The number of female CFP professionals has remained stubbornly pegged at 23% for nearly 15 years, despite an ever-growing effort of the industry to attract more women. Because unfortunately, even as the profession seeks to build awareness and draw more women into financial planning, the positive impact is limited by the amount of sexual harassment and demeaning and belittling comments still directed at women by “fellow” advisors at the typical advisory industry conference.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, I share recent and unfortunate case-in-point examples of inappropriate and belittling comments that are still being made towards female advisors at industry conferences today, and explore what needs to be said to curtail problematic behavior.
For instance, at the recent FPA NorCal conference, a conversation that I was having with a group of female colleagues – including fellow advisors and several industry-leading consultants – was interrupted by another advisor who proclaimed the semi-circle of women I was speaking with looked like a “harem”. As though it’s ever appropriate to compare professional female colleagues to concubines!?
Similarly, it’s still all too common for women at advisory industry conferences to receive comments like “Whose assistant are you?” or “What do you actually do at your advisory firm?” with the implication that it couldn’t possibly be working as a financial advisor… even for a woman who prominently displays her CFP certification and a firm that’s named after her!
Yet I’ll confess that even as someone who has witnessed these kinds of disparaging comments, and am incredibly frustrated by them as well… I still struggle to figure out what, exactly, to say in order to break the cycle. As unfortunately, calling out offenders and trying to publicly humiliate them for their offensive comments is more likely to just make them defensive and run from the situation, instead of gaining some empathetic perspective and actually acknowledging and recognizing how their comments may be so demeaning to their female colleagues.
The bottom line, though, is that as someone who has witnessed this behavior, and often said nothing - out of a sheer lack of knowing what to say - I regret not taking a more active role in trying to stop it and saying something when I see or hear inappropriate behavior at advisory industry conferences. And it’s something I intend to address more proactively going forward. But I hope you’ll share your comments at the end of this article with your own perspective, on how best to have this conversation in the first place? What do you say when you witness sexual harassment at a financial advisor conference?
(Michael’s Note: The video below was recorded using Periscope, and announced via Twitter. If you want to participate in the next #OfficeHours live, please download the Periscope app on your mobile device, and follow @MichaelKitces on Twitter, so you get the announcement when the broadcast is starting, at/around 1PM EST every Tuesday! You can also submit your question in advance through our Contact page!)
#OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces Video Transcript
Welcome, everyone. Welcome to Office Hours with Michael Kitces.
For today's Office Hours, I want to talk about an incident I witnessed, I was involved in last week that I really regret not handling better, but I think it's something that needs to be talked about and shared.
So last week, I was speaking at the FPA NorCal Conference. It's one of my favorite conferences of the year. It's an event I've recommended for a lot of years on our Best Conferences list, both for their great content and the high caliber of quality advisors that the conference tends to attract. So you get good opportunities to network and interact with colleagues.
So during the first evening of the conference, there was a reception, as is common, hosted by one of the sponsors at a lovely nearby facility. They had some good food and a lot of space for the attendees to spread out and mingle and chat and network with one another. And I ended out sitting on some steps off to one side of the room with a number of well-known industry consultants. Kristen Luke and Kristin Harad, who are both advisor marketing consultants and happen to be women, Jennifer Goldman, who does operations and technology consulting for advisors and also happens to be a woman, and we were joined by two other advisors who both happened to be women.
So the six of us are sitting there and chatting and another advisor came over from the other side of the room ostensibly to join us in the conversation, but instead, he came over and said, "Wow, is this the Kitces harem?" Because I was the sole man there sitting in a semicircle with five other female colleagues. And when he asked the question, there was, not surprisingly, kind of an awkward silence. The other women who were there didn't know what to say, frankly, I didn't know what to say. All I knew is that I was really, really angry and upset about it. And in the heat of the moment, I couldn't figure out what to say without making the situation worse, and so I said nothing and let the awkward moment pass as these things sometimes do. And I really regret it. And it's been bothering me ever since.
How Offhand Comments Turn Into Subtle Sexual Harassment [Time - 2:10]
So for anyone who's listening to this Office Hours is perhaps wondering, like, why I was so upset, why I found this situation so awkward. I've made this handy list of all the situations when it's appropriate at professional events to compare female colleagues to powerless sex concubines. It's blank. It's a blank piece of paper. The answer is never. It is never appropriate to compare female professional colleagues to sex concubines.
I get it. I'm a male. I was sitting in a semicircle with five other women. And while it was a professional networking event, it was in a social setting and there were five women sitting around one guy. And I get it. I'm fairly well-known in the industry. It's not uncommon I end out standing with a group of people who are asking me questions, and this advisor may or may not have known these women who are quite credible in their own right, so he used this analogy that put me in the power seat. But it doesn't make a really inappropriate joke any less inappropriate. You know, I refer you once again to the aforementioned comprehensive list of all the situations when it's appropriate to draw analogies between female colleagues and concubines. The list is still blank.
