Why How You Frame Conversations Matters

Twenty years ago, Cathy Pareto attended her very first Schwab Impact Conference, an annual event in the wealth management business. And when she looked around at her peers, she noticed something.

“I was a young Latina advisor in a great big sea of older white men,” she recalls. “I definitely stood out.”

Going back to that conference nearly two decades later?

“So much has changed, and so much hasn’t,” she says.

The most noticeable constant is that women are still a minority in the field. Only one in five certified financial planners are women — less than their share of other demanding professions such as medicine and law.

And yet the world around them has changed. In the U.S., women now represent a larger proportion of the workforce and graduate college at a higher rate, according to U.S. Census data. The gender pay gap is narrowing, and the number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at more than three times the rate of men.

"With women, it’s not about impressing them. They need to know you are listening to them and that you care. Why should you give me your business if I don’t truly understand why you are here?"
Cathy Pareto
Cathy ParetoFounder, Cathy Pareto and Associates Inc.

Despite their growing role in the economy, women are reluctant to trust the financial industry. That’s where Pareto saw the opportunity and decided to make women the primary focus of her firm. The founder of Cathy Pareto and Associates Inc. has since been named one of the 10 Most Dependable Wealth Managers for Women. Her Miami, Florida-based firm’s assets have grown to almost $100 million.

So what advice does she have for her peers who want to reach out to women?

Learn About the Challenges Women Still Face

Women have been living longer than men, and though they’re starting to earn more money, the gender pay gap still exists. The average lifespan for women in America is 81.1 years, nearly five years more than men — meaning five more years to plan for.

Life events have a different effect on women, too, Pareto says. For example, they’re more likely to drop off the corporate ladder to raise a family or to take care of parents, according to a Princeton University study.

“Women have unique needs, and often you have to be more creative in planning for them,” Pareto says. “The reality is when you have female clients, their money has to go further in retirement.”

Nix the Numbers, and Lend an Ear

“I learned a lot at my old firm about the industry,” Pareto says. “But I also learned a lot about what not to do.”

Too often advisors go into “sales mode” with women, focusing on numbers instead of listening. “This approach is just wrong,” she says.

Instead, Pareto and her colleagues make it a requirement to sit down with their female clients and respective life partners for a deep-dive session before they start any part of the planning process. And she isn’t just looking at their account statements, either. She asks potential clients what motivates them, about personal and professional goals, their regrets, what keeps them up at night and what their experience with money was like when they were growing up.

“With women, it’s not about impressing them. They need to know you are listening to them and that you care,” she says. “Why should you give me your business if I don’t truly understand why you are here?”

Balance the Industry’s Skew to Men

Women tend to open up with other women, and they’re reluctant to open their checkbooks to firms composed of only men, Pareto observes. The Insured Retirement Institute says 70% of women prefer to work with a female advisor.

“Before opening up my own firm, I came from a place where the clients were mostly men. Fellow advisors? Mostly men. The place was run by men,” she says. The result was an environment where female clients felt they weren’t being heard.

“There is common ground when one mom sees another trying to juggle her work and home life and understand what issues she is facing on a personal level,” she says. “That level of trust comes much easier from another woman. And trust is key to this business.”

The industry has been improving: There are more female advisors than there were when Pareto started, and woman-focused investing strategies and woman-focused firms have popped up. But the progress hasn’t gone nearly far enough, Pareto says.

“If you want to reach them, hire people who look like them. Listen and build real relationships,” she says.