It’s no secret the financial services industry is predominately male. The number of female CFP professionals plateaued at 23% nearly 15 years ago and hasn’t moved.

Much of the problem stems from how women are treated, says Financial Planning contributing writer and advisor Michael Kitces.

In his Voices column “Sexual harassment is thriving at advisor conferences” Kitces detailed a recent experience where a male advisor addressed a group of female advisors as a “harem.”

Sadly, that comment wasn’t a one-off occurrence from a lone bad apple. Women in the planning profession regularly find themselves the subject of gendered assumptions, dismissive comments and even unwanted sexual attention.

In a poll Financial Planning conducted earlier this year, more than 30% of women who work in wealth management said they’ve “been subject to unwelcome sexual conduct.”

The idea that questionable behavior continues in our industry isn’t shocking. On the contrary, it’s quite common, and many readers shared their own experiences in the comment section of Kitces column.

For instance, P. Michails wrote: “I have been in the financial service industry for 46 years. I owned a practice with a male partner for 25 of those years. Many of our clients thought I was his assistant. He did not correct them.”

Reader lopacinski72 shared a similar experience: “I started as a financial advisor in 1999 as a young single woman who was told by the hiring manager ‘before we get started I want to let you know that we don't put up with that women's lib stuff here. I don't have time to discuss why more women don't work here.’”

And, “I have noticed some of the same comments at conferences over the years. During a well-publicized conference, a former CEO of a large financial institution introduced a well-respected and highly educated female that was going to have a Q&A with the keynote speaker by talking about how great she looked,” commented R. Schultz.

Kitces points out that a lack of progress and support from male peers who witness such behavior, as evidenced by his own actions, is partly to blame.

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“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Breaking this cycle of behavior is not easy and there is no one correct way to confront it. But many readers made clear what they wished they, or bystanders like Kitces, had said in the moment.

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“I think the best way to handle inappropriate behaviors is to address them immediately and bluntly," says reader scott.manley. "If we all do this, maybe this behavior will stop.”

How to bring it up

Some readers agreed with Kitces that calling out or embarrassing those who make inappropriate comments isn’t the best path.

“This guy had no clue how offensive and belittling his comment actually was,” Kitces wrote. “Consequently, calling him out would have likely just made him angry and defensive.”

A couple respondents offered subtle approaches to challenging a person while still continuing a conversation.

“This same type of thing has happened to me and my own silence has been crushing,” one commenter named “a female advisor” wrote. “In taking time to contemplate what I will do NEXT TIME, I will stick out my hand to introduce myself, cite the credentials of the people he just insulted and say, ‘I know you meant to be funny, but it was insulting to imply [fill in the blank]. Let's restart. [Name of the guy], how are you connected to the event?’ It may not be perfect but I can do that.”

“I think that we need to learn how to be bold and direct in rebutting such insensitive comments without being too insensitive ourselves,” R.Clinton wrote. “Maybe saying something like ‘Say, I know you did not mean it that way but your comments could easily be taken badly by anyone who actually knows these advisors and what they are accomplishing for their clients and their families’."

But several others felt Kitces’ suggested rebuttals were too weak.

“My wife and I are financial advisors. She is a CFP, an owner of our firm and advisor for 32 years. I have watched this kind of inappropriate behavior for many years. At conferences, other advisors will walk up to us, look at me and ask me I am the financial advisor, assuming my wife was not an advisor and instead a guest,” wrote scott.manley. “I think the best way to handle inappropriate behaviors is to address them immediately and bluntly. If we all do this, maybe this behavior will stop.”

Reader Rita wrote she wanted Kitces and other male advisors to “man up.” “Michael, your sensitivity to offensive men needs to be examined,” she stated. “So...having female professionals embarrassed and offended in front of you leaves you tongued tied and in fear of driving the misogynistic “profession” away? Voicing how offensive this comment was to ALL involved might have given him food for thought.”

What crosses the line?

Some readers questioned whether this behavior is as prevalent as Kitces suggests. And, whether he went a step too far in labeling the “harem” comment as sexual harassment.

“I am a 63 year old woman who's been in the Financial Services industry since 1986, as a wholesaler, head of marketing and managing partner. The event you wrote about is NOT close to what I would consider sexual harassment. It's just another example of someone's insensitivity and cluelessness,” commented R.saggau.

Others said the response was overblown. “I certainly agree that we should be non-biased in our treatment of various demographics, but I also think that we have become a tad too sensitive,” wrote G.Huffman. “Yes, some flavor of ill- conceived bias is all around us, but I say stand tall in whatever shoes you wear, practice the golden rule, and dial down the ‘I'm offended’ rhetoric.”

The industry’s part

Most commenters agreed, however, that they’d prefer not to hear offensive comments. Several pointed out that such behavior needed a fix on a larger level, not just calling out one individual at a time, but challenging it by increasing awareness of just how “male” the profession still is and working as an industry to be more inclusive.

“Awareness really starts when your partner of 4+ years is your fully licensed daughter! At one four-hour conference, she counted 18 sports analogies/references all by male speakers,” wrote reader Notme. “Afterwards, it was indicated that I could bring her to the golf outing (one more way to alienate women). The conference in Miami that had deep sea fishing as the main outside activity — another miss with women.”

Of course, there are many women who enjoy sports, but Notme’s point highlights how the industry could do better in creating an environment that is more welcoming of female advisors. Everything from offering more diverse activity choices at conferences, to challenging disrespectful remarks, to promoting and showcasing more women advisors and encouraging advisors to be more careful about word choice.

Not doing so risks any small progress the industry has made toward being more inclusive and gender-neutral.

“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,” Kitces wrote in his article.

Changing that might also help to solve one of the industry’s biggest problems: the lack of diversity.

“I just got back from a conference where we noted the absolutely extraordinary lack of diversity in this business. In a room of 115 successful advisors, about 90 were men, there was not one single African American in the room, and I'd guess that balding, slightly overweight white men in their fifties comprised a majority of the group, (this happens to describe me as well),” writes reader J. Bacci. “An aging professional base that increasingly does not reflect its customer base is decidedly not a growth industry.”

Kerri Anne Renzulli

Kerri Anne Renzulli is senior editor of Financial Planning, On Wall Street, and Bank Investment Consultant.