An Open Field for Female Financial Planners

The once male-dominated profession is enjoying an influx of women -- whether or not they approach investing any differently

In the late 1980s, Elisabeth Plax met with an older gentleman who was interested in her financial-planning services. Somewhere in the middle of her presentation, she recalls, the man interrupted and remarked, "Gee, you really do know what you're talking about!" Plax now laughs over the conversation. "He would have never said that to one of my male counterparts," she says.

Plax says she rarely gets such comments now, perhaps because she has more company in the profession. Today, roughly 9,200 certified financial planners (CFPs) are women, a number that has grown 55% in the past decade, according to the Certified Financial Planning Board, an independent regulatory group that awards the credential. One in four CFPs is female, and countless more women work as financial advisers at banks, brokerage firms, insurance companies, and in their own businesses.

On the front lines, these women advise clients daily on everything from retirement planning to paying their kids' college tuition. Do they alter their pitch when working with women investors? Hardly. "I go through the same analysis with everybody," says financial planner Elaine Bedel in Indianapolis. "Some people think women are less-sophisticated investors. That's not true at all."

WHAT'S A STOCK? As is typical among financial planners, many women practitioners discovered the field while doing something else. Before becoming a planner, Debby Vinyard spent 10 years as a licensed nurse, doing physical exams for insurance companies. One day on the job, she found herself in a stockbroker's office. "I didn't have a clue about what he was doing," she says. "I didn't even know the difference between a stock and a bond."

Vinyard eventually joined Prudential as an insurance agent, then moved to a local bank where she learned the securities business. Along the way, she picked up her CFP credential, as well as her license to buy and sell securities. In the early '90s, she set up her own financial-planning firm in Marion, Ill., and now manages $13 million in assets.

She has women clients, but she, too, doesn't treat them differently than the guys. She has never conducted investing workshops specifically for women because "it would aggravate me to see a seminar for men only, so why would I do one for women?"

ELEMENTARY QUESTIONS. Indeed, gender is no indicator of anything in particular when it comes to investing knowhow, Vinyard and other women planners say. Men don't intuitively grasp more than women do about price-earnings ratios and bond yields. Rather, it all depends on a person's exposure to investing.

Recently, Vinyard advised a couple in their 50s who for years had kept all of their money in certificates of deposit. They had the financial means to develop a diverse portfolio, but they hadn't understood their options. "Their questions were as elementary as those of any single woman who hadn't done much investing," she says.

Still, women planners note differences in the styles of their male and female clients. "Men come in with the attitude that somehow they'll always manage financially," Plax says. "Women [think]: 'What if the worst happens, and I become a bag lady?'" Plax has consulted several millionaire widows who at first balked at the idea of giving to charity. The reason? They were afraid they wouldn't have enough left to live on. It took a lot of work, Plax says, to persuade them that if they managed their money properly, they could maintain their lifestyle and give back to the community as well.

GOOD TEACHERS. Generally, women planners find that their female clients tend to be more objective about their holdings. "When we recommend a stock be sold, a woman is more likely to say, 'Fine. Sell it,'" says Jane Abbott, a financial planner with A.G. Edwards in Dartmouth, Mass. "Men tend to get more attached. Maybe it's an ego thing. They don't want to admit that [the stock] is a loser. They take more persuading."

The fact that financial planning involves educating people about their investment choices attracts many women to it, says Dede Pahl, interim president at the CFP Board. "Some women have been reluctant to move into financial sales because it feels uncomfortable to them," she says. "With financial planning, it's more about teaching than selling."

For Elaine Bedel, planning combines her knack for number-crunching with her interest in working with people. Many women, she says, tend to have a helping nature, an essential trait for a good planner. Plus, "we have the right listening skills." She adds: "I get wives in here who say, 'I don't like our accountant. He doesn't talk to me.' That really honks off women." That's not to say that male financial planners lack a good ear. Women planners are quick to point out that many of their male colleagues don't make snap judgments when a person in a skirt walks through the door.

HIRE MORE WOMEN. Job opportunities for financial planners will likely remain plentiful as more financial institutions expand their services to offer investment consulting to customers. The pay is good: According to the Financial Planning Assn., median total compensation -- base salary plus any bonus or commissions -- for financial advisers is $75,000, and sole practitioners who run their own business take home $118,950.

Financial services company MONY Group is one employer that's making a concerted effort to attract more women financial pros. Last year, it hired Deatra Lambert-Harrington, a former financial adviser at American Express Financial Advisers, as one of three new directors of diversity recruiting. Her mandate: Hire more women. So far, she has boosted the number of women insurance agents at the company to 355 from 319, or to 15% of its total agent workforce. She plans to recruit at least a dozen more women this year.

Employee referrals have yielded some of the most promising candidates, Lambert-Harrington says, but she's also scouting for potential hires among realtors and even former Avon saleswomen. A candidate's background is less important to her than the person's motivation to make a business grow -- and to teach others to do the same.

Successful financial planners need the "head of a business person and the heart of a social worker," she adds. If the swelling ranks of female planners is any indication, plenty of women fit that bill.

By Jennifer Gill in New York

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