For Sale (to Women Only)

From financial advice to house-cleaning, plenty of companies sell their services only to ladies. Is this more than savvy marketing?

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

America is going through something of a reckoning, struggling—loudly, publicly, constructively—with the concept of gender. Giant retailers such as Target, for example, are knocking down the artificial distinctions between so-called boys’ and girls’ toys. Businesses that try to generate profits by creating selling unnecessarily gendered items, such as pens, incur withering scorn. And TV shows including Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which foreground the rich, complex lives of transgender characters, have found both audiences and acclaim.

This is not to say that the gender revolution has come, of course. There are many examples of the continued strength of the old rigid roles: One anti-discrimination ordinance that would would have protected trans people, among many others, in Houston, Texas, failed at the ballot box this November after opponents mounted a vicious, fear-based campaign against it. And a new study by the New York Consumer Affairs Board demonstrates that women are charged from 4 to 13 percent more for everything from toys to toiletries.

It’s silly for girls and boys to have separate building blocks and doctor kits, and for girls to be charged more for theirs, but are there some products and experiences, such as financial advising, for which gender specialization make sense?

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.

By contrast, the Texas-based nonprofit Cleaning For A Reason, which offers women with cancer free housecleaning, presents a much softer, pinker image. Its goals are irreproachable, as are its methods, which enable the employees of cleaning services to volunteer to help out the needy. Still, does it need to be so clearly gendered? Do only women, after all, care about having a clean house? Do only female cancer patients deserve one?

President and Founder Debbie Sardone acknowledged that some men have felt slighted, and that, on an individual basis, she and her own company are happy to work with men. Right now, in fact, “we’re cleaning for a wounded vet warrior. He’s a man, and we’re donating a year’s worth of maid service as he gets used to not having the use of his legs.” But her world is almost entirely composed of women. Two other Debbies sit on her board alone. Hers is “a woman-owned-business,” one she herself began and turned into a million-dollar enterprise. Her employees are “95 percent women.” The other house-cleaning companies she works with are owned and staffed overwhelmingly by women as well. It makes sense that the population they serve would be female.

Besides, she told me, fair or not, “it’s women who call us when their house is dirty. It’s the women who call us when they need help and they have cancer.”

If Amanda Steinberg is correct, women are similarly looking for financial help that is tailored to their specific situations and needs. That will provide a kind of “value added” that a lady-pen does not.