Equanimity managing director Helen Howcroft on defeating sexism in the industry and promoting advice more effectively
Equanimity managing director Helen Howcroft is the type of person who rolls her sleeves up and just gets on with things. That has been an advantage in an industry which has made a lot of progress in recent years but still has a way to go in some respects. Take diversity, for example. We might be moving away from the stereotype of the white middle-aged male adviser but some elements of the industry have been slow to catch up.
When Howcroft was interviewed in the financial press last year, the online comments from her male peers somehow veered onto her looks. How has Howcroft fared as a woman in financial services since joining in the 1990s?
“I’ve seen some awful things in my career – things that are so sexist,” she says. “At one company I worked for, every time a woman walked into the room they were eyed up and down. And a couple of years ago I was at a Personal Finance Society event, and one speaker came out with gag after gag containing sexual innuendo and derogatory comments about women. It felt like we’d gone back 20 years, but if you work in the industry you must be able to give as good as you get. You can’t be offended by innuendo.”
Howcroft says women in the industry sometimes have to “put their head above the parapet and fly the flag for female advisers” but in doing so may open themselves up to criticism from male peers.
That said, she is keen to point out all men cannot be tarred with the same brush, having had some great male mentors throughout her career.
We need to do something to try to encourage more people from different backgrounds
Parts of the industry are trying to address the gender balance by organising women-only events and awards presentations. Although Howcroft has attended some of these and has been nominated for one of the awards, she does not agree with the female-only concept.
“It puts people’s backs up. I know a lot of female IFAs who won’t apply for those awards. Imagine what we’d say about awards that only men could apply for. There has to be a bit of balance – why not have awards for best male IFA and best female IFA?”
CV – Helen Howcroft
2004-present: Managing director Equanimity IFA
2002-2004: Senior broker consultant, Scottish Equitable/Aegon
2001-2002: Broker consultant, Norwich Union
1998-2001: Pension broker consultant, Scottish Amicable/Prudential
1997-1998 : Trainee broker consultant, NPI
1996-1997: Telephone health adviser, Legal & General
1993-1997: Administrator, HLW Insurance Brokers
For Howcroft, the industry’s problem is less about the ratio of men to women and more about the lack of diversity across the board. This lack of diversity has helped to reinforce negative perceptions of advisers in the mind of Joe Public.
“Most people think a financial adviser is a cheesy salesman in his early 50s wearing a pinstripe suit. We need to do something to try to encourage more people from different backgrounds to join the industry.
“If we had diversity in the industry, it would make people think more about what a financial adviser is these days. There are so many good advisers out there but our industry has a tarnished reputation.”
Howcroft believes the regulator could do a lot more to promote the industry to the public.
“The FCA has done nothing to instil confidence in the public to go to advisers. It never tells the public what a professional industry we are, or how it takes years of exams to get to the required level of qualifications,” she says.
Negative stories about advisers in the national press also reinforce public opinion that advice is not worth it.
“There’s a lot of criticism about charges being increased for advice and the public hasn’t got a clue. Advisers have to charge for the advice they give. If people think the way to get the public to get advice is to tell them we won’t charge them, then we’re not going to be there to serve them.”
Howcroft acknowledges that the move from commission to fees post-RDR has made advice inaccessible for many.
“I could never see a problem with agreeing a fee to be taken from the product over a certain number of years to pay for advice. But these days you do not advise clients who want to save on a regular basis. Unless they have the capital how can they pay for advice?”
I see women have a successful career, take a maternity break and all of a sudden they lack confidence getting back into work
Howcroft followed a fairly traditional route into advice via the insurance sector and working as a broker consultant before setting up Equanimity in 2004. Having lost both her parents at a young age (her father died of multiple sclerosis aged 29 and her mother died of cancer aged 35) she was brought up by her grandparents from the age of 10.
It was her grandfather who set her on the path of a financial career. He was instrumental in educating her around things like saving and budgeting – but Howcroft is concerned about the implications for people who never have that sort of influence in their lives.
“School doesn’t prepare you for adult life when it comes to finances. I believe teachers try to give that guidance but there is so much more education needed on what products there are. There is massive lack of education about what people should be doing with their finances and, in relation to women, it’s a very complicated thing,” she says.
“I see women have a successful career, then take a maternity break and, all of a sudden, they lack confidence. That’s why many find it difficult to get back into work. When they’re at home, the traditional rules take place; the husband deals with the finances and before they know it they’re 50 and haven’t seen what’s been going on.”
One of Howcroft’s specialist areas is divorce, where she deals with many women “clueless” about financial matters at the same time they are having to deal with the stress of such a life-changing event. Having gone through a divorce herself, Howcroft believes that being able to draw on personal experience can help those clients.
“I give the client an explanation as to why I’m recommending something, show I can empathise and understand their predicament and get them building a picture in their heads as to why it’s necessary.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Don’t underestimate how hard it is to run a business. The management and business stuff takes you away from seeing clients.
What keeps you awake at night?
Trying to find more advisers to come on board I can trust to give advice the way I do.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
The implications of Mifid II.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Talk to lots of advisers from smaller businesses and listen to what’s going on in their day-to-day business.
Any advice for new advisers?
Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find new clients.