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In women we trust: How the financial sector can encourage female investors

Jovi Ho and Samantha Chiew
Jovi Ho and Samantha Chiew • 13 min read
In women we trust: How the financial sector can encourage female investors
40% of women here feel shut out by the financial sector’s marketing campaigns, and that's holding back US$12 billion in assets.
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Singaporean women are still overlooked as investors despite holding the keys to corporate diversity, financial freedom for families and some $16 billion in investible assets

Imagine you are a wealth manager in a large financial institution speaking to a well-heeled client. She wants more details about a particular fund your company manages, but all you have prepared are pages of text mired in jargon. To make matters worse, she disagrees with the fund’s core holdings, as they do not align with her values. The client eventually leaves your office with no deal reached, taking with her US$12 billion ($16 billion) in investable funds she could have entrusted to you.

Nearly nine in 10 asset managers worldwide (86%) say that their default investment customer is a man.

According to BNY Mellon Investment Management, 40% of women in Singapore feel shut out by the financial sector’s marketing campaigns. They feel advertisements about investing are targeted at men and discourage their participation.

“This often includes the use of high-risk metaphors and the concept of high performance and achievement as a shorthand for investment success,” says Deborah Bannon, head of institutional distribution APAC ex-Japan and consultant relations APAC at BNY Mellon IM.

See also: Now back at work, Singaporeans want better mental health support, gender equality

She tells The Edge Singapore: “There also is a tendency to use financial jargon and overcomplicated investment language in order to foster a sense that the investment customer is part of an exclusive club.”

Whether intentional or otherwise, exclusionary advertising is limiting the world’s investment potential. If women in Singapore invested at the same rate as men, there would be at least US$12 billion more in assets under management (AUM) from private individuals today. Globally, this figure could stand at US$3 trillion, suggests BNY Mellon IM’s study.

Nearly nine in 10 asset managers worldwide (86%) say that their default investment customer is a man. This means that potential female investors face language, imagery and messaging targeted mainly at a male customer, says Bannon.

See also: Companies give back more even amid the pandemic, says NVPC

“The answer to an ideal campaign to engage women in investment isn’t found in outdated gimmicks. Rather, it’s about forming a connection by understanding what motivates women to invest and how they like to be communicated with. If the industry can rethink the language around investing, there’s a significant opportunity to affect how much women invest,” adds Bannon.

Choo Oi-Yee, chief commercial officer at digital securities exchange ADDX, knows a thing or two about convincing investors. Since moving to the start-up in early 2020, the banking industry veteran has been reaching out to accredited investors about ADDX’s private market products.

Women are much more financially savvy than we are given credit for. - Choo Oi-Yee

It is never about finding a one-size-fits-all strategy, Choo tells The Edge Singapore. “A good ad campaign for investment products that is inclusive of both women and men is one that takes into account the specific needs of each gender, without resorting to stereotypes or assuming that one group might have less knowledge.”

She adds: “It can be a balancing act at times, but financial institutions that do this successfully are more likely to engage a wide range of investors and win their trust.”

Above all, financial institutions must not make the mistake of talking down to women, says Choo. “Women are much more financially savvy than we are given credit for.”

Campaigns need not treat the genders as exactly the same. “For example, women live longer than men on average, which means they do need to plan for a longer retirement period,” says Choo.

See also: ADDX's Choo welcomes curious investors to the private markets

Indeed, seven in 10 Singaporean women surveyed by BNY Mellon IM believe in investing for greater financial independence and to provide for themselves after retirement. The study surveyed 8,000 respondents across 16 markets. Half the participants were already investing, while half were not.

With better medical care, women today need to plan for what might be a 100-year lifespan, says Bannon. “Women are motivated to invest by thinking of their long-term financial prosperity, independence and the impact their investments can have. Products packaged to meet these needs and address these interests, clearly communicated in straightforward language, should go a long way to increasing women’s investment.”

In addition, an appropriate investment product for women should not only provide capital gains, but also align with causes they believe in, says Bannon. “Globally, more than half of women (55%) would invest, or invest more, if the impact of their investment aligned with their personal values, and 53% would invest if the investment fund had a clear goal or purpose for good.”

