As a member of Citigroup Inc.'s internal advisory board, Linda Descano had heard from myriad female executives who said they wanted to talk about money but felt they couldn't for one reason or another. One sentiment that came up repeatedly was: How can I sit in front of an adviser and talk about money if I know nothing?
That was 10 years ago, and after speaking to women from all walks of life, Descano concluded that the financial industry either wasn't respecting women or wasn't recognizing their role as financial decision-makers. Thus Women & Co., a financial community for women, Citigroup-backed then and now, was born. Its mission hasn't wavered.
"Women & Co. was our way of saying, 'We hear you, and let's start a dialogue,' " Descano, its president, said in a telephone interview Monday. "We share what we hear with our businesses so we can provide more education, products and services that are relevant."
Before Women & Co. came along the financial industry didn't talk to women about money in a way that mattered to them, Descano said. Financial advisers in general weren't talking about philanthropy, especially giving to causes that support women and girls. Instead, many advisers stuck to talking about investing or estate planning, she added. And they still do. Women & Co., on the other hand, thinks about all five aspects of money: spending, saving, earning, borrowing and giving.
"In the industry in general, advisers are still not comfortable or don't have the tools to bring philanthropy into any conversation with a household," Descano said.
"We give women the tools to help them be a more strategic long-term investor and be a more thoughtful role model."
Women need advisers who understand that their financial lives are different from men's. Women live longer, so their nest egg has to last longer; because women live longer, they will more likely need long-term-care support as they age, such as a nursing home or an aide, who are not covered by health insurance or Medicaid; and women take more time away from the work force to take care of children or family members, which translates into smaller pensions or retirement accounts.
There is also an average earnings gap, with women earning 70 cents for every dollar a man earns. Less income generally means less savings.
For all these reasons, planning early and regularly is vital. Descano said 90% of women become responsible for their finances at some point in their lives, so being comfortable with finances and investing is essential.
Another important factor is that as women become more prominent in the overall work force, they have leapt into the role of chief financial officer in their households, a job that includes talking about family financial planning and investing.
Women & Co.'s second annual survey, "Women and Affluence 2010: The Era of Financial Responsibility," said women are using their growing financial knowledge to start an open dialogue about money and financial responsibility. The report — released in February and based on a survey of more than 1,000 affluent women between the ages of 40 and 70 with household investable assets of at least $100,000 — said 91% of women are talking about finances with family members, and outside the family as well.
Over two-thirds of women believe that the recession made talking about money much more socially acceptable, the report said.
And women's financial IQ and leverage continue to grow. In the 2008 survey, 75% of women said they were knowledgeable about finances and investing. In 2010 that number jumped to 82%. Roughly two-thirds of women today consider themselves the CFOs of their household, versus 63% in 2008.
But just because women are now taking on more financial responsibility in their households doesn't mean they are confident about their investment abilities.
A recent survey by MassMutual found that although women are just as optimistic as men about the stock market, they are much less confident about their investment decisions.
This lack of confidence may lead women to shortchange themselves in the long run by investing less money in retirement savings.
At MassMutual the average savings rate is 5.76% for men and 5.35% for women, said Elaine Sarsynski, an executive vice president in MassMutual's retirement services division and chairman and chief executive of MassMutual International LLC. Average account balances for women are about 63% of those of men, she added.
While women's and men's financial goals, like saving enough for retirement and being able to take care of their families, tend to be the same, how women and men get there are very different, Descano said.
Women tend to prefer help from a financial adviser in making financial decisions and like to discuss their options with a community of like-minded women, another reason an online and offline community like Women & Co., with its variety of educational symposiums and events to help women keep on learning, is in demand.