Women earn less money than men do. And women keep less of the money they earn than men do.
This can mean dreams not realized, bad relationships stayed in, dead-end jobs not left, companies not founded, families making do with less.
It may be no wonder, then, that money is women’s #1 source of stress. When asked what words come to mind when they hear the word “money,” so many women say “shame,” “loneliness,” and “uncertainty.” (For men, the synonyms tend to be “power,” “strength,” and “independence.”) And women prefer to talk about any topic other than money — including their own death.
Part of the problem is that women are told, again and again, a series of money lies. We first hear some of these lies as children. They continue through to when we are knocking on the door to the C-suite.
There are six big lies that we come to believe. And lies that cost us. Big-time. They are:
1. “You’re not really that good with money. Or math. Or math-like things.”
In households across our country, families talk with their little boys about money more often and differently than they do with their little girls. For boys, it’s more about how to build wealth, while for girls it’s more about saving and budgeting. Boys learn from their fathers and see their fathers investing, while girls tend to learn from their mothers — and in only 16% of US households does the mother direct the investing — so existing gender differences are reinforced.
At the same time, little girls receive not just a lower allowance than their brothers for the same chores; they also receive lower grades in math at school for the same answers as boys. (You read that right.)
2. “Your money problem is that you spend frivolously.”
As boys grow up, their sources of money information become CNBC, Barron’s, Crain’s, Bloomberg. As girls grow up, there is no “women’s money media” outlet. Money articles instead tend to be tucked into women-focused lifestyle media, between articles on how to find the perfect toner and this year’s hot shoe trend.
There the “you’re not good with money” messages continue, with 65% of money articles about how difficult and hard managing money or financial planning is. The solution: spend less, you frivolous little thing, on shoes (“Hi, Carrie Bradshaw, I see you not being able to afford your apartment because you bought so many shoes”), on lattes, on manicures.
These messages are guilt masquerading as female empowerment. Ever seen similar messaging around “Don’t buy the craft beer” or “the T-bone steak” or the “new electronic gadget”? Didn’t think so.
Ever seen an acknowledgment that women suffer a “pink tax,” in which similar items “for women” cost women more than similar “for men” items? (It’s estimated at $1,350 a year.) Ever seen an acknowledgment that the cost to women of not being well turned out at work is high? Didn’t think so.
3. “Your money problem is that you women are risk-averse.”
Why don’t women invest as much as men do? Why do they keep more of their money in cash? Why have they thus missed out on what has historically been one of the most significant generational wealth creators?
The answer is typically “Because women just don’t want to take that risk.” (Shoulder shrug. It’s something inherently flawed about women — their fault, really. They just need to “man up.” Nothing to see here.)
Again, not true. An alternative explanation for why women don’t invest as much as men do is because the investing industry — in which 99% of investment dollars are managed at companies owned by white men — wasn’t built for women. When women find relationships they are comfortable with and understand the risk, they take on as much as men.
4. “You don’t have a money problem! You just need to be empowered. Here’s my new you-got-this-girl-in-10-easy-steps plan to get a raise — now go lean in.”
OK, there’s so much wrong with this. And it goes so deep.
It makes the assumption that the playing field is even. It makes the assumption that deep structural issues — like outright sexism, like unconscious biases, like gender expectations around family care and housework — don’t exist or can be overcome by following the 10 easy steps. It makes the assumption that if one woman can do it, you can too … rather than recognizing that she may be the one exception that proves the rule.
There certainly weren’t 10 easy steps to get out of the child care crisis caused by the pandemic, which forced millions of women out of the workplace entirely and seriously debilitated the productivity and ability to succeed for many more women who managed to keep their jobs.
5. “Even if you get the promotion, there’s only one seat at the table, maybe two if you’re lucky, for a woman. Compete amongst yourselves.”
There was one woman in the C-suite at your company in 1987. And in 1994. And in 1998. Also in 2004, in 2009, in 2015 … and today. (The number of women CEOs on the Fortune 500 is today at a record high — at a whopping 8%.) We almost don’t even see it. And when that happens, the narrative becomes, “You’re not competing with him or him or him or him for that token seat, but with her.”
Enter the Queen Bee trope, that stereotype of the woman who doesn’t help other women succeed in the workplace because she intuitively knows that their company is pitting them against each other. Except, big reveal: It’s a lie. Studies find that women don’t compete with one another more than they do with men and that they like reporting to women managers. The reason for the Queen Bee lie is that competition between two women is seen as more dramatic, more dysfunctional, and more problematic than competition between two men.
6. “You’ve made it at work. Congratulations for doing the all-but-impossible. But, you know, success means nothing unless you have also achieved work-life balance.”
Success isn’t enough, even when you have to work harder than men to achieve it. Professional women are expected to also achieve “work-life balance.” And have women CEOs take up endless time at conferences and with endless magazine ink being spilled on how they achieve this (let’s face it, unachievable) state of balance.
What a mess.
Do you see the throughline in all of those lies?
Each one tells us that our money issues rest with us, either because women as a group possess some fundamental shortfall or because we as individuals didn’t follow the exact directions on how to earn more, spend less, invest.
These lies are damaging because they shift the blame from systemic issues — like a patriarchal society that has deeply embedded gender expectations and biases — to women themselves.
In other words: Our institutions are failing us, and somehow it’s our fault.
Next week: We’ll counter those lies — and shift the focus back to what’s really getting between women and our money — with some fundamental truths.
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