Are financial advisors walking the talk on gender bias?

A Merrill study uncovers insights that can help advisors communicate better and form stronger relationships with their women clients


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ALAN, A LONGTIME FINANCIAL ADVISOR with the wealth-management firm Merrill, keenly remembers a meeting earlier in his career with a married couple. “I thought I was doing everything right — making eye contact and addressing both the husband and wife equally. But at one point the wife stopped the meeting and asked, ‘You understand this is mostly my money, right?’” Reflecting on her words, Alan realized, he said, that he’d “been leaning toward her husband and sharing paperwork only with him.”

The study highlights multiple areas of unconscious bias, underscoring the need for advisors to reflect on how to keep striving for fair treatment.

Alan’s realization parallels a greater shift in the wealth-management industry: Financial companies are increasingly committed to exploring how to best serve women clients and to tackling unconscious biases. A large-scale research study commissioned by Merrill, “Seeing the unseen: The role gender plays in wealth management,” took an expansive view of the subject, delving into the stories of women investors and their financial advisors. Among the study’s findings are that only 8% of women investors have experienced negative gender assumptions from their financial advisors and that such incidences of bias are usually subtle. But, as the research emphasizes, that doesn’t mean that financial advisors are off the hook: The study highlights multiple areas of unconscious bias, underscoring the need for advisors and executives to evaluate their own behaviors and reflect on how to keep striving for fair treatment and open communication.

In Alan’s case, it only took one sentence from his client to trigger a personal reevaluation. “I was grateful for her comment — it was a pivotal moment for me,” he says. Isabelle, another Merrill financial advisor, recalls an epiphany similar to Alan’s. (Both advisors’ names have been changed to protect the privacy of their clients.) She was working with a married couple and found that the wife didn’t seem to participate in meetings. Isabelle assumed that the client disliked the investment advice, or was simply disinterested. Suddenly, however, the woman phoned Isabelle’s office, distraught: The couple were getting divorced abruptly, and she now had to restructure numerous parts of her life, both financially and personally.

When heterosexual couples consult an advisor together, small, misguided assumptions can lead to less empowerment for the woman.

As Isabelle worked closely with the woman on a new investment plan, it became clear that the client had only seemed detached because of dynamics in her marriage, not because she didn’t want to participate in her financial future. In a parallel to both Alan’s and Isabelle’s experiences with certain married clients, the Merrill study found that, when heterosexual couples consult an advisor together, small, misguided assumptions can lead to less empowerment for the woman in the couple. “That was the biggest lightbulb for me,” says Isabelle. “As advisors sometimes, especially when it’s one advisor with a couple, you can make these assumptions about people: that they’re not interested, or that they just relinquish control.”

Finding an advisor you feel comfortable with

Both Isabelle and Alan were already making a conscious effort to treat their clients equally, regardless of gender — but, despite their good intentions, assumptions still sneaked through. In order to counteract that, they had to embrace feedback and closely examine their own patterns of behavior. Their experiences demonstrate that advisors who are willing to reflect and adapt become better advisors for their clients: Isabelle and her client continue to work together, and Alan, after winning the trust of both the husband and wife he was working with, has been advising the pair for around a decade.

Women advisors tended to use positive, goal-oriented language when describing financial plans and investment opportunities; male advisors were more likely to lean into the language of risk.

Some of Isabelle’s female clients have sought her out because she is an experienced financial advisor who is also a woman. That experience aligns with another insight from “Seeing the unseen”: Women investors often feel more positive about wealth management when working with women financial advisors. Women investors who participated in the Merrill study tended to rate their own knowledge and confidence higher when they had a female advisor — in fact, they evaluated their own abilities more favorably than men did, and were 2.5 times more comfortable taking investment risks than they were when working with men advisors.

Anecdotally, some of the women investors interviewed for this article echo these findings: Rebecca, a 35-year-old engineering manager who invests in real estate with her husband, says, “I felt most comfortable when we worked with an all-women team — things went the most smoothly on that project.” Gianna, a 33-year-old media executive, emphasizes that a financial advisor’s area of expertise and track record are the most important criteria, but notes that she sought out a past advisor because she wanted to work with a woman advisor with a female client base. “I thought it was badass that she was a woman empowering other women,” Gianna says.

Words matter

Certainly, this doesn’t mean that all women investors need to consult women advisors — numerous women around the country are well served by their male advisors, just as many male clients consult women advisors with excellent results. But the researchers behind “Seeing the unseen” uncovered a surprising factor in the way that women financial advisors may form particularly beneficial relationships with female clients. Using a system that classifies and ranks nearly every word in the English language, lexical analysts mapped the language patterns of numerous advisors. What they discovered was that women advisors tended to use positive, goal-oriented and communal language when describing the details of financial plans and investment opportunities; in contrast, male advisors were more likely to lean into the language of risk. The researchers theorized that women investors responded well to language that emphasized shared goals and benefits.

As the study authors point out, it isn’t only women financial advisors who can, and do, train themselves to use the positive, goal-oriented language patterns favored by many women. For example, Eunice, a 29-year-old P.R. consultant, praises her male financial advisor’s positivity. “When we’re considering a riskier investment, my advisor is straightforward, but at the same time really spells out how this is going to help me down the road,” she says. She attributed this to the fact that, from their first meetings, he listened closely and tailored his advice accordingly: “It was clear he was treating me as an individual — he paid attention to what I prioritize.”

In considering their own careers and the future of the industry, Isabelle and Alan also emphasize that tailoring advice to the individual and paying attention to each person’s unique experiences and objectives is how they’ve served their women clients best. “There’s a huge and growing need for personalized advice,” Isabelle notes — and individualized service for women clients must consider how their gender has impacted their lives and stories.

These stories are what the researchers behind “Seeing the Unseen” sought to analyze, and the study’s findings on unconscious gender bias and communication patterns are particularly helpful. “Reading the study brought back some powerful memories for me,” Alan says, adding that the related lessons he’s learned, in his own work and from examining the study results, “have helped me form stronger relationships with all of my clients — and made me a better advisor.”

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