She can invest, too

Engaging to-be investors requires speaking their language and understanding their concerns. Tracy Teo, executive group division director at ERA Realty, hopes financial literacy and investor education can reach stay-at-home mothers and busy women too. “I don’t think ads [about investing] are totally targeted at men, but I do think that it would be good to have more women-focused investor education or lessons,” Teo tells The Edge Singapore.

We often have several responsibilities and priorities, as we have several roles to play: being a mother, wife, daughter and business owner. - Tracy Teo

“I don’t think that women do not want to invest. It’s just that many of us have a lot of things to do. We often have several responsibilities and priorities, as we have several roles to play: being a mother, wife, daughter and business owner.”

According to one 2021 study, only 20% of couples participate equally in financial decisions. Nearly half (48%) of the high-net-worth women surveyed in UBS’s Own Your Worth report said their spouse takes responsibility for longterm decisions like financial and estate planning.

Those urging women to invest should make information clearer and more accessible, says Teo. “Unless a certain awareness has been brought to their attention, I think investing is just not a priority for many women.”

Echoing this sentiment, Kelly Yu, executive group division director for ERA Realty, agrees that women are often too busy with other responsibilities. In addition, she sees fear and lack of experience as reasons why some women are hesitant to invest.

Just over a decade ago, Yu herself suffered a setback in investing. When the 2008–2009 global financial crisis hit, Yu and her husband fell into debt. “My investments dropped to zero in such a short time,” says Yu, adding that the situation traumatised her.

Today, she invests in an asset she is more familiar with: Property. Just like how real estate agents host consumer seminars on property investing, Yu hopes to see similar efforts to reach new investors.

“I think there should be some [consumer seminars] that target fresh and new investors,” she says, noting that these seminars should not only aim to educate consumers, but also address their fears and worries.

Novice investors may need some degree of hand-holding, and having women at the helm helps digital wealth manager Stashaway understand users’ needs.

Having women in senior positions is the first step in ensuring that young women understand that those are positions they can work towards. - Amanda Ong

Two of its six C-suite team members are women, and so are two of its five country managers. That includes Amanda Ong, country manager for Singapore.

“Having women in senior positions is the first step in ensuring that young women understand that those are positions they can work towards,” Ong tells The Edge Singapore.

Clients who identify as female now make up half of StashAway’s client base, up from 10% at the company’s launch five years ago.

“Financial education has always been very important for us and we’ve consistently held events educating Singaporeans on financial planning and investing every week since 2017,” says Ong. “One thing I noticed very quickly was that we did not see that many women attending these events. This was something I wanted to fix because if you look at the numbers, women tend to live longer, defer financial planning to their partners and take time off work to look after their families. All of these factors make it vital that women are more involved in financial decision-making.”

In February, StashAway launched She Invests, its first masterclass series. Focused on female investors, the four-part series covers personal finance and investing basics, thematic investing, digital assets and gender-equal practices at the workplace.

The first webinar in the series aired on Feb 15 and saw senior female executives talk about their careers and investing journeys.

Ong adds: “We see this as a long-term effort that extends beyond just International Women’s Day. We intend to organise regular masterclass sessions just for women on a diverse range of topics.”

Women outperform in finance

Working in the male-dominated financial industry, ADDX’s Choo warns of “unhealthy mindsets”. “There is also a danger that as women, we ourselves might hold that unconscious bias too — thinking that men are better at investing and that women should just leave it to the men to make important decisions about finances and investing.”

A woman’s intuition may have even been the saving grace of many funds during the initial months of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In June 2021, Financial Times reported that hedge funds managed by women outperformed those led by men, losing 3.5% in the first four months of 2020 compared with the 5.5% loss in the benchmark index.

The literature regularly shows that women outperform men among fund managers. - Choo Oi-Yee

Goldman Sachs found that 48% of female-managed funds outperformed market lows from March through August 2020, compared with 37% for all-male funds. Funds managed by females also held up better during the Covid-19 market meltdown in March 2020.

From 2000 to 2009, Chicago-based index data provider Hedge Fund Research (HFR) tracked the performance of women-owned hedge funds. It found that these funds delivered an average annual return of 9.06%, compared with only 5.82% for a broader composite of hedge funds.

