Kitces: Sexual harassment is thriving at advisor conferences

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Despite a growing industry effort to attract more women, the number of female CFP professionals has remained stubbornly pegged at 23% for nearly 15 years. Even as the planning profession seeks to build awareness and draw more women to it, the good intentions are blunted by the amount of sexual harassment and demeaning, belittling comments still directed at women by their peers at the typical advisory industry conference.

The reminders are everywhere. At the recent FPA NorCal conference, while talking with a group of female colleagues that included fellow advisors as well as several industry-leading consultants, I was interrupted by another advisor who proclaimed our semi-circle looked like a harem.

It’s still all too common for women at advisory industry conferences to receive comments like, “Whose assistant are you?” or “What do you actually do at your firm?” — the implication being that they couldn’t possibly be working as advisors. Never mind that this may happen to a woman prominently displaying her CFP certification and a firm name that matches her own.

Yet even as someone who has witnessed these kinds of things and who’s incredibly frustrated by them, I still struggle to determine what exactly to say to help break the cycle. Calling out offenders and publicly humiliating them for their offensive comments is more likely to just make them defensive and run from the situation, instead of gaining some empathy, perspective and recognizing how their comments demean their female colleagues.

The bottom line is that as someone who has witnessed this behavior and often said nothing, I regret not taking a more active role in trying to stop it. And it’s something I intend to address more proactively going forward. But I hope you’ll share your comments at the end of this article with your own perspective. How do you have this conversation in the first place? What do you say when you witness sexual harassment at an advisor conference?

The FPA NorCal Conference is still one of my favorite events, one I’ve recommended for many years on my Best Conferences list both for its great content and the high caliber of advisors that it tends to attract.

During the first evening of this year’s conference there was a reception hosted by one of the sponsors, where I ended up sitting off to one side of the room with a number of well-known industry consultants. They were Kristen Luke and Kristin Harad, who are both advisor marketing consultants and happen to be women, and Jennifer Goldman, who does operations and technology consulting for advisors and also happens to be a woman, and we were also joined by two other advisors who both happened to be women.

A male advisor came over from the other side of the room ostensibly to join the conversation, but instead he said, “Wow, is this the Kitces harem?” This was met, not surprisingly, by an awkward silence. The women who were there didn’t know what to say, nor did I. All I knew was anger, but in that moment, I couldn’t figure out how to express it without making the situation worse. And so I said nothing. And it’s been bothering me ever since.

I know another female advisor colleague who had a similar situation occur at the exact same conference. She’s an experienced advisor, having started in the business almost the exact same time I did, about 20 years ago. And what was the conversation from a male advisor at the lunch table? It started with, “Oh, is this your first conference?”

“No, it’s my 18th.”

“Really? You’re not old enough. What do you do at your firm?”

“I own it.”

“You’re a financial advisor?”

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To be clear, she was wearing an advisor name tag that contained “CFP” along with the name of her firm — which happened to echo her own name. This is about as unambiguous a situation as you can get. Yet he was still surprised that she could actually be an experienced advisor, let alone one who owned her own firm.

The point here is not to bash FPA NorCal. This happens at most advisor conferences, and I’d venture to say it probably happens at every advisor conference.

I’ve subsequently compiled a handy list of all the situations when it’s appropriate at professional events to compare female colleagues to powerless sex concubines. It’s a blank piece of paper.

Look, I get it. I’m a male who was sitting in a semicircle with five other women. And while it was a professional networking event, it was in a social setting and there were five women sitting around one guy. I’m fairly well-known in the industry, and it’s not uncommon that I find myself standing with people asking me questions, and this advisor may or may not have known that the women present were quite credible in their own right. So he used this analogy that put me in the power seat.

That doesn’t make his offhand quip any more appropriate.

The advisor might not have intended to demean these women or make a statement about their physical appearances by implying they were concubines. That doesn’t change the fact that what he said was demeaning.

It’s particularly galling because I walked over because I wanted to learn from them. Here were some of the best consultants in the industry sitting with another advisor I really wanted to talk to. They were in the power seat. And they also happened to be women.

