Men’s talk: is the language of finance excluding many women?

  • 22 October 2020
  • 15 minute read
  • Women appear to be less engaged with financial services than men.

  • Could the language used be putting them off?

  • If so, how can the industry change to become more appealing to potential female investors?

Many professions use jargon to talk amongst themselves as a way of shortcutting their conversations. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, florists. Their own argot. Their lingo. They forget that to the rest of the world it is all so much gobbledygook.

Financial services is no different. But financial services appears to have an added complication: a gender bias that seems to be excluding half the population.

It has been many years since a former building society promoted itself through two bowler-hatted cartoon characters, “Mr Bradford” and “Mr Bingley”. Even then, there were protests at this clear suggestion that finance was a man’s world. Not long afterwards Northern Rock, broadcast ads that depicted a self-confident mother leaving the kids with her husband while she went to talk to a financial adviser, one-to-one. This was bold and radical at the time.

But how much has really changed in the investment world since then? The figures speak for themselves. A YouGov survey in April 2018 found 52% of women have never owned an investment product, compared with 37% of men. Furthermore, just one in five women held any investment against over a third of men.

It found the main drivers of this difference appear to be a lack of confidence and knowledge about investments. While 45% of men said they would feel confident investing some of their money the figure among women was just 28%.

What lies at the root of this lack of confidence? Some feel sure that it is the language of finance itself, the terms in which it is discussed, that puts many women off.

Is it a “Level playing field”?

Professors Jose Sanders and Henriëtte Prast, writing in The Conversation website in March 2018 found the language used to describe investing to be skewed towards masculinity. It is full of metaphors that come from domains traditionally associated with, occupied by, or carried out by men.

They cited ‘beating’ the market (war, combat, physical fight), ‘level playing field’ (soccer), and ‘building’ your portfolio (construction) as examples of male-oriented phrases.

FinMarie is a German financial organisation that encourages women to learn about finance. It also finds the language of investing “mannishly coined”. It says that if you observe the language of stock exchanges the world over, you’ll find terms borrowed from the fields of battle, sports, and physical challenge.

For example, the animals used to describe different types of investor – such as bulls, bears, and stags – are all associated with masculine traits and with aggression. The bull in particular is an ancient symbol of potent male virility.

These are all examples of language that could cause women to shy away from investment topics, rather than attract them.

Barriers “suit the industry quite well”

Much of this may be unintentional, or simply the result of thoughtlessness by many in the industry. But quite often, the barriers thrown up by unsympathetic language may suit professional practitioners quite well.

According to Whitney Morrison, a female financial planner, if something is confusing to the point that a regular person couldn’t possibly understand it, you have to pay someone to navigate it for you. She adds that deliberately opaque language is designed to be intimidating, and this intimidation is worse for women because male financial advisers greatly outnumber their female counterparts.

We might also see a bit of sexist paternalism here: let the big strong man sort it out for the poor little woman.

It also means women who want financial advice may be confronted with someone who doesn’t fully understand their experience or take into consideration factors that primarily concern women. Such as the effect of taking more career breaks.

Read more: How can women prepare for a long and financially happy life?

Read more: Closing the gender pension gap

This creates a gender investment gap. As fewer women take part in the financial market this could hurt their total wealth over time, thereby worsening the wealth divide between men and women.

What does the regulator have to say about it?

To date, regulatory action in terms of making the investment world more female friendly has focused on opening up financial careers to women. Tap “women” into the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) website, and you’ll learn all about the agency’s commitment both to ensuring a gender balance in its own workforce and encouraging the same among the firms it regulates.

Its regime to ensure “fair, clear and not misleading” promotion of financial products would seem, at present, to have little to say about how language could be a factor in excluding women.

But maybe we need a grassroots revolution rather than policy-led evolution. According to an article from recruitUK in January of this year, women advisers could be as few as one in eleven or as “many” as one in seven. The vast majority of practitioners are, to coin a phrase, pale male and stale, and probably oblivious to the problem.

Becoming aware of the biases and confronting them – rather than turning away from them – is the first step to overturning them. Although some words are not just words, until a new lexicon is developed, try to look beyond them. Whether you “build a portfolio”, “create a portfolio” or “put a portfolio together” what matters is understanding the intent and the process.

Educating yourself about even the basics of economics and investing can give you more confidence in how you manage your own money, and when having a conversation with a financial adviser. And don’t be afraid to challenge your adviser to explain things more clearly.

If they seem reluctant to accommodate you, ask them to explain it again in a way that is “clear” and “fair”. If this doesn’t work maybe they aren’t the adviser for you. After all, as the client you have the right to exercise your consumer choice: vote with your feet and take your money somewhere else.

And who knows, you might become hooked and discover a new career to become an adviser in your right.

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