For those of you who know me or who have followed my work, you know that I'm a champion of women's empowerment and causes. My commitment to these initiatives pales in comparison to Adrienne Penta, the Executive Director of the Center for Women & Wealth at Brown Brothers Harriman (America's oldest private bank).

Adrienne advises HNW clients in estate, charitable and tax planning. All too often, she hears that women in her network feel misunderstood and "mansplained" to by their financial advisors. I've even been on the receiving end of some of this bias, at one point sitting down with a prospective advisor who only made eye contact with my husband.

Adrienne attributes this mismanagement of female clients - despite the fact that women control 51% of personal wealth - to an unconscious bias in the industry. Her solution is an actionable, three-pronged approach for leaders in the financial services industry to create a culture of conscious inclusion.

I obviously had to dive deeper into this new and refreshing approach to women & wealth and sat down with Adrienne to explore this problem and the refreshing solution she sees for our future.

LM: It's no secret that several industries have historically faced challenges creating inclusive environments for female employees. Does this also apply to external relationships with female clients?

AP: Definitely. Forty-four percent of women who have a financial advisor say that their advisor does not understand them [1]. The situation is even more challenging when you look at young or high-net-worth women. Fifty-one percent of women with $1 million of assets and 72% of women under 40 also feel misunderstood by their advisor [2]. Anecdotally, many women tend to feel that their advisor is trying to sell them something, rather than really listening. In situations where a couple is meeting with their advisor, many women often feel like you did, that the advisor looks to her husband to make or confirm decisions, leaving her out of the conversation altogether. Unfortunately this bias is industry agnostic.

LM: It's clear that what you're doing at the Brown Brothers Harriman Center for Women and Wealth is a response to this, what exactly is the center, and what inspired you to start it?

AP: The Center for Women & Wealth (CW&W) is part of our commitment to engaging and supporting women as they create and manage wealth. We provide women with investment, planning and philanthropic resources, cultivate a community where women can share experiences with each other, and give advice to new generations of female leaders.

My inspiration for starting the CW&W is not only rooted in my experience advising clients, but also my own personal experience. My father died about 20 years ago. When he passed away, my mother was left with a complicated estate to settle and a range of financial decisions, both big and small. It was overwhelming at the time - "chief financial officer" was not a role she was accustomed to playing for our family. Some of the issues that arose after my father's death could have been avoided if my mom was involved in our family's financial planning process all along.

After witnessing my mother's challenges and spending more than a dozen years advising families on their wealth planning, I noticed that women's voices are often missing from important conversations about investing and planning for the future. Families make better decisions when all members are involved in the planning. As financial advisors, it is critical to focus on how we support and counsel women as they endeavor to make the right decisions for themselves and their families when it comes to money. This is why we founded the CW&W.

LM: What is unconscious bias?

AP: Up to 95% of the mind's function is unconscious [3]. Every second, 11 million bits of information barrage our senses, but our brain's maximum capacity is less than 50 bits per second. In order to make it easier to digest all this information, we have to rely on assumptions every day to help us make decisions quickly and efficiently. In some cases, these automatic responses can be helpful, but in others, where stereotypes or biases don't accurately reflect real life, they can be not only wrong, but harmful.

LM: What are examples of the types of biases or misconceptions of women that client relationship managers may hold?

AP: An advisor might assume that the female client is not the primary decision-maker (even if she is her own boss), or the advisor might make assumptions about a client's goals based on gender or family composition. These biases show themselves through micro-actions, such as directing substantive questions to only the male participants in the meeting or asking question about family to women and questions about business to men.

LM: How do business leaders know if unconscious bias is taking place at their company? What are the signs and symptoms?

AP: Leaders should assume unconscious bias is happening every day, everywhere. Everyone has unconscious bias, and the research tells us it's difficult to eradicate. Leaders should look at the data - related to both clients and employees - to determine whether there are gaps based on gender, race, background, experience and other types of diversity. Then they can determine where it is critical for their businesses to close the gap.

LM: Is the answer to unconscious bias as simple as having female advisors manage female clients or would that perpetuate the issue?

AP: Unfortunately, the solution to unconscious bias is not as simple as having women serve women. Everyone has unconscious bias, including women. However, a more diverse workforce is part of the solution. According to the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), teams that were representative of their target end-user were up to 158% more likely to understand that user and then to innovate accordingly. Since 86% of financial advisors are male, we need more diversity in the field[4]. If we can attract a more diverse group of advisors to the industry and work to address bias through conscious inclusion, we will improve our ability to serve all types of clients.

LM: If there are CEOs reading this who are interested in affecting change in their organizations, what steps or types of training can they provide to ensure that their practices are consciously inclusive?

AP: I would recommend these three steps to create, spread and manage conscious inclusion through the following methods. We also follow these guidelines at Brown Brothers Harriman:

  1. Raise awareness. First, we all must become conscious of our unconscious behaviors. While unconscious bias training may not necessarily make us less biased, it does raise awareness of these behaviors and the impact on the people around us. The Implicit Association Test is also a helpful shortcut in assessing and identifying our biases related to gender, race, age, etc.
  2. Invest in training. Establish best practices around communication, relationship management and sales, invest in mentoring, and practice identifying non-inclusive behavior in internal meetings and other safe situations.
  3. Design systems and processes to encourage inclusion. Behavioral design makes it easier for our biased minds to make unbiased choices. Good design leads to better outcomes. First, read Iris Bohnet's What Works. Then engage your colleagues on how behavioral design applies to your business. By incorporating behavioral design in relationship management, we can increase the quality of our interactions with clients.

The good news is that the first step towards a solution is determining there is a problem. We hope that by exposing unconscious bias and providing solutions like the CW&W, that we can positively impact these staggering statistics.

[1] Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, and Andrea Turner Moffitt. Harnessing the Power of the Purse: Female Investors and Global Opportunities for Growth. Center for Talent Innovation, 12 May 2014.

[2] Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, and Andrea Turner Moffitt. Harnessing the Power of the Purse: Female Investors and Global Opportunities for Growth. Center for Talent Innovation, 12 May 2014.


[4] Bier, Jerilyn Klein. "Wanted: Women Financial Advisors." FA Magazine. 1 Mar. 2016. Bier, Jerilyn Klein. "Wanted: Women Financial Advisors." FA Magazine. 1 Mar. 2016.