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financial view

On a Thursday morning in mid-September, Kathleen Woodard hops on the phone for an early call. She sounds pumped and little breathless. “I’m on a bit of a high,” she admits.

And no wonder. Ms. Woodard, a certified financial planner and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce senior vice-president and region head for Ontario, is discussing an event she helped host the night before, a wealth seminar targeted at women in Mississauga, Ont.

When her team began planning the event, they expected about 200 clients to attend. But 460 women and a surprising number of men packed the space, causing CIBC employees to vacate their own seats and stand at the room’s edge.

The seminar’s main message was simple: Building wealth and investing isn’t as complex as a lot of women think.

“Honestly, it felt to me there’s just this thirst from women to get more knowledge and figure out how they can empower themselves,” she says. “It absolutely feels like there’s a groundswell right now.”

Even so, financial educators have their work cut out for them. For starters, women have less money to sock away. Full-time working women make 75 cents for every dollar earned by men in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. And an Ontario government study found that women with the same experience and the same socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds earn about $7,200 less per year.

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Women want financial independence, says Barbara Stewart. "They want to make their own decisions with their own money. That’s really loud and clear.”Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

This wage gap isn’t the only thing that spells trouble for women, particularly those who are single, whether divorced, widowed or never married. They are also more likely than men to take time away from work to care for children and aging parents.

Joanne Levy, a children’s author and author assistant in Clinton, Ont., knows this all too well. A few years ago when she was newly self-employed, her mother fell ill. Despite having three brothers, the lion’s share of her mother’s end-of-life care fell to Ms. Levy.

“Not that I minded taking care of my mother, don’t get me wrong, but for every second I’m not working, I’m not earning money,” she says now.

Together, all of these factors result in a lifetime “gender wealth gap” of $1,055,000, according to a U.S. study by Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Age Wave, a consulting and research firm focused on aging. That’s how much less in average earnings that woman at retirement age in the United States can count on having accumulated during her lifetime. Numbers are likely similar in Canada.

Considering that Canadian women live an average of four years longer than men, their retirement savings must go further, too. They face additional pressure to build their investments and reduce debt.

“Wealth is a factor of not only how much you make, but how much you keep,” says Cynthia Kett, an advice-only financial advisor and principal at Stewart & Kett Financial Advisors Inc., in Toronto.

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Cynthia Kett of Stewart & Kett says that when couples visit her office, she makes a point of involving the woman in every conversation, even if she isn’t actively involved in strategic or day-to-day financial decisions.Pawel Dwulit/The Globe and Mail

When couples visit her office, she makes a point of involving the woman in every conversation.

“Even if she isn’t actively involved in strategic or day-to-day financial decisions, I want her to be at the table because it’s important,” Ms. Kett explains. “She’s got to participate because what if that other person isn’t around any more? You’re leaving yourself extremely exposed.”

Wealth is important for other reasons, too, besides retirement. Money gives women the power to buy a home, go back to school, launch a business or pay for an emergency. Money in the bank means having the ability to leave a crummy job or a lecherous boss, says Barbara Stewart, a chartered financial analyst, researcher and author with decades of experience in the financial services industry.

Although many older women are still struggling with wealth-gap issues, millennials may not face the same hurdles, partly because some financial firms are finally addressing how women approach finances.

Instead of boring lectures about average maturity, dividend yields and net asset value per share, they are helping people learn through sharing stories – an ideal approach in the social media age – that focus on how money can help women reach lifestyle goals.

“You know, it’s not about the 3.5-per-cent return, it’s about what can you do with your money, which is a very different conversation,” Ms. Stewart says.

She points to a new advertisement from the online investment management firm Wealthsimple, in which a couple of young women are high-fiving each other. The tagline reads, “Take care of yourself.”

“That aligns with all the research I’ve done interviewing women,” she says. “Everybody wants financial independence. They want to make their own decisions with their own money. That’s really loud and clear.”

Positive role models help women develop confidence in their investment abilities. She points to an example in Sweden, where the investing company Nordnet runs a popular social trading platform called Shareville. Investors share their investment portfolios and follow each other’s successes and failures.

“It’s caused a revolution in the millennial women there,” she says, pointing to one female investor who has approximately 160,000 people who follow her portfolio. She’s in her early 30s and invests only in companies with gender-equal management teams. “I’ve seen social trading platforms take off – and we could do that here."

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