Stepping Into the Shoes of Powerful Women

Photo Sarah Whiting

As I recently told a Wall Street Journal reporter, I truly believe 2018 is “the year of the woman.” There is a significant seismic shift in this country, from which I believe all women will benefit. 

I was born in Wales and moved all over the world — my dad was in the oil industry. Having been brought up in Africa and Indonesia, I learned at a young age how lucky I was. I was fed, nurtured and safe. I had a mother who pushed me to go to college. She said, “Get your degree first and then you can do anything you want.” 

I have seen opportunities and challenges for women globally. I was fortunate to spend years of my childhood in the United Kingdom when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister (1979-90) and the Queen was monarch. I did not see a glass ceiling. I thought the only position in the world I could not obtain was pope! 

For fun, I collect the shoes of famous women — like Margaret Thatcher, Oprah, Martina Navratilova, Judy Dench, Audrey Hepburn. I imagine standing in their shoes on their toughest days. The things they have accomplished inspire me. 

Unlike my balanced upbringing, it wasn’t until the early 1990s, after I landed in a firm in the male-dominated investment management industry in New York City, that I began to notice the gender differences. 

All women were required to wear skirts. There was only one woman in marketing brave enough to wear a pantsuit. Our holiday party was once held at the New York Racquet and Tennis Club. I remember trying to inch my way into the men-only “smoking room” and trying to rationalize with a male staff member about the ridiculousness of gender separation. That private club is still men-only today. 

I had arrived in the industry via an internship program. I had to be able to type 55 words a minute to be accepted. I was a lousy typist, and took my typing test again and again, until I finally made it through by one word. As I jetted over to the United States, I hoped there wouldn’t be much typing to do. 

As a woman, I could enter as an executive assistant intern, which gave me an “in” to the company when I had no prior experience. I impressed them with my hard work and can-do attitude, and I thrived at the firm. 

I now celebrate belonging to groups that historically refused women as members. It is thrilling to be part of the future of these organizations. To stand in the hallowed halls where once I would have been barred is exhilarating. 

There is a private club in London where women were not allowed to walk up the front staircase. Yet Margaret Thatcher walked up it! She was made an “honorary man” in order to gain access to a men-only bar frequented by politicians. 

When I look back over my career, which has been based in Minnesota for 17 years, it has largely been American men — surrounded by them as I have been in my field — that have been my champions. I could never have achieved in the United Kingdom what I have achieved here. Much of Europe is still more chauvinistic.

In 2017, I bought out my company’s male founder — which incidentally makes us the largest 100 percent woman-owned, independent, registered investment advisory firm in Minnesota. When I went through the buyout process, I spoke to three banks. One bank officer asked if my husband and male partner were going to attend the meeting. I laughed. I wished I had had the presence of mind to say “no, but my dad can attend if you need him.” 

I picked the bank that wanted to deal with me — and had smart women on their team.

As a woman in the male-dominated world of investments, I know the studies about who people tend to choose as their investment advisors. Hands down the winner in these studies are white older males, followed by white younger males. Thankfully, most of the new clients in my firm come from referrals. But for those searching randomly on the web, I make sure my handsome white older male business colleague stays on the website. I consider him to be a mermaid to passing ships. In advertising, sex still sells; in the investment world, older men still sell. 

Although women-owned, my firm is positioned to play in the entire sandbox. That is important. 

I have no doubt that much of our industry will be replaced by robo advisors within 20 years. The firms that will survive are those who take excellent care of their clients, and who are truly vested in client outcomes. 

That means dispensing with the tired assumption that women are not the breadwinners and that their opinion is secondary to men.

For me, the wonderful aspect of the shifting ground towards equality is that it is not solely a women-driven phenomenon. It bodes well that [smart] men at the helm of companies are part of the process of stamping out inappropriate work behavior. 

I also think the changes we are seeing this year will be more easily enforced by Generation X —men and women who have been friends in college, growing up in a time when it was natural for women to be expected to work, and when women have fought in the military. 

My advice to all women I encounter is that this is the year to grab opportunity with both hands. I look forward to collecting more shoes from today’s powerful women!

Sharon Bloodworth is CEO of White Oaks Wealth Advisors and White Oaks Investment Management — boutique, high-touch, high-net worth and multi-family office advising and investment firms.