Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent market research indicates women do not hate computers and they like the idea of banking on-line. Women's attitudes have been of concern to marketers of home banking programs. Because they are active in managing household finances, their apathy toward electronics may have limited on-line programs' appeal. A survey by SRI Consulting of Menlo Park, Calif., showed that men remain far more interested than women in electronic investment services. But when it comes to routine banking tasks like paying bills, transferring money among accounts, and tracking balances, women are just as likely as men to be carrying them out electronically, SRI's polling showed. Bankers' historical hunches about the on-line gender gap were backed up by statistical data. The 1996 American Banker consumer survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization, showed that men were more likely than women to have home computers, to have used the Internet for commerce, and to subscribe to an on-line service. The survey also showed that 26% of men were "very interested" in on-line banking, versus 18% of women; and 7% of men had used a personal computer for on-line banking, versus 4% of women. "Gender appears to be a potentially critical variable in the on-line financial services equation," said Larry Cohen, director of the financial decisions group at SRI. "Gender-tailored advertising and product positioning may well be a part of a successful marketing strategy." Bankers said the SRI conclusions ring true. "Our experiences so far with bill payment are that women are just as likely as men to use the service and maybe in some cases more likely," said William M. Randle, senior vice president at Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio. "Statistics would suggest that women are inclined to write more checks and pay bills more frequently than men do, and with on-line banking they can do it in a much more convenient fashion," Mr. Randle said. In a separate study, Find/SVP, a New York-based research and consulting firm, found that women are nearly as likely as men to use PCs at home for non-Internet activities and that they are "significantly more likely" to manage check writing, bill paying, and household budgeting. Moreover, women make up more than 40% of home-based electronic mail users, according to Find/SVP's research. "The predominantly male user profile associated with early Internet and on-line banking/investment use is already giving way to a more gender- balanced prospective user profile," said the Find/SVP report. That experience has been borne out at Fleet Financial Group Inc. of Boston, which released its first on-line banking software for retail customers last month. "We found that our customers - both male and female - are very interested in doing on-line banking," said David Fingerman, vice president of electronic banking. "In fact, in many households we're finding that the female partner is in charge of paying bills, so the bill payment service in particular has been appealing." Mr. Fingerman said it was too early to offer a gender-based customer breakdown. But he said Fleet's PC banking program for small businesses, due for release at the end of April, is meant to appeal to both sexes. "When we did focus groups, we had many female business owners express to us that this was a tool that they had been looking for," Mr. Fingerman said. "So even from a business perspective, on-line banking does seem to cross gender." Paul E. Harrison, chief executive officer of Meca Software LLC of Trumbull, Conn., said bankers have underestimated women's willingness to transact by computer, in part because the market for personal financial management software - led by Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Money - has been overwhelmingly male. "As an industry, we have not done a good job at getting the individuals who really do the household finances to use these products," Mr. Harrison said. When it sold its Managing Your Money program mainly through software stores, Meca found that men made up 80% to 85% of the users. Now that the bank-owned company offers its product through banks like Fleet, highlighting the home banking functions, it has found that more than 40% of the customers are women. "The message is clear: men like to play, women like to go in and get something accomplished," Mr. Harrison said. Any fears that women may be less technically sophisticated have dissipated. "The truth is that the interfaces we have today are so intuitive that no degree of technical competence is really required," said Mr. Randle of Huntington. Scott Smith, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, agreed the "technophobia argument" had proven false. His company's surveys show that age is a more relevant factor than gender. "Under age 30, women are more likely to make investments and trades, but over age 30 that begins to change," Mr. Smith said. According to a Jupiter study released this week, there were 2.5 million on- line banking users at yearend. The study projected that 4.5 million Americans would be in that category at the end of 1997, 13.1 million by the end of 2000.

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