Why Aren’t Women Talking about Money?
During a professional women networking event focused on finances, I observed that just talking about money triggered feelings of shame. Here are successful, ambitious, dynamic women, but when the topic of money came up; I saw them shrink from the overwhelming feeling of shame. And it begged the question:
What’s going on with women and money?
In the past couple of years, there have been great initiatives to encourage women to take more financial ownership and shift the financial conversation. This event I attended was hosted by a not-for-profit women’s group that had invited 4 female financial authorities as panel speakers. Over the next hour, the discussion of the panel revolved around major themes impacting women when it came to their finances. Throughout the 60-minute panel discussion, it was dead quiet: over 500 women were in rapt attention; soaking in the advice, pens scribbling down notes, heads nodding, relating to each issue.
Hands flew up as soon as the Q&A session began, but the questions always started with a blush and a disclaimer: “Maybe this is a simple/basic/dumb question but…” As they proceeded to ask their question, I saw heads nod in agreement all around the room, many women were too embarrassed. They felt shame in their lack of financial knowledge:
Each woman thought they were the only one who didn’t know the answer!
As the Q&A session went on, topics ranged from investing, budgeting, and spending. With each question, the elephant in the room grew. The underlying sense of shame in each question: “Am I bad with money?”
What is this shame?
Prominent shame researcher, Brene Brown describes it as something, that if others knew, would cause them to reject us. That feeling of, “I can’t let my parents know about my credit card debt!”, or, “My friends would think less of me if they know how little I make.”
Dr. Brown also found that shame is gender-specific; she says in her 2012 TED Talk, “shame for women is a web of conflicting and unattainable expectations of who we are supposed to be,” whereas shame for men is to “not be perceived as weak.”
Sadly, I think women identify with both sides. We feel shame for not being able to do it all. We pretend to have everything covered on the surface, but we fear that someone is going to find out that our sink is full of week-old dishes; we only have $8 in our account before payday; we yelled at our significant other, or kids, for having the music on too loud.
Women and money: The breeding grounds for shame
On top of this, women are more willing to admit what we don’t know. We are actually more likely than men to ask, “What is a secular bull market?” However, in our western culture, vulnerability is a perceived weakness. So, when we admit we don’t know, we simultaneously think of ourselves as weak. Women feel shame for not doing it all and not knowing it all.
Women feel shame for not doing it all and not knowing it all.
In the room at the networking event, money was a trigger for the feelings of shame. Dr. Brown finds that shame needs just 3 things to grow. They are secrecy, silence, and judgment. We keep our salaries a secret. We keep silent our money habits. We judge ourselves on our debts and spending.
The way out of shame…
To break this negative cycle, we must first recognize what we are doing and acknowledge our feelings. The interesting nuance is that shame is not guilt. Guilt is associated with behaviors: I did something bad. Shame is associated with the self: I am something bad.
We must first accept that our financial situation is a result of our behaviors, not of our worthiness.
For instance, if I didn’t study up on finance and investing, it’s only a behavior, not something inherently wrong with me. If I had credit card debt because I overspent, it’s a result of a behavior, not because I’m a bad person. So first, we must accept that our financial situation is a result of our behaviors, not of our worthiness.
In Dr. Brown’s Shame Resilience Theory (SRT), the thing that shame cannot survive is a dose of empathy. So, our next step is we must have empathy for ourselves. Schools did not teach us about finances and money. We wouldn’t feel ashamed if we didn’t know how to play chess. So, let go of the shame of not knowing more about finances. With both chess and with personal finance, we can still learn.
Our next step is to have empathy for ourselves.
Once we have empathy for ourselves, this opens the way for us to help ourselves. To be courageous and let other people know I don’t know enough about money. We are afraid of being judged and criticized. But more often than not, those are the moments of true connection, the nods, and “yeah, me too.”
So, now that you know you can let go of your financial shame; what is the next step you want to take?
Pauline Yan is an investment portfolio manager at a multinational financial institution based in Canada. She has earned the right to use the CFA and CAIA designations. Her passion is in coaching and supporting women in financial literacy and achieving their financial goals.
You can reach Pauline at SundayBrunchCafe.