Editorial: Leaning in

Recent months have proven that initiatives to connect and support women working in financial advice are not just talk.

Guests attending the launch of the Westpac group’s ‘Stella Network’ in October were presented not with the usual parting gift of a branded stress ball or product-themed water bottle, but with a 200-page paperback entitled Lean In.

Penned by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, the book is a manifesto for the modern working woman, outlining – with humour and a personal touch – strategies for breaking the corporate glass ceiling.

The gift was appropriate given that its central messages had been endorsed only an hour or so – and a fair few bottles of champagne – earlier by Westpac CEO Gail Kelly as she officially launched the initiative. “Lean in,” Ms Kelly implored the crowd, aiming particularly at younger female financial planners.

The banking chief went on to outline the rationale behind the Stella Network and her vision for a financial planning industry in which women can truly reach the upper echelons.

“I believe the financial planning industry is a perfect industry to experiment with a paradigm shift in terms of how we integrate work and life,” Ms Kelly said.

“There’s no doubt that in this industry you can work from home, you can work part-time, you can job share – so it’s a great industry to look at what can be achieved and online technology will help enable that.”

In Ms Kelly’s view, the client-facing, people skills world of the financial planner is uniquely placed to develop innovative approaches to work that support gender diversity, compared with the stuffier 'old school' worlds of investment banking or corporate finance.

The Stella Network is not the only project of its kind. Announced in March, with perhaps less fanfare but no less ambition, the Association of Financial Advisers Inspire initiative has, in the space of less than one year, become a serious and seemingly permanent fixture on the financial advice social scene.

Within a few days of its establishment, the Inspire initiative’s LinkedIn page had reached 100 members and has almost tripled since that time.

At the AFA national conference in October, a number of the Inspire movement’s key members took out the major awards, indicating just how firmly ingrained the Inspire network has become within the broader AFA and advice community.

For the second year in a row, a female practitioner took out the coveted AFA Adviser of the Year Award, with 2013 recipient Jenny Brown of JBS Financial Strategists predicting a great future for women in the industry.

The ifa online news article announcing Catherine Robson of Affinity Private as the AFA Female Excellence in Advice Award winner was one of the most read of the month, indicating the issue of gender representation has broad appeal. Vocal Inspire and Stella Network advocate Anne Graham of McPhail HLG Financial Planning won not only the AFA Excellence in Education Award but also the 2013 CFP Professional Best Practice Award for Victoria at the Financial Planning Association’s professional congress later that week.

Awards are an opportunity for the industry to choose its ambassadors and hold up examples of optimal professional standards.

The fact that the new crop of best practice flag-bearers are all women is not in any way surprising – those in the industry know the great feedback most female advisers receive from clients. But it does indicate that efforts to bolster the numbers of female advisers and present a more diverse public image to consumers are not merely tokenistic.

As Gail Kelly prophesied, financial planning is an industry in which women truly can get to the very top.

At a recent Graduate Connector event, ifa spoke to a young female financial planning university student who had attended the Stella launch. While inspired by Ms Kelly, the student didn’t see what all the fuss was about. “Why wouldn’t women be able to succeed in this industry?” she asked rhetorically. “There’s no such thing as the glass ceiling”.

The next generation of female advisers may well have already leant in.

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