Two brokerage heavyweights, zeroing in on women's reluctance to play the stock market and make other investments, have begun rolling out programs to get them more involved.
Last week Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. announced a multifaceted program, Women Investing Now, a centerpiece of which will be a women's Internet portal on Schwab's Web site. The portal, to be introduced this month, will try to debunk myths about the stock market and describe how different investments can help people at various stages of their lives.
Fidelity Investments is also developing planning tools, seminars, Web broadcasts, and other educational events aimed at boosting its female customer base.
The brokerages are responding to research that shows women are more likely than men to be intimidated by stock trading and other forms of investing.
A Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Schwab of 900 adults found that twice as many women as men - 48% versus 24% - called investing "scary." Fifty-four percent of the women likened investing to gambling.
Financial services companies say that changing such perceptions is crucial to expanding their market share among women.
"We feel that we do not have our fair share of women investors," said Sarah Bulgatz, a spokeswoman for Schwab, whose customer base is about 30% women. "In fact, we feel the industry as a whole doesn't have its fair share. It's our goal to really step up to the plate and change that."
Tracey A. Esherick, executive vice president of online brokerage for Fidelity Personal Investment, a unit of Fidelity, said reaching out to women is an example of good marketing in an increasingly competitive environment.
About 35% to 40% of Fidelity's customers are women, she said. "There's a lot of potential for growth, no question."
Tailoring products and services to women will help cement relationships with them, Ms. Esherick said. "Customers tend to want to do business with people who they feel understand their unique needs."
Marketing to women makes sense on least one basic level: Women live an average of eight years longer than men in the United States. "We are going to be the ones left with all the money," Ms. Esherick said.
Fidelity and Schwab are not the first financial institutions to identify women as a market worth targeting. First Union Corp. introduced a "Women and Money" segment on its Web site more than 18 months ago, and the company also plans to offer its banking services on a women's Web site.
"Women and Money" categorizes information under catchy headings such as "Divorce finance 101: Taking charge of your money" and "If you're from Venus, why get your financial advice from Mars?"
Women can use the site to put together a retirement goal worksheet, learn about products for female business owners, and e-mail financial questions to the company.
Debra Nichols, senior vice president and director of women's financial advisory services at First Union, said women make up 45% of its customers but constitute slightly more than half of all Internet users, which indicates great potential for growth in online services geared to women.
"They're comfortable with the Net, so once they figure out how to bank and pay their bills online, that's one of the things they're going to want to do," she said.
The potential of using the Internet to capture more market share among women has not been lost on a handful of companies. The Women's Financial Network (wfn.com) and FinancialMuse.com have introduced financial Web sites geared specifically to women.
Still, change may be slow. Surprisingly, in the Harris survey, Generation X women were just as likely as older women to describe investing as scary, in stark contrast to the responses of men.
Fifty-two percent of the women surveyed said investing was fun, and the same percentage expressed confidence in their investment abilities. Among male respondents, 73% called investing fun, and 82% were confident about their skills at it.
A survey released Oct. 2 by Nationwide Financial, an insurer, found that even the most educated and highest-paid women have a greater aversion to investing than males with similar backgrounds. While 57% of high-income professional men said they are willing to take a risk for substantial gain, only 40% of such women said they are willing to do so.
Octavio Marenzi, managing director of Celent Communications in Cambridge, Mass., said financial institutions' female-focused initiatives are largely smoke-and-mirror efforts.
"I wouldn't say that any of these firms have really done anything fundamentally different," Mr. Marenzi said. "It's really their marketing pushes. A lot of this is whitewash."
Ms. Nichols said the point of these efforts is not to develop different products for women, but to educate them about using existing services to best suit their needs.
"A stock's a stock, and a credit card's a credit card," she said. "It's in the way the information is communicated, and the way you use that information."