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Why Fewer Women Invest in the Financial Market—and How to Change That

You know how the world of finance can sound like it’s full of jargon and its own vernacular? That’s quite intentional. “It’s always been in the industry’s best interest,” says Whitney Morrison, a financial planner at Wealthsimple, an online investment-management service. “If it’s confusing to the point that a regular person couldn’t possibly understand it, then you have to pay someone to navigate that for you, right?” Deliberately obfuscating language is designed to be intimidating, and that intimidation is worse for women largely because male financial advisors greatly outnumber their female colleagues. Also, women who want financial advice “may be confronted with someone who doesn’t fully understand their experience or take factors that primarily concern women—like living longer, taking more career breaks—into consideration,” Morrison says.

The result is an investment gap. Fewer women take part in the financial market, and that hurts women’s total wealth over time, thereby exacerbating the gender wealth gap. It’s a vicious, sexist financial cycle. “If women earn less and don’t invest those earnings, the gap gets bigger and bigger,” Morrison says. But as Morrison proves, it doesn’t have to be this way.

A Q&A with Whitney Morrison

Q

What are women missing out on by not starting to invest earlier? And how can we advocate for more women to invest?

A

The first thing I want to make clear is that women really are missing out right now. Investing is a huge wealth generator, and women, for one reason or another, tend to do it less. Seventy-one percent of the money women have is in cash, and any financial advisor will tell you, cash not only doesn’t earn a return; it actually depreciates over time thanks to inflation. The stock market, on the other hand, has returned an average of 9.5 percent for the past ninety years, even including the horrific downturn in 2007. The good news is a lot of companies are trying to figure out how to change that. Partly because it’s the right thing to do, partly because it’s good business.

I tell clients all the time that the most powerful weapon they have when it comes to investing is time. Time even beats out money—relatively speaking—if you have enough of it. Here’s an example: If you invested $10,000 at age twenty, and it grew at 5 percent (a pretty conservative rate, historically), you’d have $70,000 by the time you were sixty years old. The same investment would get you only about $43,000 if you started at thirty, and only $26,000 if you started at forty.

The most important thing you can do to change the investment gap is simple: Educate yourself. People who understand investing are less likely to be intimidated by it and more likely to do it. It’s not hard—you’re not trying to become a derivatives trader. You want to know whether you’re on the right financial track. Check out the articles on Investopedia or anything from Ron Lieber at The New York Times. (The one on how to win at retirement savings is great.)

There’s also a concept I think you should be familiar with. It’s called passive investing. The idea is that it’s smarter to invest across the entire market and then not pay attention to it, than it is to pick stocks or pay someone else to pick stocks. It’s easier and less expensive, and historically it’s been more successful. In fact, Warren Buffett made a $1 million wager that passive investing would beat hedge funds—and he was right. It’s why he advises his heirs to invest passively with their money.

Q

How can investing more money minimize the pay gap between men and women?

A

This is really important. The investment gap and the pay gap are closely related. A lot of us know about the pay gap—that women make about eighty cents on the dollar compared to men with the same job and experience. And investing amplifies that difference, thanks to what Albert Einstein once called the eighth wonder of the world: compounding. Which means that, over time, the difference between investing a little and investing a little more becomes profound. Basically, if you don’t invest much, and you don’t start early enough, you’ll end up with a lot less when it’s time to retire. Once you stop working, your retirement savings becomes your income. And more income means more choices: the choice to take time off for family, change jobs for something you love but that may not pay as well, leave a bad relationship, travel the world…money equals choices.

Q

How do female and male investors differ? Can you talk about the research that supports women’s strength for investing?

A

The irony is that despite investing less, there’s evidence that when women do invest, we’re better at it.

Here’s what’s interesting about being a good investor. By and large, it’s not about doing research on stocks, or having a good gut instinct, or knowing what’s going on in the biotech industry. For people to build wealth in the long term, there is one trait that matters the most: being disciplined. It’s important to know that trying to time the market—selling before you think it’s going to crash, buying when you think it’s going to rally—is historically very unsuccessful. What’s more successful is having a financial plan and sticking to it regardless of what’s going on.

