Ladies, I’ll Handle That Portfolio

How the personal finance industry patronizes women.

Woman sits in front of bills and receipts.
An entire industry encompassing everything from financial service behemoths to book publishers has arisen to tell women that the appropriate response to their lesser financial status is to hire someone to tell them how to manage their money

Photograph by David Sacks/Lifesize/Thinkstock.

The following is an excerpt from the new book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

Standing in front of a crowd of more than 100 members of the press at the Paley Center for Media in New York, Joan Cleveland, the vice president of business development at Prudential Individual Life Insurance presented the results of Prudential’s annual survey on women and money. The 2010 results should have been something to celebrate. More than five out of six married women surveyed reported they were either jointly or solely responsible for their household finances.

Yet Cleveland was not rejoicing. According to her interpretation of the survey, women are scared, lack confidence and desperately need help managing their money. As a result, their “very nurturing” natures lead them to turn to often ill-informed friends and family for financial advice. Cleveland has a better idea. Women should turn their financial lives over to the pros. “Given the complexity of the financial products that are available to women … they really need to be encouraged to seek out that financial advice from a professional,” she said.

We’ve all heard about women’s fraught relationship with money. Women are scared of their investments, the experts say, because their relationship to money is too emotional. They don’t handle risk or negotiate as well as their male counterparts. They shop when they should save. As a result of all these fiscally improvident behaviors, they have less money than men. Even Suze Orman has deemed her fellow females financial failures, writing in her best-selling book Women and Money, “Why is it that women, who are so competent in all other areas of their lives, cannot find the same competence when it comes to matters of money?”

There is only one problem with this analysis. It’s not true.

Women have less money than men for two basic reasons: they earn less and live longer. In 2010, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. There is no amount of education or job selection that can completely eliminate the gap.

So why bother? Well, women are an easier sell than men when it comes to promoting the value of paid advice. Ameriprise Financial, for example, found 46 percent of women had sought help with retirement planning from a financial-services professional. Men? Thirty-eight percent. Not surprisingly, taking care of the ladies is increasingly viewed as a good business model, a way to establish a profitable outpost in the money management business as women are “a loyal and lucrative niche,” in the words of the Christian Science Monitor.

As a result, an entire industry encompassing everything from financial service behemoths to book publishers has arisen to tell women that the appropriate response to their lesser financial status is not to lobby for changes to Social Security calculations or pay equity legislation, but to hire someone to tell them how to manage their money. “Personal finance for women falls into the whole self-help movement,” observed Mario Lin Chang, the author of Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It.

Wells Fargo’s “Beyond Today Women’s Initiative” illustrates Chang’s point perfectly. On the one hand, the site is admirably honest about women’s financial lives, pointing out that women do have a harder time saving because they earn less and take financial responsibility for more people. The site points out, for example, that taking care of ailing family members costs women $325,000 in present and future income. So what should a woman do? “Discuss your current situation … with your financial adviser.” What that adviser can do is left unsaid, probably because the answer is “nothing.” No amount of financial advice can compensate for $325,000 in lost salary and other benefits as a result of caretaking duties—duties that we all know are more likely to fall to women than men—any more than it can compensate for decades of earning less money than the opposite sex.

Other financial advisers promulgate what could be termed the Sex and the City approach to female finances: Those silly girls run into financial trouble because they buy Jimmy Choo shoes when they should be giving the money to Chuck Schwab instead. Take LearnVest, a woman’s financial information website. They put together “Sh*t Girls Say about Money,” which had everything to do with shopping, spending, and not knowing how much money is in your bank account when you go to the ATM to withdraw money. No one complained about how the guy at the next desk earns more money for performing the same work.

Moreover, in reality, men surpass those mall-hopping gals when it comes to tossing the bucks around on booze and car ownership. Gallup found in 2011 that men spent $11 a day more than women. They are also easier online marks, quicker to click on the “buy it now” button, and less likely to comparison shop or return items. Men are also more likely to buy Groupon and other coupon deals for fun, while women use the services to buy needed goods at a discount.

The patronizing attitude has not gone unnoticed by the clients. When the Boston Consulting Group surveyed women in 2009, they found an astonishing 70 percent complained about subpar treatment from financial professionals, citing everything from “being talked to like an infant” to credentialed experts repeatedly making the assumption that the male half of a couple was the financial decision maker. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year discovered would-be advisers were less likely to ask women about their work and financial situations than men, but were more likely to insist those same women transfer funds over to their care before discussing specific investments with them. “This behavior might be based on the perception that women or more docile or gullible,” the paper’s authors dryly concluded.

So what can we do to improve things? As silly as it sounds, the financial services industry could start by giving women what they say they want. According to market research firm Hearts & Wallets, the things female investors were most concerned about when they sought out financial assistance included low and transparent fees, clear explanations of products and advice, and lack of sales pressure. These are eminently sensible, nonsexspecific attributes that both male and female investors would be well advised to insist on, and will likely do more to improve women’s financial position than any female-focused financial initiative.