How To Give Women A Bigger Voice In Managing Family Wealth

According to Barclays, eight in 10 women from wealthy families globally stand to inherit significant fortunes over the next two decades, but only half that number are involved in family financial decision-making. Why? It’s at least in part because of a gender mismatch: Just 12 percent of family wealth managers are female.

That may not sound like a big deal in 2023, after a half-century of men and women working together, but clients tell a different story. A 2019 study by the British women’s finance network WealthiHer found that 36 percent of these potential clients felt “patronized” by their money managers, 28 percent said the industry’s overreliance on jargon reduced their understanding and trust, and more than a third cited lack of knowledge as a reason they don’t engage.

This is especially problematic because several studies have shown women actually outperform men as investors (Fidelity Investments, 2021). That suggests women taking a back seat can impede effective decision-making, and it can lead to rifts between family members and hamper the efficient transfer of wealth to the next generation.

Male asset managers are often simply less familiar with the needs and concerns of female stakeholders and their style of communication. Research from State Street Global Advisors and New York Life Investments, among others, has found that while both sexes value knowledge and experience, women also require greater communication, more active listening on the part of advisors, and a higher degree of empathy. A 2022 study of female board members published in Harvard Business Review found that unless women monitored how and when they spoke, they perceived backlash from other directors, which lessened their ability to influence decisions. When men have a different context or understanding of the wealth situation or the business, women in the room feel they risk being overruled or shut down. In my experience, female stakeholders often withhold their questions or observations until individual debriefings after a board meeting, even when the entire board might have benefited from their perspectives.

I can relate. I have often been the only female board or committee member at financial services firms, and I’ve felt I had to research and substantiate my views more thoroughly than my male counterparts to overcome their skepticism and gain the same level of respect for the points I wanted to make in a meeting.

The best way to resolve the gender gap in the family office and wealth-management industries is to increase the proportion of female asset managers and financial advisors. I’m confident that the increase in wealth among female stakeholders will encourage this sea change over time, but because that has yet to happen, advisors can give female stakeholders better representation now by upping their game in a few areas.

Respect their schedules

Many women I work with are the primary caretakers in their families, so their days are tied closely to their children’s school and activity calendars. Ask which recurring time slots work best for them, and schedule for those if you can. Be flexible. Women often wear many hats in a family, and their appointments may need to change from week to week. A rigid recurring meeting time could prevent them from joining a key discussion. Finally, stick to the allotted meeting time and let it run over only if everyone can stay. If a family member needs to leave for an existing obligation, the meeting should conclude so they are not excluded from additional decision-making.

One female stakeholder I advised had a newborn at home, so she could only join meetings virtually. During an estate-planning session, the video link did not work, and in the interest of time, other attendees started the meeting without her. Because she joined late, she was unsure of the context and uncomfortable asking clarifying questions, worried they may have already been addressed. I noticed this early in the call and asked the advisors to offer a verbal recap of the discussion as soon as she joined. I also took written notes, which I circulated to all participants following the call. This way I could ensure she had as much information as everyone else. After the meeting, she told me how much she appreciated my looking out for her.

Stakeholder meetings can involve several advisors, most of whom have a packed nine-to-five day, making it difficult to accommodate a single participant. Advisors often assume that as long as one (or more) stakeholders are present, that is sufficient, which is not the case when critical decisions need to be made.

Slow down and ask questions

Don’t assume that everyone with a particular level of wealth or a C-suite position in a family business has a good understanding of wealth management. Even those who have spent their entire career in financial services, such as CFPs and CPAs, must continue their education as the industry evolves.