At Wealthsimple we have a phrase: Drown out the noise. Here’s another thing to keep in mind: No one knows what’s going to happen, and people who think they do get themselves into trouble. Don’t panic when things seem bad or get overconfident when you’re doing well. Research consistently suggests women are better at this.

Men are more likely to chase performance and to behave as if they can outperform the market. Over the long haul, that strategy hasn’t proven to be successful.

Q

Where is the best place to start investing? If someone is overwhelmed, are there one-size-fits-all rules for simplifying the process?

A

I really believe in passive investing and using technology to build really smart portfolios for people who don’t have the time, interest, or expertise to do the research (to figure out risk tolerance and asset allocation and diversification). There’s a new type of investment service that does this—but it has a terrible name: robo-advisor. The way it works is incredibly simple: You sign up, answer a bunch of questions about how old you are, your financial situation, what you’re saving for, and then the company, like Wealthsimple, will instantly build you a portfolio.

Starting early is important. Diversifying is just as important. Here’s a good definition of diversification. If you don’t want to read it, I’ll give you snapshot: Being diversified means that you are have your money in a lot of different types of investments—bonds, stocks, companies in established markets, companies in emerging markets, companies in different sectors, etc. The purpose of being diversified is that when one part of the market goes down—stocks, for instance—others may go up or go down less. The purpose is to protect yourself against catastrophe.

Exactly how your investments should be diversified depends on how old you are, when you plan to retire, etc. Whether you’re investing your money yourself or hiring an advisor to do it or using an automated service, make sure they’re taking those factors into account.

Q

Do you have any suggestions for people who may be too intimidated to invest?

A

I think a great way to get acclimated is to start by investing a small amount. Money that, if the market goes down, you won’t panic about. Once you get your sea legs and you understand how the markets move, you can put more in.

When you’re starting out, it’s important to know that, when it comes to investments, there are some no-brainers. The most obvious example is a 401(k) or another employer-sponsored retirement account. Employers often match your contributions up to a certain dollar amount. At the very least try to contribute enough to get the full amount of that match—otherwise you’re essentially saying no to part of your salary.

Retirement accounts in general—401(k), IRA, Roth IRAs, etc.—are no-brainers because they lower your tax bill. Every dollar you contribute up to the limit comes off your taxable income. If you’re self-employed, one good way to take advantage of that tax savings by putting as much as possible into a SEP account.

Q

Many people may be unaware of the investment fees they’re paying. How can this be avoided?

A

The first thing to know is how fees work when you invest. A financial advisor or a service will typically charge you an annual percentage of the money you have invested with them. So the first thing to do is to find out how much you’re paying. Ask. Be direct about it.

But fees are tricky, and a lot of them are hard to find. For instance, sometimes you’re charged for the trades made on your behalf. This is typical when someone is buying and selling individual stocks on your behalf. A lot of the financial products you may be invested in—mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and so on—also charge a fee. For instance, Wealthsimple invests exclusively in exchange traded funds; they have much lower fees than mutual funds but they do still have a fee.

There are a few ways to be a good self-advocate when it comes to fees. Ask your advisor if he or she gets money for any of the products they want you to invest in. Sometimes advisors are paid every time someone invests in a mutual fund, for instance. It’s a conflict of interest, but in some cases, they aren’t required to disclose it. Crazy, right? If the company makes it too hard for you to find out what they’re charging you, you should probably go elsewhere. Transparency is always a good sign.

The overall fees you pay will vary depending on how much advice you’re looking for and what you’re investing in, but a good rule of thumb is: Keep all your fees combined to 1 percent or less.

Whitney Morrison is a certified financial planner and portfolio manager at Wealthsimple. Morrison specializes in working with women to help them achieve financial and professional independence.

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