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The high cost of gender bias
by Rita Silvan, CIM

#BreakTheBias is the theme of International Women's Day 2022. To paraphrase the tag line from that old Palmolive dish soap commercial, "We're soaking in it." Because gender bias is deeply embedded in our societal fabric, it's easy to overlook or dismiss with a shrug and a "What's the big deal?" Well, here's the deal: Gender bias costs big.

Picture Jill and Jack. They're hospital outpatients scheduled for a similar minor surgery. As it happens, each will be operated on by a male surgeon. Which of the two patients is likely to have the worst outcome? According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto Temerty Faculty of Medicine, since Jill will be operated on by a male surgeon, she's 15 per cent more likely to die or experience complications, has an 11 per cent increased likelihood of re-admission, and a 32 per cent greater chance of dying 30 days post-procedure. On the other hand, Jack has about the same likelihood of success whether the surgeon is male or female.

The study which surveyed 1.3 million adult patients in Ontario over a 12-year period focused on 21 different types of surgery. Whereas men had comparable results independent of the surgeon's gender, women were more likely to fare poorly when treated by a male doctor. These alarming results point to more than just hurt feelings due to gender bias.

Because male surgeons vastly outnumber female surgeons (they comprised 82 per cent in the above study), and male physicians are more likely to refer their patients to male surgeons over similarly qualified and experienced female surgeons, the odds are stacked against female patients who are more likely to be operated on by a man who may be under the influence of gender bias.

Back to Jill and Jack. The good news is despite the asymmetrical odds, they both had successful surgeries. After her recovery, Jill decided, now that her health was on track, she wanted to improve her financial wellness. She asked her bank's branch manager, John, for a referral to a financial advisor and he recommended she meet with Jared.

Jill brought her partner Jeremy along to the advisor meeting. Jared greeted them both warmly in anticipation of adding these new clients to his roster. Nevertheless, Jared exhibited many of the gender-biased behaviours, called miscues, found in the study of advisor/client interactions by Merrill, Bank of America. Miscues are often small and barely noticeable behaviours that can contribute to poor communication. Here were some of Jared's assumptions: Even though Jill brought Jeremy along, the assets under discussion were not jointly invested, as Jared assumed, but her own. Jared also assumed Jill was risk-averse, whereas she is a successful small business owner and, while she is risk-aware, she is not risk-averse.

Jared also assumed Jill didn't know much about investing and needed a lot of direction. In fact, Jill has been managing her own investments for decades. Now with a clean bill-of-health, Jill plans to volunteer at a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan for months at a stretch. She'd like to work with an advisor who will oversee her investments while she's away. These assumptions led to several miscues on Jared's part: At the start of the meeting, Jill placed various spreadsheet documents on the table, but Jared didn't seem to notice and directed his opening remarks to Jeremy. During the meeting, he spent most of his time looking at Jeremy, whom he assumed was the key decision-maker.

Just as in medical field, women are also underrepresented in senior financial roles. According to Deloitte, in 2019, only 21.9 per cent of women had leadership roles within financial services. There are also fewer female financial advisors due to negative perceptions of the industry and a lack of mentorship at the branch level.

In a more equitable world, gender shouldn't influence the interaction with a financial advisor but, alas, it does. In the Merrill study, female clients had lower expectations of their financial advisors and expected to encounter negative gender assumptions. They knew they would have to be proactive with male advisors, so they tended to prepare more for meetings. The study also found having a male financial advisor affects a woman's perception of her financial acumen. When meeting with a male financial advisor, women gave themselves a lower rating on investor knowledge and confidence, were more likely to defer decision-making to the advisor, and be significantly more likely to say she is risk averse.

Women are aware of the negative gender stereotypes such as being less financially knowledgeable, less confident, and less capable in making financial decisions which creates the phenomenon of 'stereotype threat' creating feelings of anxiety and fear in such triggering situations as meeting with a male advisor. These negative emotions can get in the way of open communication and good decision-making.

Take a page from female physicians, who provide better patient care, by increasing the roster of female financial advisors to improve client satisfaction and create better investment outcomes for women (and men too). After all, women investors outperform men.

With women's global wealth rising by USD $5 trillion each year to an estimated total wealth pool of $93 trillion by 2023, it's no wonder the wealth management industry is taking an interest in women's financial wellness. While the industry is keen to cater to this underserved group, gender bias creates barriers making their attempts to woo women investors both clumsy and patronizing.

A new, global survey from BNY Mellon looked at the barriers faced by women investors. It concluded the industry is losing out on US$3 trillion in assets under management (AUM) by not making investing more accessible. More than 9-out-of-10 asset managers admitted they target their products to men and saw them as their target market.

After meeting with Jared, Jill decided she would continue to manage her own investments for a while longer. She was tired of having to do all the work to #breakthebias. She figured she'd wait until she could find an advisor - a real partner of any gender - who would truly strive to understand her financial and personal goals.

About Rita Silvan

Rita Silvan, CIM, is a financial writer and public speaker who specializes in women and investing who has appeared on BNN Bloomberg, CBC Newsworld, conference panels, and other media outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine and Golden Girl Finance and writes a blog about money & lifestyle at

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