Now, I realize that the advisor who said this was probably not trying to intentionally be demeaning to these women. I don't think he was doing it to belittle their stature in the conversation by casting them as my subjects, my harem, or to make a statement about their physical looks by comparing them to concubines, but that doesn't change the fact that that's what he said and that it was belittling and demeaning to them. And especially since the reality is I walked over to join them because I wanted to learn from them. These are some of the best consultants for advisors in the industry sitting with another advisor I really wanted to talk to. They were in the power seat. They were the ones sharing their wisdom with me because I wanted to learn, and they happened to be women, which meant the entire situation got flipped around.
And frankly makes the comment doubly offensive because not only was it sexually inappropriate in mixed company, it was professionally belittling to them to assume that if the women were in the semicircle around me, that they were there for me when in reality, I was there to learn from them. Or I think stated more simply, this is what subtle sexual harassment and disempowerment of women looks like in our industry, and it pisses me off.
And I'll admit that when this advisor came over and made this inappropriate comment that grossly misinterpreted the situation in a frankly unfortunate and offensive way, I didn't do anything about it because I didn't know what to say, and so I didn't say anything. And I really regret it.
How (Male) Advisors Inadvertently Disempower (Successful) Female Advisors [Time - 4:48]
And the reason I regret it is ultimately, I don't see us making progress in gender diversity for advisors if we can't figure out how to stop these kinds of comments that are made far too often and regularly at advisor conferences.
You know, we wonder why the number of female CFP certificants has been stuck at 23% for 15 years despite all the industry efforts to recruit more women and women's initiatives and promoting women's success stories and all the other things that we do that I think are good and important for drawing more women into the profession, the problem is, then we draw them in and then they show up at a conference and then stuff like this happens. And it drives women away. We make it a hell of a lot harder for women to succeed in this industry when the default assumption is that when a group of women get together at a conference, the first thought is not, "Wow, that looks like an amazing study group of leading industry consultants who all happen to be women," instead, they're compared to a harem or powerless sex concubines.
And it's something that I've witnessed many times over the years. I still remember very clearly the first time I ever saw this happen. It was 2004. I was attending my first national FPA conference, which was in Denver that year after I was just a few years into the business. And we were in this big exhibit hall for the lunch break where you grabbed your lunch from the buffet-style serving dishes and then you went to sit in these big round tables in the back of the room. And I was sitting at one of the tables eating my lunch. Across from the table was a young female advisor who had joined me for lunch.
Now, 2004, this was the really early days of NexGen. We had actually just formed it about six months earlier, and so there were a lot of us then young advisors who were all getting to know each other and just sharing our stories and our background. And this particular female advisor had actually just left her firm after about seven years to start her own practice after what was basically a failed succession plan, which was a really hot topic at the time.
And so we were chatting about all the issues of intergenerational conflict between founders and successors and why it didn't work out for her because she had all these visions about the future of financial planning and how to grow her firm in a direction that the founder wasn't on board with, so she just went out to launch her own firm instead. She was incredibly entrepreneurial and someone that I looked up to at the time because I was still working purely internally at a firm myself.
So we'd been chatting for a while and there was a lull in the conversation and another advisor came over, a much older and more experienced advisor than us in a lovely power suit, from one of the big wirehouse firms. And he sat down next to her and he turned to her to start some chit-chat, and the first question that came out from him was, "So whose assistant are you?" Because he just assumed out of the gate that despite being a 30-something-year-old woman at a financial advisor conference, she couldn't possibly actually be an advisor, she must be some other advisor's sales assistant. And so she had to awkwardly reply, "I'm actually an advisor myself." She had to explain that. She had to explain that she was an advisor sitting at an advisor conference, wearing an advisor name tag because she was a woman. And he just assumed that because of that, she had to be someone else's sales assistant and couldn't possibly be an advisor herself.
And it wasn't an age thing. I was sitting at the table as well. I was even younger than she was and she was dressed professionally. His comments to me just naturally were talking as a fellow advisor. It was his question to her, "Whose assistant are you?" that was very unambiguously a statement about her gender. And while I'd like to think it's an artifact of some bygone era, this was 14 years ago. The sad reality is that it still happens today.
