On the current New York Times bestseller list is a book by Tori Dunlap titled Financial Feminist: Overcome the Patriarchy's Bullsh*t to Master Your Money and Build a Life You Love. It has been written from an American point of view, but is it still surprising, even in the 21st century, to find that so many women are uncomfortable — if not downright ignorant — about money matters.
Ms Dunlap, who is a personal finance advisor and social media influencer behind ‘Her First $100K’ podcast and website, writes in a lucid fashion about the issue of women and money, and so many of her observations ring true.
A hazy memory floated to mind, about watching women haggle with vegetable and fruit vendors in the market, even though some of them had stepped out of chauffeur-driven cars. Besides the sheer enjoyment of the verbal exchange, on being asked a woman explained that the money they saved belonged to them. When women were mostly homemakers, they were given a budget for household expenses and a few extras, but had no money of their own. For little treats for themselves (cosmetics or fancy lingerie) or the kids, they did not want to ask their husbands for money and then have to account for why they needed that item or why they were spending so much. Every middle-class woman would have a little secret stash in a kitchen container. Even today, when so many women are working outside the home, not many actually have control over their earnings. Their salaries just go into the household kitty, and they are granted an allowance for transport and provisions.
In the old days, women — at least middle class, north Indian women, like my mother — did not do ‘outside’ work. The men did the vegetable shopping on their way back from work, and once a month, grains and other essentials were ordered from the neighbourhood kiranawala. Some money was put aside for entertainment and medical expenses. The rest went into a bank, the account usually in the name of the husband. (Though some enlightened men, like my father, made sure his wife and daughter had their own bank accounts.) It was believed to be rude or crass to talk about money to people outside the family.
The way the rules of money have been established, many women are still uneasy about spending on themselves, and are clueless about investments. Considering we live in a full-blown materialistic society, there is also a strange reticence about casually discussing money. Ms Dunlap writes, “Humility bait is why people (and especially women) avoid saying anything that would imply we might want to be rich: Who am I to admit that money is a priority for me, instead of something more noble…. A recent study stated that we women are also more likely to experience shame, ‘in part due to societal and cultural standards placed upon women that create negative self-evaluations in women when those standards are not met’.”
There is also the reality of the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap, which means a large majority of women simply have less money to spend, leave aside save or invest. They still do not have the power to negotiate better terms, and the situation is much worse in the unorganised sector. In the US, until 1974, women could not even have a credit card in their own name without a male co-signer, and until 1988, they could not get a business loan, again without a male cosigner.
There is also the social conditioning by which women are always portrayed as maternal and self-sacrificing. Ms Dunlap quotes from a 2017 study in the journal Nature, which found that women’s brains exhibited a greater response when sharing money, while in men, the same part of the brain showed more activity, when they kept the cash for themselves. “This default nature of giving and selflessness is an expectation of our gender,” she writes.
This also means, she points out, that women are then overrepresented in care-giving jobs like teaching, nursing and domestic work, which are overwhelmingly underpaid, or they do unpaid housework. In countries where the male child is valued more, parents tend to spend more on the son’s higher education, and girls are expected to learn household chores. Psychology professor Judith Elaine Blakemore, quoted in the book, found that “girls’ toys were associated with physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills, whereas boys’ toys were rated as violent, competitive, exciting and somewhat dangerous.”
Popular culture, mirroring social attitudes, continues to portray ambitious or wealth-seeking women in a negative light. In India, men are the one who demand dowry, yet, the term gold-digger is always used for the woman who marries for money.
If girls are conditioned from childhood, that financial matters are best handled by men, they grow up to be nervous about investments or running big businesses, and then, they are also mocked for being economically unsavvy. The patriarchy is threatened by women’s financial independence, because if women learn to manage money well, men lose their control over them.
A lot of advertising is aimed at women — fashion, cosmetics, children’s things — and when they splurge, they are made to feel guilty for frivolous spending. But, if they are not groomed and made-up for office, they are pulled up for looking unprofessional. There was a recent uproar about many corporate insisting on women wearing high heels!
Ms Dunlap writes, “Recent research looked at 300 financial “how-to” articles and found that 90% of the pieces aimed at women were centred around saving money. Two-thirds of the articles reviewed labelled women as excessive spenders. Advice for men: “Here are five hot stocks now,” Advice for women: “Here are five dinners you can make for under $5.”
In a society where wealth generates more wealth, women usually start out at a disadvantage. If they make less money, they obviously cannot invest more or spend on themselves without guilt.
Victoria Woodhull, leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1860s, also became the first female stockbroker in the US, along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Ms Woodhull also decided to run for the Presidency, when women were still struggling to get voting rights. She said, “Women’s ability to earn money is better protection against the tyranny of men than her ability to vote.” Back then, the male-dominated stock market shut out women stockbrokers, and when a woman called Mary Gage started a women’s stock market, she was arrested for lunacy. Women like Ms Woodhull and Ms Gage, writes Ms Dunlap, were labelled “sirens” or "hags" to discredit and silence them. Even today, in the US, only 15% of Wall Street traders are women.
There is change coming in, but it is slow. Perhaps to speed things up, books about finance for women are being published, like Financial Feminism by Jessica Robinson, The Feminist Financial Handbook by Brynne Conroy and the delightfully titled Girls Just Want To Have Funds by Molly Benjamin. Fun with Funds, why not?
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author
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