Ken Fisher’s sexist remarks show change is slow in advice industry

Rachel Robasciotti, CEO of Robasciotti & Philipson in San Francisco, attended the conference where Ken Fisher made his comments on Oct. 8. She spoke out against the remarks.

Nathan Phillips

Billionaire investor Ken Fisher has made headlines for lewd comments at an investment conference earlier this month.

For many women in the financial services industry, the episode is symptomatic of a much larger problem that has gone unchecked for decades, some financial advisors said. Sexual harassment and bias persists in offices and at conferences.

The backlash against the billionaire caught advisors and others by surprise — largely because other men in the industry have made similar sexually charged comments with few repercussions.

When speaking at the Tiburon CEO Summit on Oct. 8, Fisher had likened winning new clients to picking up women at a bar. He had used similar language at another conference in 2018.

Fallout from the money manager’s comments have cost Fisher Investments more than $3 billion in divestitures from institutional investors in less than three weeks. The Camas, Washington-based firm said it managed $112 billion as of Sept. 30.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen consequences for this behavior,” said Sonya Dreizler, a certified financial planner and founder of Solutions with Sonya in San Francisco. “I’ve never seen a reaction like this before or seen it get national attention.”

Sexual harassment, discrimination and racial bias are pervasive enough in the financial advice industry that Dreizler has rounded up dozens of anecdotes from women in the profession and shared them in a blog titled “Do Better.”

Fisher Investments referred to its founder’s apologies for his comments.

“Some of the words and phrases I used during a recent conference to make certain points were clearly wrong and I shouldn’t have made them,” Fisher said in a statement. “I realize this kind of language has no place in our company or industry. I sincerely apologize.”

Fisher Investments also said it would form a diversity and inclusion task force.

Many say it will take more than inclusivity initiatives to make the industry a welcoming environment for women and people of color.

Having a situation happen where you experience sexual harassment goes beyond that workplace just being unwelcoming; it shows that it’s not a safe place for you — it’s not a place to thrive and grow.

Rachel Robasciotti

founder of Robasciotti & Philipson

“This is constructive because this guy is saying inappropriate things and now we’re seeing his company suffer for it,” said Susan Antilla, a reporter for Type Investigations and The Intercept.

She is also the author of “Tales from the Boom-Boom Room,” an expose of sexual harassment against women on Wall Street.

“But if you want to talk about women being harassed and discriminated against, does it change their situation?” Antilla asked. “I wouldn’t put my money on a yes.”

More than representation

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The financial advice industry has made some strides toward being inclusive of women and people of color.

Financial services firms have sought to recruit diverse candidates at colleges, and they have sought to add women and people of color to their boards.

Despite those efforts, the industry is still largely white and male.

There are currently 85,438 certified financial planners. About 23% are female, according to the CFP Board, the organization that sets the standard for the CFP certification.

Only 3.5% of CFP professionals identify as black or Latino, the board found.

“Putting a stake in the ground with a diversity and inclusivity statement is a starting point, but if that’s all you ever do, you’ve wasted time and energy getting to that point, as well,” said Evelyn Zohlen, CFP and president of the Financial Planning Association.

To that end, the FPA established a diversity and inclusion group, kicking off a three-year plan to encourage representation of people of color, women and the LGBTQ community.

The FPA’s goals for 2020 include providing diversity and inclusivity training for the organization’s staff, as well as a review of vendors and contractors to ensure the FPA seeks partners that reflect diverse ownership, Zohlen said.

The association also plans on rolling out resources aimed at owners of financial planning practices to support diversity and inclusion at firms, she said.

“It’s nice to do training for the board and chapter leaders, but the reach needs to be beyond that,” Zohlen said.

Merely talking about diversity at the workplace falls short because it doesn’t hold bad actors responsible for their behavior, women in the industry said.

“Men hear about an infraction or something insensitive comes out of their mouths, but they see it as this one-time occurrence instead of this collective death by a thousand cuts,” said Sheri Fitts, founder of Shoe Fitts Marketing, a consultancy in Portland, Oregon.

“Having a conversation about diversity and inclusion is fantastic,” she said. “Now, how do I get a group of vocal male allies to carry this conversation to their peer group?”

Taking responsibility

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Aside from diversity initiatives, firms must embrace accountability, beginning with their leadership and their human resources practices.

For starters, that means ending mandatory arbitration — wherein workers give up the right to sue their employers — if they experience sexual harassment at the workplace, said Rachel Robasciotti, founder of Robasciotti & Philipson in San Francisco.

This practice keeps these complaints and their resolution private, which can deter other affected employees from speaking up.

More than 60 million workers in the U.S. are subject to mandatory arbitration, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“These policies disproportionately cover women and African Americans,” said Robasciotti, who is also co-founder of Return on Investment & Social Equity, an impact investing platform.

“Having a situation happen where you experience sexual harassment goes beyond that workplace just being unwelcoming; it shows that it’s not a safe place for you — it’s not a place to thrive and grow,” she said.

“Having forced arbitration means you’re silenced about it and can’t take your employer to court,” Robasciotti said.

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Workers who experience harassment often face retaliation internally for reporting the conduct in the first place, said Antilla.

“If you complain to HR and get nowhere, you have to make the next decision: Will you sue or go to arbitration?” she said. “If you’re able to sue, you must consider whether your career is over and will anyone else hire you.”

Advisors — especially men — must also hold each other accountable for inappropriate conduct, Zohlen said.

“What would have happened if it were a woman who said, ‘There goes Ken Fisher, saying pejorative things about women,’?” she said, noting that a male financial advisor was the one who brought the episode to light in a viral video.

“Would it have gotten the attention?” Zohlen added. “I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.”

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