In fact, I know another female advisor colleague who had a similar situation occur at the exact same NorCal Conference last week. She's an experienced advisor. She started in the business almost the exact same time I did, about 20 years ago, and what was the conversation from another one of the male advisors at the lunch table again? "Oh, is this your first conference?" "No, it's my 18th," she said. To which he replied, "Really? You're not old enough. What do you do at your firm?" And she said, "I own it." And he said, "You're a financial advisor?" This really happened last week. Just be clear, she was wearing a name tag as a financial advisor at a financial advisor conference. The name tag said "CFP." The name tag had the name of her firm, and her firm name is her name. This is about as unambiguous of a situation as you can get. Yet he was still surprised that this woman could actually be an experienced financial advisor who owns her own firm.
Now, the point here is not to bash the NorCal Conference at all just because both these incidents I'm mentioning here happened to occur at their conference last week. The truth is this happens at most advisor conferences. I venture to say it probably happens at every advisor conference. Now, I don't always see it because I'm not a female advisor so these comments aren't directed at me. I only see it when the conversation happens to occur in front of me in the presence of some other female advisor who's being belittled or demeaned in front of me, is, unfortunately, is what happened when this other advisor decided to call my female colleagues my harem.
What Do You Say When You Witness Sexual Harassment? [Time - 9:51]
And the problem is, besides just the fact that this actually still happens in today's day and age is that I'm still not certain how to stop it when it happens right in front of me. You know, you can ask me a question about financial planning strategy or tax law or advisory firm benchmarking, give me a microphone, I will talk for an hour, but make a sexually harassing comment in front of me and I'll admit, I was completely tongue-tied. I hate seeing this happen, I want it to stop, and I just literally didn't know what I was supposed to say.
I mean, I realize I could have said something aggressive or contentious. You know, I could have said, "I'm sorry, could you repeat that? Did you just make a joke that these professional female colleagues are powerless sex concubines? Dude, what are you thinking?" And just called him out on the spot and really tried to embarrass him for the embarrassing thing that he said, but I really don't think that's a constructive way to handle this situation.
I know there are some people out there who just want to see every guy who makes a dumb comment like this get bashed, but to be fair, I don't think he intended it as mean and belittling. I'm fairly certain he had no clue about how offensive and belittling the comment actually was. Which means going all out at him would more likely just make the guy feel angry and defensive, which means he's not going to learn a meaningful life lesson from the moment. Because if I try to aggressively humiliate him in front of a group of people like that, his brains go into non-thinking fight-or-flight mode. He's not going to be more empathetic of women if I try to verbally body-slam him in front of a group of women, however inappropriate the comment was.
I don't think the point of this situation is to put down or humiliate the person who makes these comments, it's just to figure out some way to help them recognize how inappropriate the comment is. How belittling and demeaning it actually is and the tone of sexual harassment that it creates, intended or not, when statements are made in a way that specifically belittle all the women who are standing there.
And so I'm genuinely asking all of you in this Office Hours that when we post this video on Nerd's Eye View blog and on YouTube, share in the comments what do you say when you witness this kind of sexual harassment at an advisor conference? What should I have said to address the situation?
Because while the comment may have been belittling of the women who were there and not actually directed to me, I was part of the situation. I was part of that conversation. I was pulled into and became part of his crass analogy, and so I thought and I still feel that I have a role to play in stepping up and saying something, I just truly don't know what I should have said. Perhaps it was something as straightforward as just correcting the situation, saying, "Well, actually, these are some of the smartest women I know in the industry and I was sitting here to learn from them." Because that's the actual truth of the situation, and it would hopefully let him reflect on how badly he misread the situation. All I know is that in the moment, I didn't know what to say and I really regret saying nothing.
So I want to apologize to the other women that were there. To Kristen and Kristin and Jen and Danelle and Ann, I'm sorry. I'm sorry on behalf of my gender that some guy said some really dumb and inappropriate and demeaning things to women. And I'm sorry that I didn't step up and say something myself. Because while I don't think any of you needed to be defended by me, you are very strong women and I'm confident you can take care of yourselves, I'm still a fellow human being who can be offended to witness offensive behavior. And I think it may have had more impact if the guy heard it coming from me, another guy, saying, "Hey, man, that's not cool. That's not appropriate." So I'm sorry that I had an opportunity to do my part, to stand up in a moment of our industry's subtle and way too pervasive sexual harassment and belittling of female advisors and I failed, but it's not something I intend to allow to happen again.
But seriously, please, someone, in the comments for this Office Hours video help me figure out what I should be saying in these situations. What any of us men, in particular, should be saying in these situations to do a better job of representing our gender maybe and just setting a more positive tone in a way that actually has a chance of moving the profession forward.
This is Office Hours with Michael Kitces, normally 1 p.m. East Coast time on Tuesdays. Well, obviously I'm recording a little bit later this week due to my travel schedule, but thanks for joining us, everyone, and have a great day.
So what do you think? How do you handle situations where you witness inappropriate comments towards women advisors at an industry event? What would you say to address the situation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!