If managers first ask about an individual’s familiarity with a subject and listen to their response before forging ahead, they may learn that their client needs additional explanation. I have often seen clients hesitate to make important, time-sensitive decisions when they do not fully understand the context or consequences. For instance, they might pass on the opportunity to vote for a proxy statement or fund consent because they have not received a comprehensive explanation of the change, frustrating an asset manager who needs a majority vote from limited partners.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the question, “Which page are you on?” in a meeting. One family member more familiar with the subject matter may be flipping ahead while another is carefully reviewing the deluge of new information in front of them. The presenter, noticing the page flipper, may then speed up the discussion instead of ensuring that everyone has understood the topic before moving on. I will often stop the presenter, look around the room, and ask if everyone is following or if further explanation is needed, and I almost always receive a thank you from someone in the room afterward.

Offer one-on-one meetings

Sit down with female stakeholders individually, so they feel heard and understood outside of a group setting. Several women I’ve worked with have asked me to join them for walks while we discussed their questions following estate-planning meetings. They were all mothers with limited free time away from their children, so they were glad to be able to voice their concerns at a convenient time and place.

Really listen to the answers

Study after study has shown that in meetings, men tend to dominate the conversation. So what happens when an advisor receives two responses, one from a man and one from a woman? Often in my experience, he hears only one of them: the man’s. It could be due to physical differences—perhaps the male client just has a louder voice—but 2005 research from the University of Sheffield in England suggests that men literally have a harder time deciphering female voices. This imbalance can be corrected if an advisor takes the time to solicit and clearly listen to every party’s response.

An attorney once asked my clients on a conference call how they wanted to fund their child’s trust. The couple replied with two distinct suggestions, but the attorney only responded to the husband’s. I interrupted to ask him why he did not think the wife’s suggestion was a sufficient resolution. He quickly apologized and asked her to repeat her point, admitting he had missed it altogether. Once we had had everything over, the woman’s solution turned out to be the one that made the most sense for everyone.

Read the fine print

Women tend to be detail-oriented. You don’t have to look too hard for scientific research to support this. A 2009 study by the British Journal of Psychology, for example, found that men are better at seeing objects at a distance, while women were more accurate when the same object was within arm’s reach. A 2021 article in the CPA Journal also found that females are more detail-oriented in audit situations, which led them to find more mistakes. In observations of my female clients, they want all of the information available and tend to ask questions about very particular data points. Many of my female clients have stopped an advisor mid-presentation to ask for more information about a number on a slide or even to point out its inaccuracy.

Since I know from experience that women typically want to understand the details, I request all agendas and presentations in advance. When an advisor sent an exhaustive investment performance review within minutes of the start of a meeting, guess how many questions he received during his presentation? Zero. No one had a chance to review or digest the information that quickly, let alone while he was already speaking. After the meeting, one female board member confided in me that she didn’t even understand the purpose of his presentation because it was so difficult to follow the data. I suggested the two of us meet with the advisor to review the performance metrics in detail. Before that meeting, I scheduled several calls with the advisor alone to help him prepare and ensure he had all the account information and statements available for reference. At the time, he thought it was overkill, but our conversation with the client turned out to be very productive, and it furthered their relationship.

I don’t recommend advisors put 100-plus-page presentations in front of a client, but I do suggest they provide a summary and keep backup accessible in case questions arise. Nothing is worse than a meeting agenda derailed by a lack of preparation on the part of the presenter.

Help them make connections

Women stakeholders in family wealth are an underserved group that can benefit from connecting. My female clients often ask me for ways to network with other women involved in a family office or business. Advisors can help by proactively telling women about upcoming conferences or events and linking them to others in their network with similar backgrounds or goals. I have found that building relationships among my like-minded female clients gives them a sense of community and mutual support for difficult wealth-management decisions and provides them with a sounding board for others facing similar situations. They regularly meet with one another to discuss financial markets and investments or wealth planning and education for their children. These connections seem to make my female clients more confident and prepared in meetings with advisors because they provide more data and context.

If wealth management is to reflect the needs of all its stakeholders, the industry must understand and respect women’s needs and adjust its communications and product offerings accordingly. Giving women guidance and support through critical wealth management decisions and recognizing their understanding and perspectives will help families make better decisions about their prosperity and their future.

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