By Cyril Tuohy
Last month, when Guardian Life named financial advisor Michele Lee Fine as the first female top producer in its 153-year history, the company recognized what women have known all along: they are ideally suited to advising people in their financial affairs.
In the eyes of some women’s groups, the recognition by Guardian may have been slow in coming, but perhaps the carrier made up for it by having none other than its president and chief executive officer Deanna M. Mulligan, one of the most powerful female executives in life insurance, announce the news.
For centuries, men recognized men. For decades, men recognized women. For the past few years, it is women who are increasingly recognizing men for their accomplishments. Now, the industry has an example of a very powerful woman recognizing another successful woman.
It begs the question: Is this the beginning of a new era for financial advisors? Or was the Guardian Life announcement simply a one-off, a confluence of circumstances in which one female executive was praising another?
The gender landscape is changing, financial advisors told InsuranceNewsNet. Even if the changes are not coming quite fast enough for some, they are changing.
Karen Roberts, a Tampa, Fla.-based financial advisor with Emerald Financial Group, and former president of Women in Insurance & Financial Services, said the financial advisor business provides an ideal fit for women, and that companies are finally coming around to that point of view.
“We still have a really long way to go but we're starting to make strides,” she said. “The history is that it's always been a man’s world and we still do it the man's way, but women are starting to make strides.”
Depending on how you define a financial advisor, Roberts estimates that between 7 percent and 23 percent of advisors in the U.S. today are women. Even using the higher percentage, it’s still relatively low considering that women control about 50 percent of household and investable assets, a number that is projected to rise to about 70 percent in the next decade, Roberts said.
In 2010, there were 206,800 personal financial advisors working in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statistics don’t break down the numbers by gender.
Fine, who was awarded the recognition for 2012 calendar year sales, said apart from what she called “some old boys’ clubs networks,” there was very little in the way of a glass ceiling to prevent the upward trajectory of her career.
The award, she also said, is a sign that she’s been able to shatter any glass ceiling, an expression coined years ago to convey the idea that while top spots were clearly visible from the mid-level corporate ranks, the top ranks were still unattainable.
"It's a big honor and it clearly is a sign that I have been able to break through any glass ceiling," Fine said. "I don't feel that I really have any barriers. There are still some old boys' networks within the committees but I think I'm even breaking the mold there."
Mulligan, in an Aug. 20 statement, praised Fine for her “hardworking professionalism.” Fine, no doubt, deserves the credit.
But other trends are favoring women as well. As the nation’s population “turns over” and baby boomers retire, financial advisors and their clients are changing with the times.
“We network differently,” Roberts said. “When I joined the industry 23 years ago, they gave me a phone book and said 'start making phone calls.' Now we're using social media to network and what we can do for our clients is different.”
Client profiles are also changing, Fine said. Years ago, clients were overwhelmingly men, and it was the men who owned businesses. But that, too, is changing as more women start their own businesses and nurture them to survive over the long term.
“For many years, 98 percent of my clients were male but over the past three to five years I have reached a lot more women who are very successful business owners,” Fine said. “I think I’ve been able to provide leadership or guidance without being condescending.”
Fine, who works with about 150 other advisors at Strategies for Wealth, a Guardian agency with headquarters in Woodbury, N.Y., said the ability to show empathy toward clients was one of her most important traits contributing to her success.
Years ago, empathy would hardly have been considered an ingredient to financial advisory success, but that’s exactly Roberts’ point: women sell differently than men. "The jobs in this industry require empathy, something that women, if I may generalize a bit, tend to excel at," said John Przybylski, director of financial planning for Federal Street Advisors, in an e-mail to InsuranceNewsNet.
Roberts said change is coming, and there's not much anyone can do to stop it.
“As the older generation retires and moves out of the way, not just women but the younger generations also are going to revolutionize the industry, partly through technology and partly through how we approach our business,” Roberts said.
Cyril Tuohy is a writer based in Pennsylvania. He has covered the financial services industry for more than 15 years. He can be reached at [email protected].
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