Wall-Street women find balance with careers in asset management

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Wall Street firms have put considerable effort in recent years into making their staff and management ranks more diverse and more appealing to women. For midcareer women, in particular, such efforts seem to be paying off.

They're finding attractive niches in private banking, asset management and financial planning, as well as starting their own firms and winning more senior banking jobs.

While research firm Catalyst finds that men outnumber women in the senior ranks of investment banking and brokerage services, women lead in investment management and positions such as general financial services, asset management and private banking, which involves providing services for high-net-worth clients.

"On the wealth-management side, we probably did 30 searches for US Trust last year," says Brendan Burnett-Stohner, a vice chairman at the search firm Christian & Timbers, "and we saw and hired at least as many women as men, if not more."

Women may be particularly suited to wealth-management assignments. Such jobs involve developing close, long-term relationships helping clients navigate a wide range of personal and financial issues -- from advising on wills and trusts or overseeing an investment portfolio to discussing family issues or finding an appraiser for an art collection.

Good Listeners

"My partner and I laugh sometimes because we bring men and women in to interview for these positions, and the women are just heads and shoulders above the men," says Jane Williams, who co-founded Sand Hill Advisors, a Palo Alto, Calif., private-banking firm, along with two men. "Women do relationship-building in every part of their lives. And they're good at understanding where people are with kids, what their priorities are, and how certain charitable work fits into their lives."

Such assignments work the other way, too, providing women with a career they find comfortable.

"Clients expect you to have a life and have kids and have artwork up on your walls," says Holly Isdale, a managing director who heads the advisory group within Lehman Brothers' private client group. "Something you read years ago that seemed useless at the time, or something you read in a magazine last week will come up in a client meeting. So people who are successful at this can see patterns in disparate things and can bring them together for the client."

Indeed, while wealth managers' clients can be demanding, the likelihood of "having a life" is better there than on trading desks where hours are inflexible or in corporate-merger work where they're simply endless. "As long as you do your job well and serve your clients, no one is watching the clock," says Arlene Franklin, vice president for account planning at Boston Private Bank in Boston. When she sprained her ankle last fall she was able to work from home, coordinating with colleagues by e-mail and talking to clients on the phone. When she returned, "I had 12 weeks of physical therapy, which meant coming in late or leaving early, and it was no problem."

The Appeal of Financial Planning

For many of the same reasons, financial-planning jobs are also proving attractive to women on Wall Street. "We're empathetic and put the clients' needs before our own, so anytime we can have an impact on clients, it's a great opportunity," says Kathy Boyle, who runs Chapin Hill Advisors, a small advisory firm in New York. And financial planning also offers professionals a chance to slow down for a few years, perhaps to start a family, without leaving the career track altogether. "You can work part-time with a certain number of clients, or you can have a solo practice. With investment banking, there's no way you can pull back just a little," says Ms. Boyle.

At big firms, of course, even financial advising has its pressures. "You're supposed to be a salesperson," Ms. Boyle notes. "You have men above you, and you have quotas." This means having to close "hard sales," which women often struggle with. But it also means, "You have to go to a lot events in the evening and meet people, and that can be hard if you want to have a family, or be on a committee or have other interests."

For many women, that's why moving to smaller firms or starting their own practices is an attractive option. Ms. Williams remembers starting out as a broker for Merrill Lynch in the 1970s "doing basic portfolio work," advising clients on how to invest rather than on what to buy. But as the brokerage industry became "more sales-oriented than advice-oriented," in the 1980s, she and her partners struck out on their own so they could stick to financial planning.

"We started out as a brokerage, but we wanted to do it in a holistic way, integrating people's lifestyles into the equation and looking at investments that fall out of the normal categories," she recalls. Eventually the firm gave up its brokerage license and pursued what was beginning to be called wealth management.

Janet Hanson, who founded of 85 Broads, a network of Wall Street women named for the downtown New York street address of investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., started her own asset-management firm and now works as an ombudsman of sorts for women employees at Lehman Brothers. She finds that younger women are "looking for jobs that they can have for 20 years, where they don't have to leave when they have children."

Still other woman like the saner hours and flexible work arrangements they've found by using their financial skills away from Wall Street, in areas like consumer banking and accounting. "I know I have a desk in our San Francisco office, but I don't know where it is because I've never seen it. I'm either working from home or I'm at a client's," says Dara Bazzano, senior manager of the audit and assurance group in KPMG's San Francisco office and a mother of four who lives two hours outside the city. "Technology has made all the difference. If I had to commute to the office every day I couldn't do this job."

Ms. Gunn is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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