In light of this year's International Women's Day (IWD), a day recognising how far we have come towards gender equality and how far we still have left to go, Julia Bahr talks to women in financial advice about their route to success…

Recent records from the UK's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) show that only a sixth (16%) of regulated financial advisers in the UK are women. That figure has hardly moved during the past 20 years.

PA spoke with advisers and industry experts to get their thoughts on sexist stereotypes and barriers to career progression in a thus-far male-dominated industry.

Kingswood learning and development manager Ellie Pilkington, who was shortlisted for the Rising Star category at PA's Women in Financial Advice Awards (WIFA) last year, says one of the biggest challenges she has observed for women in the industry is overcoming assumptions about the role they perform due to the gender disparity currently still seen in the profession.

"This can make it difficult for women to progress as they become laden with administrative tasks that fall outside of their job description," she tells PA. "To overcome these challenges, we need to create greater awareness and understanding of the value that diversity of thought provides when making critical business decisions."

Pilkington adds that this involves throwing out the" traditional mould" of what an executive looks like and redefining expectations. No one can excel at everything so it's about creating a healthy balance of perspectives and skills within a senior leadership team."

She continues: "I would also recommend to women who are considering a career in the financial services sector to not be put off by the perception of the industry being a ‘boys club'.

"That type of culture can exist in any industry so it's best to focus on the individual organisation. Do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions during interviews to find out if their values align with your own. Look at the make-up of their leadership team and what career development support they offer."

Her advice to young women planning on starting a career in financial planning is to not fixate on getting a "dream job" immediately. "Every new role is a learning experience and will guide their next career move. Gaining a breadth of experience is valuable so it's useful to move both laterally and vertically in one's career."

Chartered financial planner and founder at Voice for Women's Wealth Anna Sofat tells PA that, having worked as a self-employed adviser in the past, this particular career is great for women as it provides flexibility and control.

She says: "Many women thrive as self-employed advisers/business owners - they don't have to adapt their style or compromise but can focus on doing a job well done.

"It is also good to see some great firms led by what I call ‘partnership', men and women rather than your average ‘alpha' male and these firms are great for women (and men) advisers."


Reducing prejudice

Sofat, who was named the WIFA Adviser of the Year in 2019, adds that young female advisers particularly face prejudice from both, clients and advisers.

"Far too many advisers and business owners suffer from unconscious bias and/or lack of self-awareness - just look at the number of women employed within financial advisory firms as opposed to the numbers who are financial advisers

"So often I hear about the hurdles women face who want to transition from being an administrator or a paraplanner into advice and even those who make it, often leave due to the barriers and toxic culture they encounter."

Sofat thinks it is much easier to overcome prejudice from clients as many can be won over by demonstrating professionalism, know-how and setting clear standards of behaviour. 

Willow Brook Lifestyle Financial Planning founder and Chartered financial planner Ceri Griffiths says: "I surround myself with advisers who are massively supportive and inclusive, and I give those who aren't a really wide berth.  

"Within some of the online financial adviser groups I'm part of there is definitely a tone from a lot of the male advisers - and in fact, there is a very popular all-female financial adviser online group that is such a safe and inclusive space where the content and the support is remarkably better."

According to Sofat, quotas can bring change. "I think it is time the regulator introduced quotas and made it mandatory for firms to have at least 40% women advisers. This should focus the mind of many businesses on the need for change."

Secondly, she adds, accountability is needed to create change. "The regulator and the professional bodies really need to hold the profession to account - we have far too few senior managers and indeed advisers being held to account for bad practices.

"Without accountability, it is difficult to bring about the cultural change needed."

Griffiths, a WIFA 2021 award winner, says that what needs to happen to attract more women to the industry is the same as making finances more appealing to women in general: "We need to continue to focus on how financial planners can help you live and plan a full and beautiful life. 

"It's not about the products, it's about the way we can help clients think through and visualise their options."

Looking back at her own career, she says: "My drive to start my own financial planning company was driven from a desire to embrace our differences and create something that was designed to really work for women.  So that women could find it easy and attractive to become money savvy."

She highlights that to be successful in the industry, a "real understanding of what clients need and want" is needed. "Knowing and being able to articulate your clients' problems is key. If you keep your client the main focus and ignore the noise in the profession around you, you will do well."

The secret of success

Pilkington says what motivated her to start a career in financial advice was the curiosity to explore a new industry and broaden her experience. "I was drawn to the fact that the financial services sector has a learning culture at its core and most people in the industry are passionate about continuous development." 

She adds: "I have always focused on understanding the strategic objectives of the organisations to help me prioritise and know where to direct my focus. It is also important to identify your key stakeholders from the outset and invest in those relationships. Having great advocates within your organisation is invaluable."

One key to success, she says, is self-advocacy. "Know your worth and don't be afraid of self-promotion, as embarrassing as it may feel. People need to be aware of your successes to recognise them."

Authenticity is another one, according to Pilkington. "As women, we can sometimes feel we need to change ourselves to fit a mould but having a richness of diverse personalities and approaches is key to business success," she adds.

"Additionally, having mentoring relationships throughout your career is incredibly helpful. Not only are they someone to bounce ideas off, but they can offer an outside perspective that you may have overlooked."

Sofat concludes: "Women make great financial advisers because most of them do genuinely put the client at the heart of their advice process, they want to do the right thing by the client.

"Many businesses, however, do not put the client at the heart of their business - the corporate culture is driven more by the bottom line or ticking the compliance box, rather than genuinely putting the client first and women advisers struggle in such an environment."


A male adviser's perspective

Rowley Turton financial planner Scott Gallacher finds it surprising that there aren't more female financial advisers, given the flexible nature of the role that can make it ideal for women with additional responsibilities outside of work.

However, he adds, one factor that can work against female advisers is taking time off for childcare responsibilities. "Maternity leave can impact the continuity of service for clients, which can make it difficult to build a robust client base.

"This can put female advisers at a disadvantage when it comes to building their business and developing their reputation in the industry." 

He says to attract more women to the industry, firms can create a more flexible work environment that allows for better work/life balance. "This can include offering more flexible hours, remote work options, and job-sharing opportunities.

"Additionally, firms can promote the industry as a rewarding and fulfilling career for women and highlight the value of the work financial advisers do."

Gallacher adds: "To address the challenge of maternity leave, female advisers can partner with other advisers or work for a larger firm that can provide additional support and resources during maternity leave. Some firms offer paid parental leave and childcare support, which can help female advisers balance work and family responsibilities.

"Additionally, firms can invest in developing all of their staff, including women in support roles, and provide opportunities for career advancement that lead to advisory roles. Providing training and mentorship programs can help support staff develop the skills and experience needed to transition into advisory roles."

According to Gallacher, firms can attract and retain more women in the industry and help address the gender imbalance in financial advice by creating a clear career path and providing opportunities for advancement.

He says: "Additionally, firms can invest in developing all of their staff, including women in support roles, and provide opportunities for career advancement that lead to advisory roles.

"Providing training and mentorship programs can help support staff develop the skills and experience needed to transition into advisory roles. By creating a clear career path and providing opportunities for advancement, firms can attract and retain more women in the industry and help address the gender imbalance in financial advice."