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The financial planning industry as a whole still has a way to go before it’s truly an equal place for women and men, some female advisors say.turk_stock_photographer

Tea Nicola is no stranger to male-dominated workplaces. Before co-founding online wealth management firm WealthBar, she studied mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where she graduated as one of two women in a class of 30.

The financial planning industry, which she entered after accidentally falling in love with the trade while working as a receptionist at a wealth management firm, was an improvement on her engineering classes in terms of female representation. But as she ascended in her career, Ms. Nicola grew acutely aware of how few women make it to the high ranks of firms.

“Once I got into tech startups and ventures and started talking to people at a little bit of a higher level, the women started to drop off. Now, I make a point, if I’m in a meeting with a woman in finance, I literally say, ‘This doesn’t happen very often.’ ”

Ms. Nicola’s experience of being one of few women in investment advising spaces is one that many share, including Rebecca Horwood, portfolio manager and director of the Horwood wealth management team at Richardson GMP. As the first female advisor hired at the Bay Street branch of her firm, then Richardson Partners, in 1980, she says she had trouble being taken seriously by her male colleagues early on in her career.

“The guys, they were always laughing, and they said, ‘Oh, ha ha, she doesn’t know how to pick stocks,” Ms. Horwood said. When she first started in investment advising at age 24, “it was darn hard being a woman, and the men just didn’t know how to deal with you.”

Sister act Allison and Lynda Hay, of Hay Wealth Advisory Group at TD Waterhouse Private Investment Advice, say they’ve experienced similar treatment from male colleagues who fail to acknowledge the realities of workplace discrimination and harassment. On one particularly jarring occasion, a male colleague made a crude joke to Lynda Hay immediately upon leaving a workplace anti-harassment seminar.

“‘The word harass, is it one or two words?’ That was said to me after we all had just been in this seminar on sexual harassment,” she recalled.

All four women have pushed their way through male-dominated spaces to become leading advisors in the wealth management industry. For Ms. Horwood, her pathway to success was in client acquisition. She found success in advising women – largely divorcees and single women who were managing their own finances in an era when this task was largely left to men in domestic relationships.

It didn’t take long before she found that people of all genders started “flocking” to her. And years later, after mentoring a number of women in the industry, Ms. Horwood says with pride that 25 per cent of Richardson GMP’s advisors are women, and five of them make up 50 per cent of the firm’s top 10.

And while firms like Richardson GMP are breaking barriers for women in the wealth management sector, Lynda Hay says the industry as a whole still has a way to go before it’s truly an equal place for women and men.

“Quite honestly, I would like to say it’s changed a lot, but it really hasn’t changed a lot,” she said.

She admits that “we’re more politically correct now.” This is surely an improvement on her days in the 1980s and 1990s when firms didn’t really want her to be an investment advisor, and when she “had men look at me and say ‘What will you do for me if I give you my money?’ and they’re not looking for the answer to be, ‘I’m going to monitor your accounts.’ ”

But discrimination is still prevalent in the investing industry at micro levels, according to Ms. Nicola, who points to hiring and funding applications as a particular example. She says women applying for jobs and for funds for their startups are more often described using words with negative connotations, such as “audacious and inexperienced,” while men are described using positive synonyms for these terms such as “enthusiastic and opportunistic.”

Ms. Nicola says that while blatant gender discrimination is uncommon, these subtle forms of discrimination remain pervasive because they are difficult to spot and report on their own, but build up over time.

“I don’t think anyone’s consciously trying to treat me differently because I’m a woman,” she says. “I think it’s more unconscious bias and inappropriate comments in group environments and maybe microaggressions that happen, that goes unnoticed because if we made a big deal about something so minor it would come off as, ‘You’re literally making a mountain out of a molehill.’ Well, you have a hundred molehills in a month, it really feels like a mountain.”

Ms. Nicola’s firsthand experience with microforms of discrimination has shaped the way she leads her team at WealthBar. She says much of the change that needs to happen in the wealth management industry is top-down, and as such, she aims to provide a safe space for filing and handling harassment complaints.

When one employee filed a complaint about another using derogatory identity-based terms in the office, for example, she did her best to confront the accused staff member “from a point of view of fact, information, education, progress and growth” rather than by being “punitive or criticizing or damaging.”

“We spend a lot of time educating our executives on how to give feedback properly in a way that’s empowering, encouraging and motivating even though it isn’t always positive feedback,” Ms. Nicola explained.

But in times when a wealth management firm’s leadership fails to create a gender-equal environment, all women agreed that the key to success is determination.

“We need to change the environment to suit our goals, and not the other way around,” Ms. Nicola says. “It’s going to be hard. It’s not easy, it’s an uphill battle and I get it … it is possible, and tenacity most of the time wins.”