In this brave new world of 2004, it’s generally assumed that catering to gender differences around money is pass?. Worse yet, it’s not PC. Everyone is equal now; there is no more need for affirmative action to educate women about finance, and no point in male financial advisors learning “female ways of thinking” or vice versa.
But my 30 years as a psychotherapist tells me that it ain’t necessarily so. Not only are there still strong emotional and cultural differences between the sexes, but neither gender is quite as oblivious to the role of money in relationships as we like to think.
Two years ago, for example, my co-author Sherry Christie and I surveyed two groups of women from Mount Holyoke College: one group from the Class of 1968 and the other from the Class of 1996, young enough to be their daughters. Among these graduates who were in intimate relationships, a remarkable 50% earned more than their partners. We asked whether they or their partners had any problem with this reversal of traditional roles, expecting to find higher comfort levels in the younger group.
The first surprise was that only two-thirds of the younger women said they were comfortable outearning their partner, compared to four-fifths of the older group. Among those who were not okay with the situation, a startling 37% of the younger women admitted that both they and their partner were uneasy with the income disparity. Another 50% told us their partner was bothered about it, but they themselves weren’t. By contrast, being the high earner concerned 76% of the women in the older “uncomfortable outearners” group. However, they all insisted that the income imbalance didn’t bother their partner.
We might conclude that older men, at least, are fine with being outearned by a woman. But I was reminded of some of the interviews I’d done in 2001 for a book I was writing. During these conversations, several well-known women told me, “I make more money than my husband does, but he’s fine with it. He doesn’t feel threatened at all. But would you mind not mentioning it in the book?” So possibly, older men aren’t really as comfortable with being outearned as their wives like to think!
In matters of mores, change often happens much more slowly than the mass media would have us believe. In societal terms, the 28 years between two college classes is the blink of an eye. Should it surprise us to learn that a woman is still not free to outearn a man without risking their relationship?
Journalist and TV producer Linda Ellerbee has an interesting take on this slow-to-change societal bias. She told me that when a woman dates a man who is richer and better known than she is, people are happy for her: “Congratulations! What a great catch!” But when a man dates a woman who is wealthier and more famous than he is, people say to him in a tone of concern, “Are you okay dealing with this? How are you handling it?” So even if he starts out feeling fine about the money differential, he often ends up feeling weird about it.
Money Still Equals Power
Men and women tend to view the same landscape from different vantage points. Generally speaking, both views are valid. But as the preceding examples indicate, there is one area where the difference in perspective is unbalanced: money and power.
While generalizations can mislead when applied to individuals, they are a useful way to sum up gender differences. In my experience, women typically want to share financial power with their intimate partner, regardless of who earns more. But when a man makes more money than his partner, he usually believes he should have primary authority in making the financial decisions.
As Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen points out, men are socialized to succeed by defeating their opponents (win-lose), unlike women, who are trained to be accommodating and cooperative (win-win). In addition to viewing relationships hierarchically, men are more self-contained, in contrast to women’s desire to be connected with other people.
These two points of difference explain why a man may come home with a new big-screen TV and say proudly, “Look what I got us!” When his dazed and hurt wife protests, “How could you have done this without consulting me?” he’s apt to respond with anger and equal hurt, “Do I have to ask your permission? What are you, my mother?” In his one-up, one-down view, he has gone out in the world, battled store clerks and fellow customers, and returned victorious with his prey. In his wife’s view, such an important decision should have been made together after a collaborative discussion.
As financial professionals who are “therapeutic educators,” you have an opportunity to help couples learn to make decisions as a team, no matter who earns most of the money. If you can encourage them with sensitivity and patience to share power equally, they will be better able to move forward as partners, with their goals aligned to the fullest extent.
Urge them to talk about it with each other and with you, so they can strategize ways to become more comfortable with jointly sharing financial power. It may be useful to discuss the different contributions each of them makes to the relationship and the family’s well-being. Perhaps they would be less conscious of their income disparity if each of them contributes to a joint household account in proportion to his or her earnings.
I’m not saying this is easy. Men, whether younger or older, may view sharing financial power as weakening their masculinity. Women who have been single a long time, or have grown up in a family where developing independence was a survival technique, may be no better at sharing decisions than many men are. I recently received an e-mail from a woman like this, the chief earner in her family. For the sake of her career, her husband had moved across the country more than once without apparent resentment. Now he wanted to use $15,000 of their savings to start his own business. Fearing that his lack of business skills meant the money would be wasted, the wife wrote me in search of support for her “rational” position to deny his request.
Although I empathized with both of them, I told her that in the long run, what they did about the money would be less important than how they did it. Unless she and her spouse could share power and decision-making equally, their relationship would suffer from a lack of mutual respect. I advised her that it was vital to build a bridge of communication, empathy, and esteem, so that her husband could come to feel good about himself and his contributions, both in his work and at home.