Not only did women-owned funds consistently report stronger returns, they also fared better during the global financial crisis. During the 2008 downturn, women-owned funds had an average drawdown of 9.61% compared to 19.03% for all other funds.

“The literature regularly shows that women outperform men among fund managers,” says Choo. “Women are just as capable and we should step up to the plate by equipping ourselves and taking an active role in investing.”

Men, do more

Singapore has come a long way in terms of worklife balance policies, including paid maternity and childcare leave, tax rebates and childcare subsidies. These enable women to stay in the labour force after starting a family, says Choo.

“But gender diversity in the financial industry is still lacking, especially among those at the top,” she adds.

Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that women hold fewer than 20% of board seats in banks and bank supervision agencies globally, and account for fewer than 2% of bank CEOs.

In Singapore, the gender gap is smaller — women hold slightly more than 20% of bank board seats — but there is still significant room for improvement, says Choo.

Allowing an imbalance to persist over time may contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy, warns Choo — one where younger women may form their own “psychological glass ceilings” and limit their ambitions.

One way to ensure equal opportunities in the future is to make diverse role models visible to children and students in their formative years, says Bannon. “At BNY Mellon Investment Management, we believe we are in a strong position to make a difference. We can effect change through early engagement via our partnership with charity [organisation] Inspiring Girls International.”

Spanning two years and six markets: namely the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, France and Italy, the partnership includes speed networking sessions for girls to visit the BNY Mellon IM offices and meet staff, and monthly finance club sessions to educate girls on financial literacy.

To me, a male ally is someone who recognises that a gender equity gap exists. - Jim Falteisek

Outside of finance, women are often underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) sectors. Here, male allies are “incredibly essential”, says Jim Falteisek, senior vice president of corporate affairs at 3M Asia and managing director at 3M Korea.

“To me, a male ally is someone who recognises that a gender equity gap exists, how diversity benefits both the workplace and our world, and that more men need to have this understanding so that we can close the STEM equity gap,” Falteisek tells The Edge Singapore.

I have also experienced what it’s like being the only woman surrounded by men in a meeting room. At times, it was a lonely place to be, and it was hard to visualise myself progressing. - Ruma Balasubramanian

Unconscious bias can sometimes be seen at work meetings, says Ruma Balasubramanian, managing director, Southeast Asia, at Google Cloud. “When a woman presents during a meeting, unconscious bias exists when questions are being directed to the men in the room, instead of the presenter.”

She adds: “I have also experienced what it’s like being the only woman surrounded by men in a meeting room. At times, it was a lonely place to be, and it was hard to visualise myself progressing. This is why we’ve conducted unconscious bias training for more than 20,000 Googlers, so they understand the science behind how the brain works and how unconscious bias can affect our perception of others.”

Corporations should set goals to correct these beliefs, says Falteisek. “Additionally, ensure your interview processes are free from individual discretion and bias by design, and invest in an interview management system that is focused on skills-based hiring.”

Companies must ensure all employees are rewarded for their efforts fairly and equitably. According to Falteisek, 3M has achieved pay equity among 90% of its employees worldwide. “3M implements this by comparing employees in the same job category, grade and location… We are committed to transparency and seek to ensure employees of different genders are paid the same for similar job responsibilities.”

Balasubramanian believes mentorship is a good way to get more women into leadership roles. “But what’s more important is intentional and formal initiatives. We’ve implemented sponsorship programs where senior leaders reach back in and lift others up. Women are paired with vice presidents, both men and women, to help them think through where they want to go next in their careers and provide the support to make that happen,” she says.

In addition to these proactive approaches, companies should not forget about talent retention, adds Choo. “We can also do surveys to uncover at which points women in our financial industry are leaving the leadership pipeline and their reasons for it,” she says.

“What is important is our mindset: Do we accept that women are just as talented as men? If we do, then there is no reason they should be underrepresented at the top.”

Photos: Shutterstock, Deborah Bannon/BNY Mellon IM, Amanda Ong/StashAway, Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore, Jim Falteisek/3M, Google Cloud

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