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Tara Mashack-Behney: Financial literacy matters

The pay gap between men and women in this country may be narrowing, but it remains real.

American women earned just 83 percent of what their male counterparts did in 2015, according to an analysis released last month by the Pew Research Center. Women would have to work an extra 44 days a year to draw even with men.

Tara Mashack-Behney sees the causes and effects of that gap in her work. As a partner and president of Conrad Siegel Investment Advisors Inc., Mashack-Behney has achieved success in the traditionally male-dominated world of investments and finance.

It’s a role that gives her a perspective on how women lag behind men in the area of financial literacy, and how that gap ripples throughout their personal and professional lives. She specializes in investment consulting for retirement, working with private sector employers, tax-exempt organizations, large associations and foundations.

Mashack-Behney shared the financial challenges facing American women, both as consumers of financial services and in the workplace. Our interview, which took place at Conrad Siegel’s Lancaster County office, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why do you think the wage gap persists in America? And what do we need to do as a society to overcome it?

A: It persists for a couple of reasons. For one, women are out of the workplace for, on average, about 10 years during their careers, taking care of family. So while men are continuing to work and get increases, women are not.

And in many things, I think men are a little bit more aggressive. In investing, for example, studies show that women tend to be a little bit more conservative. But also in the workplace: When it comes to raises, men are more aggressive in asking for them.

A piece of advice I’d give to women, whatever industry you’re in: There’s tons of information out there, including salary surveys. Make sure you know, for your industry, for the area, what appropriate compensation is. And if you see that there’s a gap between where you’re at and where you should be, don’t be afraid to very tactfully go to your HR department and start that conversation.

You talked about differences in investing, which brings me to financial literacy. Is there also a gap between men and women when it comes to this topic?

There is a wage gap for many reasons, and I think that helps foster the literacy gap. Investments – which doesn’t equate totally with financial literacy – is a male-dominated industry. I’ve read some studies where women are really afraid or hesitant to ask for advice because they don’t want to look as if they don’t know something. So they’re not getting some of the information that the males are.

How does one go about getting that financial literacy?

From an individual perspective, you’re going to need to take some time and initiative. You can probably start with your company’s 401(k) or retirement plan. That’s a good source of information. A lot of financial wellness has to with living well today but saving responsibly for tomorrow. Budgeting also comes into play, and there are tons of tools online for budgeting.

And don’t be afraid to ask an adviser. Too often women are too afraid to do that, saying, “I just don’t have enough money or I won’t know what questions to ask.” Well, you don’t know what you don’t know. So don’t hesitate to find an adviser and sit down. And even if you don’t have enough money that they can manage at the time, they might be able to provide you with some solutions, or might just be able to provide you with some education that you need to know.

Make sure you get involved. A lot of times the male spouse takes charge of the finances, and the woman is kind of left out of that picture. Make sure that if your husband has a relationship with a financial advisor, you go to those meetings – even if you’re hesitant about asking questions, just soak it all in. Learn what you can.

You mentioned the corporate committees you work with. Are they mostly men?

Yes. We’re dealing with HR professionals, also CEOs or CFOs, sometimes COOs – the C-suite positions. We typically find more women in the HR roles, and the men typically in the higher level roles.

What drew you to this career?

I really think it has to do with how my grandfather had stocks and bonds, and my parents invested for my college. They invested a little more than what they needed and gave the excess to me as a graduation present, so I had a little account to invest with in my early 20s. It’s just something that I grew up hearing about.

You have done very well in this industry. What was your career path like? Did you face some of the same challenges we have been discussing?

I have been extremely fortunate. I started out in banking 20-some years ago with a gentleman who was really my mentor in the trust department. He said, “Hey, I just see the spark in your eyes when you talk about investments. Come on over into the investment side and I’ll work with you.” And from day one he just viewed me as an equal member of the team. So I was very fortunate and didn’t encounter many of the hurdles women face. I had somebody who believed in me from day one.

But men still dominate this field?

We are in the process of expanding, and hiring, and we get a whole heck of a lot more applications from men than we do from women. A lot more. It’s significant. I still think it’s a male-dominated environment.

