By Paula Polito
June 9, 2021
Not long ago, I met with a prospective client. Over a couple hours, we talked about life during the pandemic, his retirement, his children and grandchildren, the charities he hoped to support, and even his health. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked whether his wife wanted to join these conversations. “No,” he said. “She doesn’t know or care what a stock or bond is.”
For my entire career in the financial services industry—spanning more than 30 years—I’ve been having some version of this exact conversation. The result is almost always the same: Women are either denied or abdicate their seat at the money table.
In UBS’s just-released survey, nearly seven in 10 married men say they take the lead on long-term money matters such as investing, and conversely men believe only one in 10 women take the lead. Just two in 10 couples say they’re equally involved in financial decisions. The numbers are conclusive: Despite decades of incremental progress, women overall are nowhere near where they should be as financial stakeholders. We’ve demonstrated our passion for improving women’s inclusion and equity in the workplace, yet on the home front, outdated norms prevail.
Of course, tens of millions of women are financially savvy. But there’s no question two systemic issues are holding countless others back: The first is entrenched gender roles. Stereotypes continue to prevail. Women feel they are too busy with their own careers or taking care of the house and kids. In many cases, they don’t feel as well-versed on the subject as their spouse. Or they want to be taken care of. In same-sex couples too, we see one spouse relinquish responsibility to the other 40% of the time. The second issue is the wealth management industry. We need to redefine what financial advice really is. It transcends the markets and portfolio management; it’s also about setting and attaining life’s goals for today, tomorrow, and the future.
Progress against these barriers doesn’t have to mean women take the lead; it’s about more women being involved. I believe three things would tip the scales and bring women into the most important conversations, to everyone’s mutual benefit.
First, we must recognize the price of women’s indifference. Is it a problem if women continue to defer to men? Many women believe indifference toward money matters frees them to focus on other things. In reality, it often traps them. Every woman should be asking themselves whether they actually want their rightful seat at the table. I believe the answer should be an emphatic, “yes.”
Whether they are divorced, widowed, or never married, eight in 10 women will be solely responsible for their finances at some point in their lives. Many married women also face financial surprises—decisions their spouse made without their knowledge. No wonder so many women have regrets: 98% of divorcees and widows say if they could do it over, they would have been more involved in their finances.
Second, we have to reframe the dialogue. The best kind of financial advice goes beyond investments. It connects to the facts of life: What keeps you up at night, taking care of your children, not outliving your money, making the world a better place. What woman wouldn’t want a say in these things?
More women will come to the table when we start calling financial planning what it actually is—having a practical dialogue about architecting a life of value and a path to get there. As women’s economic power rises, this shift is imperative. Take for instance, the fact that women in the U.S. are projected to claim much of the $30 trillion in assets that are being transferred among the baby boomer generation as women are likely to outlive their male spouses.
To meet the moment, advisors have an opportunity to bridge the gap between couples. Yet many women say they’ve struggled to find an advisor they connect with. It’s within our power, both men and women, to reverse long-standing unconscious biases that assume the husband is in charge, advocate for more inclusion in the industry and let go of alienating jargon that disengages some women.
Third, we all share the responsibility for change. For men, taking concrete steps to encourage more women to play an active role in long-term planning is a first step. Include women in conversations with advisors, participate in the planning process together, make sure your partner understands your joint portfolio, and don’t ask her to “just sign” the financial documents. When couples collaborate, both partners report less stress, more confidence about the future and greater financial security.
For women, holding ourselves accountable is crucial. Covid-19 has certainly caused outsized setbacks for women, but it has also been a catalyst for change. Our research shows that most married women began talking about money with their spouse more during the pandemic. But there’s still a gap between intentions and actions. In January, only 12% of women had reviewed their financial situation compared to 40% who said they were planning to last May.
More women must stake their claim and believe they are worthy of engaging with their money. Many women consistently underestimate their own abilities and overestimate what’s required to participate. First and foremost, it means recognizing the opportunities financial empowerment creates and insisting on participating.
The dollars don’t lie. Women do have power, and I believe they are ready to own their worth in all facets of life. Ironically, our new research found that nearly 100% of men and women agree women should be more involved in financial decisions. So, why aren’t we making more progress? We can’t just want things to change. We have to take action. Because if more women don’t take a seat at the financial table, it won’t just be divorced and widowed women looking in the rear-view mirror with regret. It will be all of us.
Paula Polito is divisional vice chairperson of global wealth management at UBS.
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