That is the premise of two new women-specific financial robo-advisers, or automated, algorithm-based, wealth-management systems: WorthFM and Ellevest, both scheduled to launch officially in 2016. Tara Siegel Bernard at the New York Times greeted these initiatives with skepticism earlier this fall, claiming these products could “suggest women need extra hand-holding with their money.” In actuality, Siegel Bernard points out, evidence suggests women are better stewards of their cash; they have less money, on average, and yet they save more of it. Do they really require, or even want, specific confidence-building measures? Likewise, would robo-advisers geared toward women make traditional assumptions, that, for example, every woman intends, or even wants, to marry and have children?
I asked the feminist personal-finance expert Carmen Rita Wong, author of Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money—A How-to Guide, whether she finds initiatives such as WorthFM useful or insulting, and she said she leans toward the idea that, if designed correctly, robo-advisers could serve the needs of women without condescending to them.
Wong told me that she was raised to be financially independent, to assume she could rely on no one but herself, much like a man. Money is about “taking care of me and what’s important to me.” Even if she got married again, “I would take care of my retirement, I would take care of my emergency fund.” Still, she pointed out, the lives of women on average are different in some key ways that are worth taking into account. They live longer, for example. If they do have children, they are “going to have a maternity penalty, possibly,” she said, and they are “more likely to become disabled. How do you plan for those things?” Any kind of serious financial advice for women must take these considerations into account.
When I contacted WorthFM’s CEO Amanda Steinberg, she told me her endeavor is responding to a gender-specific need: “I launched WorthFM because women's disenchantment with financial services is so enormous and also so clear to me that I can't call myself an entrepreneur and not try to solve it.” No one was or is being condescended to. Women, she argued, have long felt left out of the financial conversation, and male advisors were doing nothing to change that. “I haven't met a single woman who has said ‘I love Schwab, Edward Jones, or T. Rowe, I feel great about how my retirement is invested there,’” she told me. “I'm launching WorthFM with Michelle Smith because I've observed for seven years how little the entire marketplace of offerings resonates with women, and as an engineer I know how to fix it.”
WorthFM does seem intent on communicating to its potential client base that it will treat them with respect. Its “MoneyType Assessment” could be experienced as a high-brow Cosmo quiz; and it does include some potentially wince-inducing statements such as “I spend my money on things like clothing, restaurants, jewelry products (name your passion of choice!) rather than saving” that would surely be different if directed toward men. The possible answers, which range from “Totally like me” to “Totally not me,” would also probably be worded differently for a male audience. But for the most part the questions are substantive; they probe issues such as whether “more important than money to me is the autonomy to live my life on my own terms” and “It’s important to me to use my money or time to support the dreams of others.” In appearance—its color palette is as muted and sensible as a pantsuit—as well as in substance, the assessment attempts to take women, their values, and their priorities seriously.