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Business

A Bank of Their Own

Virginia Woolf wrote that if a woman is to succeed (or write fiction), she needs money and a room of her own. Some women in Munich are applying that philosophy to the financial world, starting a bank by and for women.

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Women often feel underserved by traditional banks

With its wooden floors, comfy couches and bookshelves the the place bears little resemblance to the cold marble halls of Germany's powerful financial institutions.

But if all goes to plan, this humble storefront in Munich could be the start of a banking empire -- one with the woman in mind.

“The point is not so much that women need something else, a different kind of bank,” Astrid Hastreiter told DW-WORLD at the opening reception of the financial organization she is starting. “Many women simply want something else.”

At the Frauenbank, or Women’s Bank, she says, they’ll get it. Counseling about investments, retirement plans, savings and other financial tools will be done by female professionals, who understand the special needs of women, many of whom feel uncomfortable or underserved in traditional financial institutions.

Hastreiter points to a study that shows 80 percent of women feel they are not taken seriously by big banks, which are still predominately male institutions.

Astrid Hastreiter

Astrid Hastreiter

The 40-year-old IT professional has been on the board of a computer training center for women for a decade, and said over that time she heard complaints repeatedly from women who had negative experiences talking to a three-piece-suit down at the local branch. Though questions of style and empathy are important in the financial world, they are too rarely taken into consideration.

“Talking about money and financial planning is a very intimate thing in a way, since money affects every aspect of people’s lives,” she said. “That means not everyone wants to do that in an atmosphere where some buttoned-down banker is sitting across from you. So a lot of women simply avoid it.”

Different focus

Women often have different needs and interests than men do when it comes to financial matters. For many, Hastreiter said, while profit is important, it is not always the primary consideration. Other aspects, for example what her money is working for or whether it is in an investment fund that meets certain ethical criteria, can plan an equal role.

Considerations such as an investment’s liquidity and flexibility are also often more important to women than men. Women who have children often want to be able to turn their investment into cash quickly should an emergency arise.

Frauenbank Logo mit Grafik

Women's Bank Logo

Having a family can also mean a woman’s career path has taken a different trajectory than a man’s. Women are more likely to spend years outside the work force raising kids, working part time, or being self-employed. Explaining this to a traditional banker who is just looking at the bottom line can be difficult.

“I think that women often feel better when they get financial counseling by other women because they have a like-minded person there in front of them.” Simone Westermeyer, a financial counselor at the women’s bank, told DW-WORLD. “She also might have more understanding for issues that face women.”

Slow start

Getting the women’s bank off the ground has not been easy. Hastreiter and a partner, Angelika Huber, started working on the project more than three years ago.

Frauenbank Astrid Hastreiter und Angelika Huber

Astrid Hastreiter, left, and former partner Angelika Huber in 2001

They sent out their first letters to potential investors in September 2001, days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The subsequent insecurity in the financial world and difficulties in getting a banking license caused the two to scale back their initial plans.

Then earlier this year Huber pulled out of the project, “for health reasons,” Hastreiter said.

Now the bank has developed a three-step strategy leading toward full banking operations. The first phase will focus on financial counseling, networking and education, such as seminars about money matters for women. The bank’s board are also widening their group of investors and building capital by selling participating certificates.

The second phase would see the acquisition of a partial banking license and an expansion of services. After enough capital is raised – new banks need at least €5 million, €10 million is better – full banking services could be offered, including giro or checking accounts, investment services, and loans, particularly small-business loans.

“One in three small businesses are founded by women, but women still have more problems than men do in getting loans,” Hastreiter said.

Stereotyping

Part of that is due to the fact that stubborn stereotypes still prevail when it comes to women and finance, namely, that the two don’t exactly go hand and hand. Professor Gertraude Kress, a researcher of gender and management issues at Berlin’s Free University, compares it to buying a car.

“You go to a male seller or to male banker and maybe they think, ‘oh, it’s only a woman, she’s doesn’t know anything about cars, she doesn’t know anything about money or finance,’” she told DW-WORLD.

She said the Women’s Bank is following a trend in the business world of marketing services and products to niche groups, such as ethnic minorities or gays and lesbians, who also can feel underserved by big institutions. But she worries about the message a special bank for women could send out.

“If you say we are founding a bank especially for women, you signal that all women have the same interests and those interests are different from the interests and needs of men. That’s not true,” she said. “It’s another kind of stereotyping.”

Babying women?

Astrid Hastreiter can understand the critics who say it shouldn’t be the case that in 2004 Germany needs a special financial institution for women. But we live in an imperfect world, she added. Besides, men are welcome here, “as long as they’re nice,” she said.

Gisela Essert had come to the opening reception to talk about a foundation for dyslexic children she wants to found. She had made the rounds to banks, but since she has a background in the arts and has been self-employed for years, her financial résumé doesn’t fit the pattern bankers have been trained to look for before approving a loan.

She said she does not expect special treatment at a women’s bank, Besides, this idea is not about coddling women who need to be handled with kid gloves.

“This is the wrong image. It’s just about giving women the right kind of support,” she told DW-WORLD. “I mean for hundreds of years men have created clubs for themselves and acquired a lot of power. It’s natural, so why shouldn’t women do that as well?”

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