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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.

Gender Stereotypes

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.

Once couples understand this difference, solutions can be developed to honor the real, underlying needs of each of them. If they both value autonomy, they can keep all their money in “his” and “her” accounts. Or they can combine most of it, leaving some separate funds for her. Or they can merge a certain amount each month for household expenses and savings, and keep the rest in individual accounts for each of them.

By using generalizations like those mentioned above, you may be able to help heal misunderstandings and teach both sides to take their differences less personally. I know that when I bring out these points, I almost always see the eyes in the room go from hard or angry to soft and vulnerable, as the understanding dawns that both men’s and women’s needs are valid, not contradictory or mutually exclusive.

Racial and Religious Stereotypes

Stereotyping on the basis of race or religion has become a dirty word, and I would agree that the dangers often outweigh the benefits. In some situations, however, your awareness of cultural or religious beliefs behind clients’ attitudes or actions may help you work with them more effectively.

For example, suppose a Jewish couple seeks your help in planning how to send their four children to first-class private colleges and graduate schools. After analyzing the situation, it’s clear to you that they will not be able to completely fund the kids’ educations unless they forgo their own retirement.

You might feel comfortable explaining this straightforwardly to gentile parents. But a caution flag would go up if you know that according to centuries-old cultural traditions, education is all-important in a Jewish family, and parents are considered responsible for ensuring that their children are well educated, no matter what the cost. To avoid stigmatizing the couple as failures or bad parents (at least in their own eyes), it would behoove you to exercise extreme patience and sensitivity in communicating with them. You might note, for instance, that paying the full tab for higher education could well lead to their becoming a burden on the kids in their old age. Far better for the children to apply for grants, loans, and work-study programs that can help them learn responsibility.

Or consider a situation where a young African-American business owner consults you after a profitable year. Your first impulse might be to suggest an appropriate stock portfolio. However, you know research has found that many black investors are more comfortable putting their money in real estate than in the stock market.

While you could be mistaken in assuming that this stereotype is true for your client, ignoring it entirely might be even worse. I would suggest asking this client about his family’s attitudes toward money and investing in order to clarify whether or not he is open to buying equities. If he is uncertain, you might want to broaden his perspective by encouraging him to learn more about these investment vehicles. In any case, understanding the messages he was raised with, and how much weight they carried, will help you decide how to proceed and at what pace.

Class Stereotypes

We Americans pride ourselves on having a classless society, or at least one whose upper strata are accessible to newcomers with ability and persistence. However, stereotypes prevail even here.

For example, it’s natural to applaud a client who is a self-made success–graduated with honors, became the company’s youngest vice president, or started a business and sold it for millions. It’s more difficult to understand why such a client won’t follow your advice and go on to achieve even more.

When this happens, it reminds me of the stereotype that people resist succeeding beyond their comfort level. The young client who was the first in her family to graduate from college, or the executive who is at the point of exceeding the highest salary his father ever earned, may have conscious or unconscious conflicts about how successful to be. By keeping this possibility in mind, I can sometimes sniff out self-sabotaging patterns manifest in client decision-making or decision avoidance.

Heirs to family money have stereotypical issues of their own. It’s common for them to suffer from guilt (“So many other people are poor; I don’t deserve this money”), low self-esteem (“Maybe I wouldn’t be able to support myself if I had to”), fear and paranoia (“People pretend to like me because they want my money”), shame (“If people knew I was wealthy, they’d hate/envy/reject me, or consider me corrupt or greedy”). Knowing that one or more of these generalizations may well be accurate, I listen for the story behind the money. Once I become familiar with clients’ deeper values and longings and the quality of their family relationships, I help them look for a way to embrace their inheritance and use it to reflect their own integrity.

Handle With Care

After making this case for using stereotypes to help classify client needs, I’m going to contradict myself–or, rather, offer a caveat. It’s crucial to cultivate an attitude of deep respect for the individual history and journey of every man and woman you see in your practice.

If you start out by being overly invested in any stereotypical notions, true or not (who’s to say what makes a stereotype “true,” anyway?), you will be pronouncing judgment before even finding out whether the shoe fits. I therefore advocate listening deeply, fully, and carefully to your clients’ concerns, desires, goals, and history. If a generalization comes to mind–”She wants to shop around for a new car; he just wants to go out and ‘kill’ one”–you can decide whether or not to share it. If you keep it to yourself, use it to infuse your suggestions, interventions, and timing with more empathy.

If a money personality type or other categorization jumps to mind when I’m working with a client, I usually check it out with that client at some point. More importantly, I use it to create assignments for clients who seem ready to try expanding beyond their old habits into the greater flexibility that comes from “practicing the non-habitual.”

For instance, if I meet someone whom I would categorize as a money avoider, I can ascertain which tasks or competencies they avoid and find ways to help them take on one or more, with a reward tailor-made for their personality. If I work with a couple whose conflict appears to arise from cultural male-female differences, I try to help them see that they are not alone and that others have found creative ways through the impasse they are facing.

Just as stereotypes used insensitively can box in and demean clients, a compassionate understanding of these generalizations can expand one’s awareness and ways of building relationships.

For example, it’s no doubt true that women are underrepresented in math and science. Part of what stirred up the storm of outrage at Harvard was the depreciation of women as less capable of committing themselves to such grueling careers. Instead of generalizing in this negative way, it would have been possible to note that family and feelings of connectedness tend to be more important to women, while men are often more single-minded in their work. The idea that one person must be “down” or deficient so the other can be “up” is, forgive me, a male viewpoint. (Of course, that’s a stereotype!)

Take some time to think about how you view patterns of culture, religion, class, race, and gender. The way you understand and talk about “stereotypical” notions and categories can either limit your work with clients by squeezing them into a box, or offer new ways to inspire them by honoring the unique influences that make them who they are. The choice is yours.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and consultant therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology. E-mail Olivia at [email protected]