You don’t need to have met Asha to picture her sitting at her kitchen counter in Dubai first thing in the morning before her family awakens and her home becomes a hive of activity.
She has a cup of tea near her left elbow, and her right index finger is scrolling through stock updates from Saxo Bank, Yahoo! Finance and Ark Investment Management on her phone. Fifteen minutes later, she glances at the clock and rushes into the bedroom to get ready for work, sharing highlights of their stock portfolio with her husband.
This has been Asha’s routine since April 2020, a month after UAE went into the Covid-19 lockdown.
‘I always wanted to invest in the stock market, but I thought it was complicated and I wouldn’t know how. I didn’t have any knowledge or experience,’ she said.
But with the pandemic and working from home, she now had the opportunity. For the first few months, she researched different stock markets and trading accounts, assessed how much risk she was willing to take, and then made lists on company trends and industries to watch. She also attended online stock trading courses on Udemy, and signed up for blogs and podcasts with daily stock tips.
In July, Asha applied for her online trading account on the US stock exchange. By this time, she knew she was going to be a passive, long-term investor so she chose a portfolio mix that matched her risk profile, and she set up bi-monthly calendar reminders to assess and increase her portfolio.
And in August, Asha made her first trade and joined the small but growing number of women that invest in the global financial market.
Women’s share of financial assets globally is estimated at 30% by wealth manager Credit Suisse with the rest of the world equalling a much lower share after the US and Europe have been excluded. In the US, 44% of women have invested in one of the country’s stock exchanges. In the middle income country of Malaysia, women make up around 31% of stock market investors. And in the Netherlands, which ranks 5th on the European Union’s Gender Equality Index, only 14% of investors are women. There is little additional data on how many women from other countries invest in global stock markets, but multinational financial service companies such as Fidelity Investment, JP Morgan and BNP Paribas agree that it is a small percentage.
Asha’s entry into the world of stock trading from her kitchen in Dubai, happening as it did during Covid-19, mimicked a surge in women investors in other parts of the world (The Economic Times, February 2021).
Indian online brokerage house Upstox said it witnessed a 32% growth in account opening by women on its platform between April and June 2020 as compared to the preceding three months, with 70% being first-time investors. The increased interest has been attributed to pay cuts and lay-offs during the pandemic, and decreased fixed interest rates at banks. In addition, the simple technology involved in opening an online trading account, increased availability of stock trading knowledge, and growing role of YouTube influencers within the financial sector also attracted first-time traders (Bloomberg, February 2021).
Similarly, in the US, over a third of users on the online trading app Robinhood were female at the beginning of this year, up from 20.5% a year before (Cardify, 2021), And a 2020 study by JP Morgan showed that although the pandemic has had negative impacts on global investments; the most affluent Black and Latinx women in the US are more likely to increase their portfolios going forward.
Despite these positive indications, the traditionally low rate of participation in financial markets by women is a concern simply because an investment gap threatens to widen the already existing gender wealth gap.
‘While investing holds no guarantees, a divide in who is and is not investing may be further contributing to a wealth and retirement savings gap between men and women. For women, investing could be a key to closing the wealth gap,’ said online investment advisor Stockpot in their 2019 Investing Report.
The low participation levels of women in global equity markets have been attributed to multiple factors. Aside from the gender wage discrepancy, there is the role of women in the global workforce where even though they tend to live longer, they move in and out of the paid labour force more frequently. And even for those who work full-time, they average fewer years of work experience than men.
When Asha first started thinking about investing in stocks, she was anxious. ‘I didn’t have the confidence. Plus, there was the fear of losing money. At first, I thought I would invest only in ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and bonds. However, with time, I gained confidence and I have now started a 50% stocks portfolio,’ she said, recognising that as her comfort-level increased she was willing to diversify away from the steadier bond market and into the more risky but more rewarding stocks.
A second common reason has been the perceived complexity and a lack of knowledge or trust in the finance industry. 36% of women (WealthiHer Network) say that this was a key reason not to engage in the stock exchange, and it was certainly a factor for Asha when choosing to invest in the US market.
‘I was initially interested in the Indian stock market but it is very volatile. There is not a lot of data, and you really need experience, and I was not comfortable with someone else managing my money’ she said. ‘Whereas the US stock market is global. We know the brands: Google, Amazon, Tesla. The market is transparent and talked about, and trading is easy. I also preferred to have a US dollar currency account.’
The lower rate of participation by women is also because they feel locked out of an arena that has typically been dominated by men. A 2018 article in The Conversation, a non-profit publication written by academics and researchers, deconstructs the language used to describe stock market investing, and it suggests that the metaphors come from domains traditionally associated with men: such as ‘beating the market’ or creating a ‘level playing field’, both of which communicate a sense of competition and ultimately discourage women from participating.
Women are also an investment segment that requires a distinctive service approach, which has not always been available in a market where robot-investment platforms use algorithms based on a man’s salary projections and career lifetime. Women, however, opt for longer term investments, less frequent trading, and are generally more risk averse. And their staid and steady approach has been shown to achieve a higher growth when compared to men who are more likely to trade frequently and chase risky returns. More customised resources are becoming available, such as websites, podcasts, and social media groups that provide women-specific investment research and advice. And with this has come the recognition that wealth management firms need to reinvent their offerings and customer relations management to cater to the rise of Gen Y and women billionaires (Capgemini 2020).
Over the last 6 months, Asha’s buy-and-hold strategy has worked well for her stock portfolio. At one point her return hit a peak of 30%. It has since evened out to around 12% but she is still pleased. A 12% return in 6 months is significantly higher than what her savings would have earned sitting in a UAE bank where the interest rate hovers between 0-1%.
In its 2020 report on the state of global inequality, Oxfam said that more women investors would help to build ‘a human economy that is feminist and benefits the 99%, not only the 1%’.
For that to happen, more women – like Asha – will need to grab the bull by the horns and invest in global financial markets.