Women in the Middle East have an estimated US$40 billion (Dh146.9bn) in personal wealth and make decisions affecting $500bn in investments. But why can't they get the financial advice they are looking for?
Both Emirati and expatriate women in the UAE say they want the same attention, advice and deals as men, plus tailored services, privacy and the chance to contribute to the management of their wealth.
When Marnie McDonald's father died this year, he left her a sizeable inheritance and the chance to take the financial initiative. After years of leaving her family's finances in the hands of her husband, Mrs McDonald, originally from Canada, was eager to get some financial independence and play the stock market.
"I'm 53 years old and I've been living in the UAE for nine years. It sounds terrible, but I've never really known how much money my husband and I had or how it was invested," Mrs McDonald says.
"When the economy started to flounder, we really weren't expecting it. We didn't lose a lot of money, but when my husband had a health scare recently I realised I had to start keeping an eye on things."
Mrs McDonald took a personal investment course and started paying attention to financial news.
"When I came into some money, I wanted to put this knowledge into practice. I wanted a nest egg where I made the decisions," she says.
"I went to several well-known banks and wealth-management companies, but when I walked into an office I found I was being dictated to. If I made a suggestion, I felt I was being dismissed as knowing nothing and my questions were never really answered."
Circumstances have prompted Mrs McDonald and her family to return to Canada, so her investment decisions have been deferred. However, she says, reports from friends suggest she may run into similar problems back in Toronto.
In fact, women's inability to get appropriate financial advice seems to be a problem around the world.
A global survey of 500 women, conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) this year, found that 55 per cent of respondents said they felt wealth managers could do a better job of meeting the advisory needs of women and 24 per cent said private banks could significantly improve the way they served women.
In July, BCG published a report, Levelling the Playing Field, based on the survey's findings and more than 70 interviews with private banking specialists and wealthy women around the world.
The report noted that women were overlooked and undervalued by wealth managers despite controlling an estimated 27 per cent, or about $20 trillion, of the world's wealth in 2009. In the Middle East, women's wealth is growing at a rate of 9 per cent a year and they are now estimated to control 22 per cent, or about $500bn, of the region's investments.
"Today's woman is much more sophisticated than even five years ago," says Sara Ismail Mohamed, the chief executive of Al Bashayer, an Abu Dhabi-based wealth-management company run by women.
"Today's female investor is educated, professional and well informed. Technology and the internet have done women a huge favour. Today's woman in the UAE sees herself as part of a global network ... she knows her options."
While real estate and gold will always be seen as safer investment options, women are also leaning towards more complex financial instruments, such as mutual funds, bonds and international money markets.
Banks first took notice of women as a rising force about 10 years ago, when the likes of Dubai Islamic bank, ABN Amro and First Gulf Bank began to offer an array of female-only products and services, including special queues, tailored credit cards and home loans. But it seems that when it comes to investing money, women are still not getting what they really want: wealth managers they can trust and who take them seriously.
"There seems to be this perception that women want very low-risk investments, that we cannot understand and do not have the appetite for high-yield investments," says Shamsa, a 32-year-old Emirati divorcee who did not want her real name used.
"I have a nest egg and a business, which is growing slowly, but I have three children and I want an investment that will pay for their education and secure their future."
The BCG report found many wealth managers either overlooked women as an important group or used superficial strategies to reach them.
"Some of the most common approaches are worse than ineffective," the study's authors said.
"They can alienate the very clients they're meant to attract, particularly if they revolve around 'women- labelled' products, pitches or promotions that come across as patronising or contrived."
While women want the same attention, advice and terms that men get, more than 70 per cent of respondents to the survey said wealth managers should tailor their services for women.
This may seem contradictory, but it is a sign that women have distinct needs and expectations as clients.
"In today's world, women are as aggressive as men when it comes to investment matters, but their investment needs and expectations differ subtly," says Deanna Othman, the general manager of premium banking at Standard Chartered UAE.
"Women investors typically study the product more thoroughly before investing. They take time to listen and have a very strategic approach before investing."
Ishrat Kiyani, HSBC's head of premium banking, wealth management and mortgages, says women are looking for investments that are spread across a diverse number of asset classes.
"Within the [Middle East] region, women have increased demand for global exposure across a wider range of asset classes, both conventional and Sharia compliant," Mr Kiyani says.
"Women want their advisers to provide them with timely information and advice that they require to make informed decisions."
Mrs Mohamed from Bashayer agrees.
"Women want to know what is happening to their money, they want to be involved in the decision-making process," she says.
Risk is another area where men and women differ, but not to the degree as traditionally believed.
"For women, financial security for themselves and their loved ones is a top priority and it often governs their decision-making," says Dalia Ahmed, a senior client adviser for wealth management at UBS.
"We cannot generalise and say that women are more risk averse than men, but they will not take unnecessary risk for that extra percentage of return. They are very realistic about their return expectations."
Although a bright decor, privacy and woman-to-woman services are important, particularly to older and more traditional customers, it's not enough for the new-age, financially stable woman.
"Women are receiving million-dirham inheritances, they are working and earning more and gaining more control over how their finances are spent," says Mbali Dlamini, a conference organiser with IQPC Middle East.
IQPC is holding a Financial Services for Women Middle East Summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Dubai, starting tomorrow.
The four-day conference will focus on a range of topics, including how retail banks can tailor products to best suit female customers. It will also bring the professionals in contact with wealthy women and give them an opportunity to introduce investment alternatives to women interested in going beyond the traditional financial and real-estate paths.
"Research has shown a lot of money is being held in cash deposits and unit trusts. Wealth managers would drop their jaws if they realised how much money women were controlling that wasn't being invested in the right product," Ms Dlamini says.