Do you ever feel like, as a woman, you missed the class in life where you learned all about money?
Like, somehow, all your male friends suddenly woke up one day and knew all about mortgages and IRAs and you were left there, poring over websites trying to determine what exactly a 0% APR credit card was? Maybe it’s just me but, compared to the men I know, my confidence with money is literally zero, zilch, nada. Which, ironically, isn’t far off what my savings account holds.
So my interest was piqued when I found out about a new study which claims the language used to speak to men and women about money is very different indeed. Starling Bank, one of the new wave of smartphone-based, millennial-focussed banks, has analyzed the difference between how male and female-centric media outlets speak to their readers about money, and the results show some inherent — and problematic — differences.
The study looked at 300 articles and researchers found that women were defined as "excessive spenders" across 65% of the articles aimed at them.
The study looked at 300 stories, and researchers found that women were defined as "excessive spenders" across 65% of the articles aimed at them. They were advised to “limit, restrict, and take better control of shopping 'splurges'.” In contrast, Starling Bank says, the language of the men’s articles implied that financial successes made readers “more of a man". The articles used words like "dare" to encourage men to “invest” and to "spend" to achieve “power”. Back over on the women's side though, 71% of articles encouraged women to seek out "vouchers", "discounts", "bargains and coupons" to save money.
Of course further research is needed on this, this study looked at just magazine articles and, these days, the vast majority of us probably do most of our reading online. But perhaps there's something in it. Perhaps it isn't that I've missed my education on money, it's that I have been told that it's not my area. Finances are a place for men to excel and women to cut back.
“When women shop, it’s seen as being frivolous,” explains Anne Boden, CEO of Starling Bank whose new campaign Make Money Equal is seeking to rectify this issue. “But when men spend similar sorts of money on big purchases, they’re ‘investments’.”
Campaign ambassador and podcaster Emma Gannon agrees but adds that the study's findings are grim for men, too. Being told constantly that the answer to success is "money" means that it may be tough to admit when things like debt creep up. “I think that women would go for a glass of wine and be like ‘I’m so screwed’ whereas I can’t really imagine a group of lads in a pub getting real about that.”
Gannon remembers being fed the diatribe about women as "splurgers" from a young age; the wildly popular Confessions of a Shopaholic books (hands up who read them, no judgement here) promoted the idea that women couldn’t be trusted with money. Our heroine spent the entire 300 pages of each book in some sort of credit card trouble. “Loads of protagonists in books like that were a bit of a mess when it came to their finances,” Gannon says. “I was obsessed with Bridget Jones and she was always spending her money on booze and fags. It was cool to spend more than you earn.”
The study doesn’t offer reasons why these two separate narratives about men and women and their finances have emerged but Boden theorizes that it’s to do with a historic lack of women in decision-making positions. Back in the day, perhaps the people making the choices about how we talk to women… weren’t women? “You get all these writers and marketing people in a room and they say 'We want to talk to women about money – how do we get them interested in money? Let’s talk about shoes and handbags'.”
Seeing article after article about saving for shoes and handbags then, may have gone some way towards leading women to perceive their spending as “frivolous”. In time, the women at the women’s magazines writing the articles may have subconsciously consumed and regurgitated this sentiment.
The indirect effects of this are very worrying. How am I, as a woman, meant to feel confident in my finances when I am made to feel guilt over the things I purchase? (For the record, this is rarely “shoes and handbags” – and that trope needs to die a horrible death.)
"If you don’t feel confident with your money then you’re less likely to go, ‘Actually this is how much I’m worth'," says Gannon, explaining how this could even be preventing some women from asking for more in the workplace. Worse, Boden says, it could prevent women from reaching senior positions in companies. This, and the gender pay gap, she says are “outputs of how women are spoken to and their relationship with money.”
So perhaps this whole "bad with money" thing I've decided about myself isn’t entirely my fault. But where do we go from here? For Boden, as well as encouraging women’s media outlets to speak about money with more confidence, she says we also need to silence the guilt in ourselves. “We shouldn’t be ashamed,” she says. “We should be totally objective about how much we’re spending and what we spend on ourselves as necessities and what we spend on ourselves to celebrate.”
Not that this should give you carte blanche to go wild on your credit card, though. "There’s two sorts of people,” she continues. “There’s the people that have the Excel spreadsheet on a Sunday evening, that go through and categorise all their spending, and then there’s the people who never open the envelope [of their bank statement]. Both places are bad places to be.” It is, like most things, about finding balance and a happy medium. Don't be down on yourself for having an outrageously expensive meal to celebrate payday, but do make sure it doesn't leave you eating baked beans for the rest of the month.
Thankfully, we are in an era of change when it comes to money. More and more female CEOs and entrepreneurs are visible – people like Bumble's Whitney Wolfe, Glossier's Emily Weiss, and Peanut's Michelle Kennedy. As well as running businesses, these women are dedicating themselves to teaching other women how to get investments, how to start businesses, how to value themselves in monetary terms in the workplace and so on.
The more and more they speak, and the more we realize, thanks to studies like the above, that women have been left out of the money conversation. The more we'll fight back, the more we'll be encouraged to educate ourselves and gain confidence. To those of you who are already doing this, reach out to your money-confused friends and lend a hand. To those of you who (like me) still feel daunted by money, take a deep breath and dive in headfirst; you have every right to a seat at the finance table.
Here's to a real change in the way women see money. No more "splurges" on shoes and handbags; instead, it's time to think about "investing" your money. And whether that means stocks and shares or a J.W.Anderson tote is totally up to you.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Refinery29.uk and has been edited.