Female investors aren't as wimpy as some sexist brokerages think

Staying Ahead

Dollars & Sense

March 04, 2001|By JANE BRYANT QUINN | JANE BRYANT QUINN,Washington Post Writers Group

WHAT DO investing women want? If you read the investment books aimed at femmes and follow the brokers' girly ads, it would seem that we want to be treated as a breed apart.

You know ... airheads.

Dollies who need a warm hand on their arm before they can trust their own judgment. Self-effacers who lap up condescending lists with headings like "Ten Money Mistakes Women Make." Odd, you never see lists of the money mistakes men make.

I'm sick of this stuff. Sick of stories like "How to Pick Investments Based on Shopping for Eggplant" (I didn't make that up). Sick of online banks "created with women in mind" (are their CDs pink?).

And sick of campaigns like the new one from Charles Schwab targeting negative female stereotypes - for example, the "jealous woman" ad (she's jealous of another woman's investment smarts). A Schwab survey announces, with trumpets, that half its female investors, young and old, find investing "scary."

I'm not objecting to target marketing in general. Men respond to it; think of all the guys gazing at their children in life insurance ads. People of color respond; think of all the ethnic ad campaigns.

But who besides women are told they need help because they're emotionally impaired?

"It's the nauseating `Women are from Venus' approach to the economy, and it's nonsense," says sociologist Brooke Harrington of Brown University.

I looked around to see what's known about women as investors (not counting the self-serving surveys by brokerage firms). In real life, it appears that we're not so wimpy after all:

Economist Leslie Papke of Michigan State University looked at the 401(k) choices of men and women age 55 and up. She found no difference in investment patterns by sex.

A larger study of 401(k)s by the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that once women buckle down to save, they may do better than men.

Watson looked at the accounts of 143,000 employees in 87 plans (excluding the youngest workers and the lowest paid). At 33 and up, women are more likely to contribute to plans than men and also contribute a higher percentage of their pay.

It also turns out that women don't shy away from reasonable risk. In plans where mutual funds are the only option, women commit more money to equities than their male colleagues do.

A difference emerges, however, when the plan lets employees buy company stock. Men gobble up the stock; women nibble, judiciously.

In the stock market, men tend to take more risks then women do and pick smaller stocks that are more volatile in price.

But that doesn't do them a lot of good, according to finance professors Brad Barber and Terrance Odean of the University of California at Davis.

Their study of nearly 38,000 discount-brokerage accounts found that, adjusted for risk, women did better than men by 0.9 percent a year. Single women - presumably less influenced by a kibitzing male - did 1.4 percent better.

The women weren't smarter at stock picking. They just traded less, Odean says, and the less you trade, the better you do.

A 1998 study by the consultants Deloitte & Touche found that women earning more than $100,000 a year enjoyed investing their own money. In general, their investment behavior and attitudes weren't any different than those of men.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that about 70 percent of working people say they're saving for retirement - the same for women as for men.

The final study I commissioned myself - a groundbreaking work in this emerging world of bio-finance. My team peered at the male Y chromosome. We did not find a money management gene.

But what about all these surveys showing women to be "less confident" about their financial choices than men?

First, some of these "confident" guys are bluffing (or kidding themselves). Second, none of the surveys control for investing's most essential ingredient: experience.

Surveys show that the average woman has less stock market know-how. But that's our average experience, not our sex.

Harrington has been studying how investors behave in investment clubs. She found that men and women with similar amounts of stock market seasoning take similar kinds of risks.

What beats me is why anyone should find that a surprise.

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