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Research has found that the firms most successful in recruiting and retaining women are the ones that have a mandate to have more women in senior positions.ti-ja/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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Like many women, Vanessa Flockton, senior vice president of advisory services at Nicola Wealth Management Ltd. in Vancouver, took some time away from her career as a commercial banker to have children. She chose to be a stay-at-home parent for seven years.

“I was one of those women who did not necessarily stay connected to all my contacts and didn’t keep my toes in the water,” she says.

When looking to return to work, she met with John Nicola, chief executive officer of Nicola Wealth, through friends who were clients at his firm and she was hired into an advisory role.

Ms. Flockton asked to work part-time. “[John] basically said, ‘Do what you need to do, build your toolkit and skills, and when your daughter’s older, you can take off then,’” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder. In fact, I probably worked more because it was motivating to be given control and the ability to make my own decisions.”

This flexibility is one reason why 30 per cent of Nicola Wealth’s advisors are women. The company also has four women on the senior leadership team out of 10 people, including Ms. Flockton.

Despite growing evidence that women are going to inherit most of the wealth from the previous generation, and they prefer to work with female advisors, the investment industry is still dominated heavily by men, according to a survey by Toronto-based marketing firm Strategy Marketing.

That company’s research found that less than a quarter (23 per cent) of advisors are women. That includes those who work at retail banks, at which there is a significantly larger percentage of women representation than at investment or mutual fund dealers.

“It baffled us that the numbers continue to be low even though many managers are now required to attract women as financial advisors,” says Paulette Filion, partner at Strategy Marketing.

Although the industry wants to attract more women, she says the research found that the mostly male hiring managers tend to look for advisors who would make good salespeople. When asked why they weren’t hiring more women, the managers said they couldn’t find any.

But the research also found that the firms most successful in recruiting and retaining women are the ones that have a mandate to have more women in senior positions. Those firms also offer flexibility and understand women’s needs should be taken into consideration in the recruitment process.

Nicola Wealth already had a similar process, which has been a benefit, particularly to women, Ms. Flockton says. Nevertheless, the company formalized a program three years ago in which interested employees can move into a wealth planning associate role, and then become a senior wealth planning associate. After that, they can choose to be advisors, go into leadership or move to other parts of the company.

She says this training and development was already happening in the company, but the senior leadership made the program official.

“Our model is to grow organically, and we have an aspirational goal that 80 per cent of our new advisors should come from our internal pipeline,” she says.

People interested in the career don’t have to have a financial background to participate in the program but they do have to take the necessary courses, Ms. Flockton says. There’s also no set time to complete the program, so people can set their own pace.

“I would describe it very much like an apprenticeship program and ... that it recognizes women need to do things at certain times in their lives,” she says. “You can be flexible with your talent as you’re moving through different stages in life.”

Provide flexibility to women get on board

Libby Wildman, head of wealth advisory at Davis Rea Ltd. in Toronto, also says flexibility is key to keeping talent and serving clients. The small, boutique investment counsel firm has a team of 11 – six of whom are women – and instead of a one-to-one client-advisor relationship, the entire team works with the clients.

This gives the team the flexibility needed to take time off or work outside standard working hours because of personal reasons.

Ms. Wildman gives the example of a team member looking after a sick parent. “She wants to go and spend every afternoon with her mom. She can do that and work in the evenings. We’ve told her that it’s totally up to her.”

That way, when Ms. Wildman sees an e-mail from her at 9 p.m., she knows that team member has chosen to work those hours.

Bigger firms also have programs in place to support women advisors. One is RBC Dominion Securities Inc.’s IA Leave Program. Jennifer Lemieux, branch director and senior investment advisor in Kingston, Ont., says the firm launched the program five years ago after getting feedback from advisors.

When an advisor needs to take time off, there are concerns about who will take care of their clients. With the IA Leave Program, a dedicated team will work with the advisor to ensure a smooth transition when the advisor leaves and returns to their role. That way, the advisor can take time off knowing they can return and continue working with their clients with minimal disruption.

“Parental leave [part of the IA Leave Program] had historically been shorter,” Ms. Lemieux says, adding it used to be approximately three months. Now, the trend has been to take between six months and a year off.

And women aren’t the only ones taking longer parental leave. Men are also taking time off.

“By supporting these programs, you develop a deeper level of trust with your advisors,” Ms. Lemieux says. “They know that you care about them as an individual, not just as part of the revenue for the firm.”

The value of working with an organization that encourages women advisors is the traditional roadblocks that discourage women from considering the financial services industry aren’t there, Ms. Flockton says. That allows advisors to thrive.

“The biggest thing with women is you have to be flexible,” she says. “The mindset has to be, ‘This is great talent, so how can I be flexible and make it work for them so that they want to stick around?’”

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