Breaking into brokerages, women see a natural niche

Wall Street is getting a makeover. After years as an often exclusive fraternity, the investment world is beginning to recruit female brokers en masse.

As a result, investors - men as well as women - are getting a much broader variety of brokers from which to pick.

"I think it's very much a positive - certainly from the standpoint of consumers having more choices of who they work with," says Candace Bahr, managing partner of Bahr Investment Group in Carlsbad, Calif.

"Women are good at this business because we are good listeners," adds Donna Domian, a longtime investment representative for Edward Jones in Cape Girardeau, Mo. "We pay great attention to detail. [And] people sometimes let their hair down with women and talk about the real issue."

Some brokerage firms have been pushed into opening their ranks to women. As part of a 1998 settlement of a class-action sexual harassment suit, Salomon Smith Barney promised to hire women for at least one-third of its broker-trainee positions.

A few, such as Charles Schwab & Co., have a long history of hiring and promoting women. Edward Jones, headquartered here in St. Louis, wants half of its brokers to be women.

It's an ambitious goal. So far, 14.3 percent of the company's brokers are women. And in Southern California, 4 out of 10 of its brokers are women, thanks to an aggressive recruiting effort.

The overall industry lags behind. For example, a 1999 survey suggested that 1 of 12 licensed brokers selling securities were women. The New York Stock Exchange didn't admit its first female member until 1967, and even today, men hold some six of every seven Big Board seats. According to the Securities Industry Association, Wall Street's major trade association, only about 5 percent of its member firms are headed by a woman.

Such figures stand in sharp contrast to other professions. Women now hold better than a third of the top public administration jobs and a fifth of the industrial engineering positions (see story, below). As early as 1997, according to new figures from the US Census Bureau, women owned a majority stake in 26 percent of the nation's privately held nonfarm businesses.

Brokerages are diversifying their teams of brokers because they're anxious to broaden their customer base. Women, in particular, prove a particularly tempting target. According to the Securities Industry Association, some 43 percent of all people with more than $500,000 in assets are female.

Sometimes, women appear to feel more comfortable entrusting their money to someone of their own sex.

"Unfortunately, many men don't have a lot of experience in counseling women, and women feel that," says Lucy Walther, representative and limited partner for Edward Jones in Irvine, Calif.

In Ms. Walther's first year as a broker, for example, a widow "came to me with a $400,000 portfolio and had no idea what to do with it," she recalls. Neither the widow nor her daughters felt comfortable dealing with her late husband's broker. "The second time she came in she was so overwhelmed that she just broke down and cried," Walther says. "As a woman, I understood that. So I gave her a big hug."

But Walther's help extended beyond emotional support. The other brokerage had invested all the woman's money in California municipal bonds. "I couldn't believe they had her invested that way," she recalls. "One big earthquake and the poor woman would have been wiped out." Walther has since diversified the account into corporate bonds, mutual funds, and some carefully selected stocks.

Female brokers don't cater exclusively to women. In fact, male clients sometimes prefer working with women, female brokers say. The bigger hurdle for many new brokers is giving up a salaried job for commission work.

"I came from the security of having a position, having a guaranteed salary," says Ms. Domian, a former high school principal and one of the trailblazers who entered the business in 1983. "It was at first the hardest job I ever had. To top it off, I was pregnant."

Based in rural Wisconsin, she would trudge through the snow knocking on doors. "It was winter. It was cold," she recalls. But her perseverance paid off. "I had some men who were pretty chauvinistic, but [who ultimately] felt very comfortable investing with me."

Now in Cape Girardeau, she's been among Edward Jones's top level of producers for four consecutive years.

"I think women really are - much more so - taking responsibility" in financial matters, says Ms. Bahr, who runs a brokerage with her husband under her own name. "But by far the toughest group to reach are women who are happily married, content, and believe that nothing will ever shake up their lives.

"I still hear: 'Oh, I don't need to know that. My husband takes care of that.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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