Commentary: In Investing, There's No Feminine Mystique

Rather than pitch seperate advice and services to the genders, the financial industry ought to focus on all people in common life stages

After years of being pretty much ignored, women suddenly seem to be the audience of choice for purveyors of investing advice. As a woman who writes about investing, I might be expected to think it's a great trend. But I'm not much of a fan. And I know many women professionals in the investing field who share my sentiments -- who, in fact, see subtle sexism in much of the financial advice aimed solely at women.

The truth is, one of the striking things about investing is that it's fundamentally gender-neutral. Once you buy a stock, bond, or mutual fund, the fact that it climbs or falls in value has nothing to do with whether you're a man or a woman. In that sense, investing offers a pretty fair playing field compared with the rest of society.

The main problem with "investing for women," whether it describes a seminar, Web site, article, or book, is that it is most often code language for "investing for beginners." My plea to advice givers is this: If that's really the topic, please call it what it is. Kudos to the publishers of the ubiquitous for Dummies book series for at least being direct about what their niche is -- and not claiming that their books are designed for women.

SHARED CIRCUMSTANCES. Another major problem with investing advice geared to women: Much of it applies to men equally as well. Retirement planning is a good example. Saying it's for women may give it a nice, original ring. But it's really for all kinds of people who face a particular set of life circumstances -- and may or may not be women.

Here, the topics are really "Investing for people who are afraid to take risks," "Investing for people who plan to leave the workforce for a few years," or "Investing for people who thought their spouses would be there to help support them in their old age but aren't." All these are legitimate financial-planning topics. But if you're going to offer advice for people who face these concerns, why limit it to women?

Women, especially older women, may be more likely to have left the work force for a few years to raise children or to have made the assumption that someone else would be there to provide for them in old age. But I'm convinced that given the changing nature of family life, that's less and less the case.

STEREOTYPING. According to the latest U.S. Census results released in May, the percentage of people in the U.S. who are married is declining. They now account for just 52% of all households. Fewer than a quarter of households are the traditional kind -- mom, dad, and kids. Census notes that families maintained by women with no husband present grew three times as fast as married-couple families during the 1990s, (although still only 7% of households compared to 23.5% that are the traditional kind).

In this context, probably the biggest problem with targeting women alone is that it perpetuates stereotypes. Gender inequality certainly exists on Wall Street: It's still tough to spot a woman who isn't a TV personality among the swarms of men on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Even among money managers, stock analysts, brokers, (and to a lesser extent, financial writers) women are in short supply.

Without even speculating on all the reasons why that is, let's just say the last thing us womenfolk need is the financial industry spreading the message that women are insecure, naive, and bumbling investors. It also may not make good business sense for financial advisers to reinforce such stereotypes, either, for fear of alienating a chunk of the workforce with major spending power.

ADVICE FROM WOMEN. I realize that I'm being a bit unfair since the new surge of advice geared toward women surely is helping quite a few people. While the idea that women aren't knowledgeable about investing "doesn't describe all or perhaps most women investors, it does still describe a lot of women investors," notes Nancy Cott, a Yale history professor and author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.

Moreover, I'm sure plenty of women who need financial advice will seek it more readily if it comes from another woman in an environment where they can ask questions without worrying about men "snickering" behind their backs, as women recently told BusinessWeek.

Still, I think women -- and men for that matter -- would be better served by an approach to investing that emphasizes life stages and not gender. In America today, women's financial needs aren't terribly unique, nor is the knowhow they need to look after them. So for the sake of all us women who understand a thing or two about investing, let's stop pretending there is.

By Amey Stone

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