Innate gender differences prevent more women from succeeding in science and math careers. An old stereotype, you say? Yet Harvard University President Lawrence Summers put forth this view at a conference just two months ago, outraging many female academics in his audience.
Despite our wishful thinking, stereotypes remain alive and well, and for many reasons, they’re a phenomenon that fascinates me. We all know that stereotyping can lead to pigeonholing people into categories that may be inaccurate and dehumanizing. Even when the stereotypes are positive (French people are fabulous cooks; Asian kids are super students), they tend to block us from seeing people as the unique individuals they are.
Indeed, generalizing can be downright risky. In the 20-plus years that I’ve been studying money psychology, however, I’ve found that stereotypes sometimes provide a valuable shortcut to understanding clients’ attitudes and behaviors. In fact, the compassionate use of stereotypes may actually make clients feel less singled out and stigmatized, and may suggest ways you can help them become more balanced and rational about money.
Let’s start with classification systems. After observing human nature as a therapist and coach, I believe that many people’s money behavior puts them into one or more of these categories:
Hoarders. These are people who think that money is security, saving is the most important priority, and spending money on immediate pleasure is bad or wasteful.
Spenders. Those who hate to budget, hate even the word “budget,” and love to spend on their immediate desires.
Money Worriers. Those who are constantly beset by anxiety that they can’t control their money, or don’t have enough of it.
Money Avoiders. Those who avoid dealing with their money and are often in a fog about how much they earn, spend, owe, or have saved.
When I explain these categories in a talk or workshop, the audience’s reaction is usually amused relief, not indignation at being pigeonholed. Why don’t more people feel annoyed that I have created these “boxes” into which their behavior can be described and placed?
One reason is that I try not to stigmatize anyone in these categories, and I openly admit to being a recovering overspender who loves to buy clothes. That admission allows other spenders to relate to me and feel that I’m not judging them harshly. By sharing my imperfections, I make it easier for clients to own up to theirs.
Also, the use of classifications reassures people that they are not alone in exhibiting certain attitudes and behaviors. I believe this serves as a healing influence, giving them a little more space to decide whether these tendencies are serving them well.
Of course, there are instances (albeit infrequent) when people don’t like being classified or put in a box. If I encounter someone like this, I simply dispense with the money category concept. Instead, we proceed on the basis of their self-description, along with their comments about what makes them feel good in their moneylife–my term for the way people feel about and deal with money–and what makes them uncomfortable. After asking them to generate these “good” and “bad” lists, I encourage them to reflect on which list was harder to write. Focusing on the more difficult list makes it possible to help them embrace their strengths or gently confront their weaknesses, which is often a vital step in moving forward.
Remember, however, that this situation is rare. In most cases, giving people “handles” to classify their behavior helps them laugh at themselves, and feel more connected to others who are struggling with the same money issues.
There can be a surprising upside in teaching people about gender-related stereotypes. I often begin by alluding to “Defending the Caveman,” the hilarious stage show in which Rob Becker analyzes his marriage through the different lenses of men as hunters and women as gatherers. Becker notes that men shop by going out to kill a shirt. They wear it till it dies, then go out and kill another shirt. For women, shopping means gathering–a scarf for a niece’s birthday, great shoes on sale for themselves, something else to give a friend next Christmas.
At this point, people are usually chuckling as they recognize themselves and other men and women they know. By introducing stereotypes in this unthreatening way, I think there is the potential to prevent or mitigate countless marital fights between women who shop and men who think it’s an incomprehensible waste of time.
An understanding of social and cultural differences can help clients take other relationship problems less personally. For example, I sometimes cite linguist Deborah Tannen’s research showing that men are typically raised to compete with others and try to win, while women grow up learning to cooperate, accommodate, and make decisions as part of a team. Awareness of this distinction (which is changing, but more slowly than some of us might like to see) helps couples develop more empathy with each other when struggles and misunderstandings arise.
As another example of male-female differences, boys tend to develop more rigid boundaries when separating from their mothers, while girls maintain more porous or “merged” boundaries. This can lead to habitual tension in a couple if the man’s more autonomous decision-making collides with the woman’s expectation of collaborative decisions. The stereotype is the husband who announces excitedly, “Guess what, honey? They gave me a great deal on the trade-in, so I got rid of the station wagon and bought a Hummer!”
The ensuing dialogue–”How could you have done that without consulting me? Aren’t we supposed to be a team?” countered by, “I didn’t think I had to ask for permission. Who are you, my mother?”–describes natural reactions motivated by these sociocultural (and possibly biological) differences. Once this is understood, clients are often able to cultivate more patience for each other’s attitudes and perhaps learn to compromise in a way that acknowledges both their natures.
The most moving instance of a gender stereotype healing tensions and resolving conflict is in the area of merged versus separate money. I have posited for many years that one of the most important reasons for husbands to favor merging the couple’s money and wives to resist it has been overlooked or misunderstood. It has to do with the different challenges of intimacy for men and women.
When a man wants to merge their accounts, the woman may counter, “Why? Do you want to control me?” Her hurt partner is apt to retort, “Don’t you trust me? Are you planning to leave?” While these unpleasant motives may apply in some cases, I believe that the answer usually lies in the unconscious needs of each gender.
In general, getting and staying connected in an intimate relationship is challenging and difficult for men. As John Gray puts it, they tend to withdraw into their caves when they get uncomfortable. If they desire more connection and closeness with a partner, merging money is something relatively easy for them to accomplish. By contrast, women are prone to overgive and overmerge, sometimes losing their identity in a relationship. Keeping some money separate helps them preserve their individuality in the midst of intimacy.