Breaking Barriers: Reimagining How to Attract, Retain Women in Finance

It’s a well-known and widely discussed fact: Women are significantly underrepresented in the financial adviser community. How can we change that?

When it comes to women in finance, the numbers don’t lie. Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the U.S. population and continue to represent an increasing share of wealth, their representation among the financial adviser community—generally estimated at no higher than 30%—isn’t keeping pace.

The implications for our industry, including the retirement savings solutions space, and the customers we serve are significant, especially considering studies that show roughly 70% of women seeking financial advisers prefer to work with women. In one of my areas of specialty, retirement security, this is particularly important to help women have safe and secure retirements.

The challenge—attracting and retaining more women advisers—is clear. But the solution is complex. Success will, of course, include a shift in the industry’s demographics, but viewing the issue only in these terms falls short by failing to account for factors that have traditionally caused women to steer away from the financial adviser profession and by leaving out a key piece of the puzzle.

Sandy McCarthy

Achieving true and lasting progress, then, will require us to consider the bigger picture — and to make room for new perspectives along the way. We can look back and move forward at the same time, building off of what has always been significant about the financial adviser profession and incorporating approaches that have proven successful, but also evolving the profession to feature greater diversity of thought and experiences. The benefits of this approach—focused on ‘adding to’ rather than ‘taking away’—are multi-faceted and compounding. Not only will we attract and support more women advisers, but we will also equip all advisers to grow their businesses, learn new skills, broaden their client bases and help the industry better serve and connect with individual Americans of all backgrounds.

As we think about how to usher in this meaningful change and how to evolve the profession for maximum reach and impact, perhaps the question becomes less about how we level the playing field and more about how we can reimagine it.

The first step is always awareness. Before we can change our perspectives or our actions, we need to take time to listen and learn. A recent survey of more than 200 women advisers, commissioned as part of the OneAmerica Female Retirement Professionals Program, provided key insights that help to establish a baseline by highlighting motivators for women to join the adviser profession, challenges they face along the way and common factors that fuel their success. These findings can translate directly into possible next steps:

Push Purpose: The OneAmerica survey, and a subsequent white paper, reveal that women join— and stay in—the financial adviser profession because they are motivated by the opportunity to help others. The numbers are convincing, with 56% of early-career advisers (1-4 years of experience) identifying helping others as the profession’s top draw. Compensation was a distant second. This purpose-driven focus was important to seasoned advisers (15+ years of experience) as well: When asked the top reasons why they remain in the industry, the desire to help people was the most frequent response.

How to Take Action:

  • Broaden the view of the profession, going beyond the traditional misconception that financial advisers are focused only on math, sales and compensation. Instead, highlight the fact that financial advisers have the unique opportunity to build personal relationships with clients—helping families and individuals plan for their futures. Bringing this concept to life can be as simple as modifying the way advisers talk to others about what they do.
  • Stay open to expanding the conventional recruiting and talent pipelines. A purpose-driven career may be attractive or well-suited to women in other service-related fields—think health care or education.
  • With the future of work in mind, create a career path for the younger generation—or those looking for a mid-career change. Consider that although women advisers are underrepresented within the financial adviser community, women account for most of the support roles across the financial services industry itself: estimated at 67% by Mercer. Tailoring a path for women already familiar with the industry and connected to its purpose has promising potential.

Drive the 4 Cs: The OneAmerica research also identified four factors—collectively dubbed the “4 Cs”—that were consistently identified by women advisers as key determinants of success. Recognizing the four Cs and implementing tactics that amplify their effects can generate momentum.

Confidence: A noteworthy 70% of seasoned advisers say it took four to 10 years to feel confident in their skills and ability to help clients. This is especially significant in an industry notorious for high attrition.

Community: Building knowledge and gaining confidence are essential, and women find that establishing community within the industry is impactful in growing these key skills. Respondents gave high marks to networking, mentorship and teaming.

Connection: Women indicate that the most successful sales strategies are client referrals, networking and building out a center of influence—approaches rooted in relationship building and cultivating personal connections.

Culture: The unique culture of each adviser firm can fuel success. When it comes to enabling success, women ranked continuous learning and development as the most important element of firm culture.

How to Take Action:

  • Commend women advisers who are taking innovative approaches or celebrating notable achievements and ensure they are represented in established recognition channels—whether within the industry or local community. Regardless of the approach, putting success on display has a ripple effect in the adviser community and beyond.
  • Embrace mentorship, even if it’s informal. Mentorship has a unique ability to work in multiple directions, enriching both the mentor and the mentee.Don’t feel limited to women mentoring women; men and women both make wonderful mentors and mentees.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the conventional game plan. Though what has traditionally worked for male advisers may work for women, it’s OK if that’s not the case. There is power in diversity of thought, experience and talents. Playing to each individual’s strengths expands our collective skillset and makes for better connections with customers.
  • Carefully cultivate firm culture and understand the many elements at play. Boston Consulting Group’s 2021 U.S. Workforce Survey highlighted the reality that there is often a disconnect between the workplace needs women rank as most important and those that are most correlated with their happiness—and both matter. Interestingly, women rank feeling valued as both the most important factor and the one most tied to their happiness.

Reorder the Hurdles: OneAmerica survey data showed that the hurdles women advisers face throughout their careers tend to evolve. While work-life balance and new sales are consistently among the top hurdles, other factors see dramatic drop-offs or shifts. Knowledge and training, for example, the top hurdle for early-career advisers, falls to ninth for seasoned advisers. Other factors, such as marketing, practice management and technology and tools— ranked among the least important for early-career advisers—rise meaningfully with years of experience.

How to Take Action:

  • Be mindful of just how formative, and potentially fragile, an adviser’s early years can be. Pay special attention to the hurdles that challenge early advisers—and the fact that building confidence often takes years.
  • Evolve your approach, accounting for the fact that hurdles, needs and preferences change as women advisers progress in their careers. Create training programs tailored both to address hurdles early-career advisers face and to engage more seasoned advisers.

As an industry, and as individuals, we have incredible opportunity ahead of us—and many pathways to success. Still, the important thing is not where we start but that we do. We can move forward together—united by our purpose and ready to expand, enrich and enhance the industry that means so much to us and to the customers we serve.

Sandy McCarthy brings more than 30 years of industry experience to her current role as president of retirement services and head of enterprise operations at OneAmerica. She is also the creator and chair of the OneAmerica Female Retirement Professionals Program—an initiative aimed to engage and empower women advisers and to elevate the way they show up in the industry.