I do think women in the industry are trying to encourage other women – promoting the value of the certified financial planner designation, and the value of working in this industry and how you get to help people. When I went to school, if you wanted to help people you became a teacher or a nurse. And that’s it.

What advice would you give young women who are looking at this field?

Networking is really important. Don’t underestimate the value of that. Also, in this industry, there are a lot of different stages on which to perform. You can do research and be behind the scenes. You can be involved and meeting with people and having a lot of face time, and everything in between. There are a lot of different companies for which to work, with different philosophies and different responsibilities – banks, brokerages firms, insurance companies, mutual fund companies – they all have different roles.

So what I would suggest to a woman if she’s interested in this area, get to know some people in all of those different organizations and at different levels, and find out really what about this field are you really passionate about? What do you really like? The only way you’re going to do that is through research, getting to know some people, and then, obviously, the education. And get the financial designation. That shows that you have the depth, you have the knowledge, you have the initiative to succeed in that environment.

Do you do much mentoring?

We try within the company, and outside I am involved with some Junior Achievement programs. We just had a program a few weeks ago over in New Cumberland where they brought in 200 girls who are in high school and just need that extra nudge. We did skits with interviews – you know, don’t chew gum, sit up straight, don’t be late, the dos and don’ts of social media. We also had career panels, where they could ask some questions. And we did some exercises, including budgeting exercises.

As for our company, we are an independent organization owned by about 20 consultants, and we’ve been around since Connie (Conrad Siegel) started the firm about 54 years ago. We want to continue to be around, so we need to mentor younger folks so they can take over for us when we’re ready to retire. We do that, for example, by making sure that we invite them to meetings. Even if they don’t take an active role at first, at least they hear the conversation, get to know some people. We also believe in ongoing education, so we’re real supportive of advancing your knowledge, making sure we have networking events.

What backgrounds are your new recruits coming from? Business? Finance?

We see business, we see economics, we see finance. But frankly, we have folks who have degrees in music or education. So it’s not even necessarily a requirement to have a finance degree.

But with one particular position we are looking to fill, for example, we’re requiring a certified financial planner designation (CFP). We put the ad on Indeed. We received three resumes, almost instantaneously, and none of them had CFPs.

Do you think graduates are coming into the workforce with a good level of financial literacy?

There is a lack of financial literacy, because it’s something that is not really taught. And it should be, starting in middle school or high school. I kind of learned some of it at home because my parents and grandparents invested. Many people don’t have that, and so they’re not getting the information at school or at home.

What ramifications does this have?

From the employer’s perspective, financial wellness is becoming a pretty hot topic. I read a statistic, based on a 2016 study, that almost half of employees spend about three hours a week, at work, thinking about personal finances.

Think about it. If you, as an employer, provided them with some education and programs, how your productivity could improve if your employees had the financial literacy and wellness they needed, and didn’t need to spend those three hours a week thinking about that.

And financial wellness really goes beyond the 401(k). It’s budgeting, understanding what refinancing a mortgage is about. It’s knowing what insurance coverage they need – homeowner’s insurance, car insurance, life insurance, etc.

What general guidelines do you give people when it comes to financial literacy?

First of all, don’t ignore it. It’s not going to go away.

Also, if something sounds too good to be true, or you feel uncomfortable, something’s probably not right. Don’t be afraid to seek out advice.

Saving money is probably the most important thing. You need to save as much as you can and get started as early as possible. When you have that summer job in college, or you get that first job, save 10 to 15 percent. You would be surprised, with compounding interest, how quickly it adds up. When you get raises, increase how much you’re saving. You won’t miss it.

And make sure that you are involved with a retirement plan. If the plan has a match, contribute so that you receive the maximum match. Don’t leave that free money on the table.

Do you have particular advice for women in this regard?

Again, women tend to be more conservative than men.

I look at my grandmother, who invested all in CDs. Well, maybe 15 years ago that wasn’t too bad, but nowadays with interest rates you’re not earning anything, and you’re not even keeping up with inflation. So don’t be too conservative with your investments.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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