2017. You can read more from the FPA here.