This is how the subtle sexual harassment and disempowerment of women looks in our industry, and it pisses me off.

One of the reasons I regret this episode so deeply is that I don’t see progress. If we as male advisors can’t figure out how to stop these kinds of comments, true gender diversity and parity in the planning industry will continue to elude us.

We wonder why the number of female CFP certificants has been stuck at 23% for 15 years. And this, despite all the industry’s efforts to recruit more women and women’s initiatives and promoting women’s success stories and all the other things we do that I think are good and important for drawing more women into the profession. The problem is that we draw them in and they show up at a conference, and stuff like this happens.

Should we be surprised that it drives women away? We’re making it much harder for women to succeed in this industry when the default assumption is, when a group of women get together at a conference, the first thought is not, “Wow, that looks like an amazing study group of leading industry consultants.”

And it’s something that I’ve witnessed many times over the years. I still remember very clearly the first time I ever saw this happen. It was 2004. I was attending my first national FPA conference, which was in Denver that year after I was just a few years into the business. We were in this big exhibit hall for the lunch break where you grabbed your buffet lunch and then went to sit in these big round tables in the back of the room. Taking my seat at a table, I was soon joined by a young female advisor.

This was the really early days of NexGen. We had actually just formed it about six months earlier, and so a lot of us were getting to know each other and just sharing our stories and backgrounds. And this particular advisor had actually just left her firm after about seven years to start her own practice after what was basically a failed succession plan, which was a really hot topic at the time.

Over lunch, it didn’t take long to realize that she was incredibly entrepreneurial and someone I should look up to, especially because I was still working internally at a firm.

At a lull in the conversation another advisor from one of the big wirehouse firms — much older and more experienced, wearing a lovely power suit — sat down next to her. As he turned to start some chit-chat, the first question he asked was, “So whose assistant are you?”

She had to explain that she too was an advisor. This, from someone sitting at an advisor conference, wearing an advisor name tag.

To be clear, this wasn’t an age thing. Regarding me — someone even younger than she and not dressed as professionally — he made comments and asked questions that presumed I was a fellow advisor. “So whose assistant are you?” was very unambiguously a statement about her gender. And while I’d like to think this episode is an artifact of some bygone era, this was just 14 years ago.

Ask me any question about planning strategy, tax law or advisory firm benchmarking. Give me a microphone and I will talk for an hour. But make a sexually harassing comment in front of me and I’ll admit, I’ll be completely tongue-tied. I want it to stop, but I literally don’t know what I should say in such a moment.

At FPA NorCal I could have said, “I’m sorry, did you just imply that these professional female colleagues are powerless sex concubines?” or, “Dude, what are you thinking?” I could’ve put him on the spot, really tried to embarrass him. But I don’t think that’s a constructive way to handle such situations.

Some people would love to see every guy who makes a dumb, degrading comment about women get bashed, but I’m fairly certain this guy had no clue how offensive and belittling his comment actually was. Consequently, calling him out would have likely just made him angry and defensive. If there was a valuable lesson, it wouldn’t be learned then. He would not have come away a more empathetic person.

And there’s the challenge: figuring out some way to help men recognize how inappropriate their comments can be — whether intended or not.

Perhaps it’s as simple as turning their inappropriate question into a subtle but effective lesson. “Actually, these are some of the smartest women I know in the industry, and I was sitting here learning from them.” That was the truth of my particular situation, and ideally, such a pivot maybe would get him reflecting on how badly he misread the situation.

But that isn’t here nor there right now. I had an opportunity to do my part — to stand up in a moment of our industry’s subtle and far too pervasive sexual harassment and belittling of female advisors — and failed. It’s not something I plan to repeat again.

So what do you think? How do you handle situations where you witness inappropriate comments towards women advisors at an industry event? What would you say to address the situation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

This article originally appeared in Michael Kitces
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Sexual harassment Gender discrimination Gender issues Financial planning Practice management Employee classifications Michael Kitces CFP Board