Right on the Money: Women thrive in male-dominated financial planning field

Women represent between 15% and a third of the financial planners and advisors in the United States. While some studies show that more women are finding their way to the male-dominated field, others indicate that they are also exiting it at a faster rate than their male counterparts. The Traverse City Business News convened a panel of three local female advisors – just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to take hold in Michigan – to reflect on their career paths, discuss the unique challenges of being in a male-dominated industry and impart key pieces of financial advice.

The panel: Dawn Hemming is the president and founder of hemming& Wealth Management, an all-female financial advising firm established in Traverse City in 1997. Debbie Craig is a 20-year financial advisor who leads Craig Wealth Advisors, a Traverse City practice that is affiliated with Raymond James but operates independently. Dawn Moses is the president and founder of Sensible and Hourly, a Kalkaska-based firm that offers as-needed financial planning advice and services.

What drew you to financial planning?

Hemming

Hemming: My background in managing businesses, counseling and education is what led me to the career. I was an executive director of a nonprofit in my 20s with two young children. I went on a road trip to Maine with my husband and was playing with a financial calculator in the car. He said, ‘You love this stuff; you should do it for a living!’ Shortly after that, the consultant for our retirement plan came into my office. I had a lot of questions and he said the same thing my husband had. So I decided to get licensed. Even then, I focused on education, building my practice one client at a time. I never dreamed it would grow to be the large, successful firm it is today.
These days, working with a capable, fabulous, all-women advisory team to empower clients and make a big difference keeps me loving the work.

Craig: I grew up in a family business. My parents formed an independent insurance adjusting firm and were great business people, growing the business to four branches in the state of Michigan and many employees. But they still had no pension, no retirement plan and no financial planning advice. Being there for them and other small business owners and retirees ignited my passion for this business. While providing financial planning advice drew me to the field initially, my enthusiasm has grown over the years as pensions have mostly gone away and so many others need good financial and retirement advice.

Moses: The recognition of just how much impact sensible counsel can make in someone’s life and in the lives of their family. Too often, folks think financial planning is only for the wealthy, but everyone benefits from having a plan and protections in place as they are able. I have helped those with millions, those just starting out, and those who have hit hard times. The goal is always the same: How can I make this client’s situation better?

Statistically, there are still far fewer female advisors than male (though trends may be shifting). Do you believe there is still a glass ceiling in the world of finance? If so, is the Grand Traverse area better or worse than other places in this regard? 

Moses

Hemming: Less than 20% of financial advisors today are women but I never considered it a restriction. I believe women are naturally great listeners and nurturers. Those skills serve us well as advisors. I know many great women advisors all around the United States and here in the Grand Traverse area.

Craig: When I started independent financial planning in 2000 – after a 15-year financial career at General Motors – there were 15% female advisors in our industry. Over the past 20 years the numbers have fluctuated between 12-17%. We haven’t really moved the needle much. There is still a glass ceiling in most fields today – not just finance and not just a gender ceiling. My nephew works for Apple in a metallurgical engineering area that is mostly Indian. He was specifically – and the only one in his department – excluded from the iPhone 11 launch party. People want to hang around with people who are like them. It’s natural, and easier, to do so. Some day we will come to appreciate the value in diversification. Until then, I tend not to focus on the things I can’t control.

Moses: Sure, there is still a bit of a glass ceiling in general and the financial services industry is no exception. Not surprisingly, I can attest to a few times where the client I was being introduced to assumed I was the secretary. But I also believe that the glass ceiling is shrinking. I don’t think that the Grand Traverse area is any better or any worse as far as that goes.

Do you see situations in which clients specifically seek to work with female advisors? 

Craig

Hemming: Our clients come to us through referrals from existing clients who appreciate our unique approach. We embrace each client by carefully listening to what’s important to them and crafting unique solutions to meet their needs. We take the time to educate them on their options so there is a comfort and clarity. Ultimately, we look to empower them to make the decisions that are important to them and their family with confidence. We’ve found that this approach resonates with both genders.

Craig: Absolutely! During divorce, widowhood, inheritance, and ‘sudden money’ events, women tend to seek out other women for advice – mostly friends and relatives, but sometimes female financial advisors too. I think women like to ask a lot of questions and be educated before making decisions. At times, our styles match up.

Moses: I not only have women clients who have shared with me how much more comfortable they are with a woman advisor, but interestingly, a few men along the way as well. Culturally, there is still a perception that women advisors are better listeners and that male advisors are more aggressive and driven. Of course, that is not always true, but the perception is there.

What do you think is the key to getting more women involved in the financial industry?

Hemming: This is a topic that is very personal to me. I was a founding member of a national women’s advisory board and for the last 10 years developed policies to attract women to join the field and to empower women as investors. Recently, I was invited by Fidelity Investments to help establish New Frontiers Group, joining industry leaders to develop strategies to attract the next generation of women and minorities and shape the future of wealth management. We found education, mentoring and support are key to increasing success of women in the industry. The perception is that the financial industry is about sales and high pressure. People do not see this as a helping profession, but it really is about counseling and education every day. We’ve developed our local advisory team of women by focusing on clear communication, education and coaching.

Craig: Traditionally, women were slotted into nursing and teaching fields. This worked well for moms who wanted to be home with their kids during holiday and summer vacations, as well as augmenting the family budget. Unfortunately, the financial advice business, especially when starting out, demands evenings, weekends, summers, travel and has no consistent salary. It can be difficult to commit to long hours and variable pay when having a young family. As couples continue to share parenting and earned income goals, this will most likely become an easier career choice.

Moses: If we want more women to advance in financial services and move past that secretary position, then two things come to mind: One, we need to offer a path to success that involves much better training and mentoring. More opportunities to work with an experienced advisor to assist in determining if someone is even a good fit also come to mind. It is important to expose people to the many career paths within the industry. Two, we need a better work-life balance. Of course, women are often interested in careers where they can balance their families and their professional lives. Frankly, men are as well, and the struggle to retain talent, whether male or female, often comes back to this component.

What big changes do you see in store for the industry in the coming years? 

Hemming: Within industry regulations, there has been a move away from commissions and toward transparency in paying for ongoing advice. This is a model that we’ve had for the last 20 years (at hemming&) and we are excited to see the industry catch up.

Craig: Ugh! More regulation.

Moses: I think the biggest change will be in the demographic shifts facing our country as the baby boomers retire and a new generation of young people – who have a different vision for themselves and their families – begin the retirement planning process.

Many young people aren’t thinking much about saving money at this point, in part because so many of them have college debt. What would you say to someone in this situation? 

Hemming: Strike a healthy balance with a keen awareness of the cost of debt versus investment expectations for return. Albert Einstein said that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world, and I’d have to agree. There is a huge opportunity for young investors to take advantage of historically low tax rates and invest for tax-free growth in a Roth IRA. Don’t be distracted by unnecessary purchases that eat away at your budget. Will Rogers said, ‘Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.’ Instead, start small and save regularly for financial freedom.

Craig: Be creative. Seek out companies that offer tuition reimbursement or forgivable loans for continuing education. Educate yourselves about the company match in the retirement plan and secure that first. Have goals that delay gratification and can still be fun, like staycations, picnics at local parks, date nights at free local concerts and more. Sacrifices early on provide choices later on.

Moses: I would encourage them to set aside time to get up to speed on their loans, the terms, interest rates and more to really get educated about them. If they are not able to make the payments, they should find out which loans have income-based repayment or even deferment options. For some students, consolidation of the loans may make sense. Even if they really want to pay down as much as possible on the loans, I would still advise them to continue to find some dollars to save for the proverbial rainy day, as rainy days always come.

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