Take a look at the colleagues around you. How many of them are women? And how many of those are financial advisors? Most likely, not many.

If you happen to work at Edward Jones, however, you may start seeing more women. In the fall, management dusted off an old program aimed at increasing gender parity at the St. Louis-based broker-dealer. The effort is already showing results, and the initiative plans to influence the firm for many years to come.

At the end of 2017 Edward Jones had 2,960 female advisors, a 10% increase over the previous year’s mark, company spokesman John Boul says. The firm has 16,095 advisors overall as of December. To reach the ambitious goal of 50/50 gender parity could take another 20 years, says Monica Giuseffi, who heads Edward Jones’ diversity efforts.

The Women’s Initiative for New Growth Strategies — or WINGS — program offers mentorship, coaching and other resources to help women strengthen and advance their career trajectories at the firm. Originally launched in 2008, the effort was scrapped in 2014 due to a lack of organized leadership, Giuseffi explained back when the program relaunched.

Edward Jones attributes the early success of the new WINGS to two factors. The first is the 59 planners — 75% of whom are women — in leadership roles who actively help to bring in more female and diverse advisors.

“I call them the stealth weapon,” Giuseffi says of the 59 planners. These pros are some of the most tenured and have the highest customer satisfaction scores of all Edward Jones advisors, according to Giuseffi.

The group provides new advisors with mentorship, business coaching and skills development. Giuseffi says that these efforts have “greatly reduces attrition.” Participants are also encouraged to join networking events related to the Edward Jones's Women Helping Other Women program as well as its diversity program.

Chrissy Black, a former elementary school teacher in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, joined Edward Jones in November of 2017, two months after the WINGS relaunch. Black was inspired to make the career change while at lunch with a friend who was an Edward Jones client. The friend told her she’d make a great planner and Black decided to call up her friend’s advisor.

Now Black helps adults, rather than kids, and she is building a client base of women business owners.

“The mentorship was great, they teamed me up with another female advisor who was my field trainer,” Black says. “And they support you and mentor you through the new parts of becoming a financial advisor.”

In January Black attended the firm’s Women Helping Other Women conference, which she described as “life changing.”

“Just to be there with a huge group of people that I felt like I had a lot in common with, it really solidified my decision to make a huge career change,” she says.

Giuseffi says a second factor supporting Edward Jones's efforts to recruit more women is the firm's approach to the business, which is characterized by single advisor offices located primarily in small towns and suburbs.

“Our reach is unique in that we can say to talented women and diverse candidates, ‘Listen, this is the career, a very purpose driven life,” Giuseffi says. "‘This career is honorable and guess what? You don’t have to move to New York, Chicago or Atlanta. You can open your practice in your own backyard.’”

To be sure, there is a long way to go. Across the firm, women make up 19% of all planners.

That’s only slightly above the industry standard of 16%, according to data from Cerulli.

Increasing the number of women advisors makes smart business sense, Cerulli says, as women represent an untapped talent pool to replace retiring planners. And women advisors’ inclination for goals-based planning can fit well into a comprehensive advice model.

Edward Jones also isn't alone in attempting to achieve gender parity in the brokerage ranks.

At Raymond James 16% of financial advisors are women, says Michelle Lynch, vice president of the Network for Women Advisors at the firm's employee broker-dealer unit.

“Education of existing advisors, especially of those who haven’t started thinking about their succession or teaming plans, about the benefits of hiring a woman onto the team is a great place to start,” Lynch notes. “Female clients are out-graduating, out-earning and out-living men. Many studies show women want to work with women, and diversifying a team is a great way to maintain future assets under management.”

The big question remains: Why is this still a problem?

The answer is two-fold, Lynch says. “First, there is a fundamental lack of awareness about our profession and the benefits of being a financial advisor — opportunity to improve clients’ financial well-being, job flexibility, powerful earning potential,” Lynch says. “There aren’t a lot of female financial advisors and you can’t be it if you can’t see it.”

Second is the misunderstanding about what it takes to be successful in this business, Lynch adds. “A common misconception is that you need to be a financial wizard right out of the gate, whereas relationship building is a skill that is equally as important and much more inherent.”

For Edward Jones’ part, the firm is taking the long view, but is pleased with progress so far.

“We’re accelerating quickly, we’re hiring at a 25% higher rate than the general population of women and we’ve just started,” Giuseffi says. “I think that rate is going to increase rapidly.”

Amanda Schiavo

Amanda Schiavo is an associate editor for Financial Planning. Follow her on Twitter at @SchiavoAmanda.