For the past two years, the topic of women and money has come up in my life quite a bit. I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that I'm a woman who writes about money.
But as a woman who writes about personal finance, I feel have given the topic less attention than it deserves — not just in my writing, but in my own thoughts too. I suppose I figured personal finance is something that we all struggle with, not just women. But the more I learn, the more it hits home, and the more I realize we should embrace the topic so we can do something about it.
The confidence gap
Last year, when I read Barbara Stanny's “Secrets of Six-Figure Women,” I found myself nodding in agreement to just about everything she'd written. Some of her points were an unsettling confirmation of my own career shortcomings — particularly, her chapter on the “traits of underearners.” A few of these traits: We have a high tolerance for low pay; we underestimate our worth; we're terrible negotiators. Check, check and check.
Around the same time, I came across a study that found women are considerably less confident than men when it comes to investing. That hit home as well. I'd started saving for retirement, but I was really intimidated to learn more about investing beyond that. Then, recently, I went to an event hosted by Fidelity and Vanity Fair which was all about women, power and money. Their research echoed the findings of pretty much all previous research on this topic: Women lack confidence with personal finance. Kathy Murphy, their President of Personal Investing, called it a “confidence gap.”
It's a weird thing to say, but sometimes I forget I'm a woman. I forget that, statistically, I might be getting the short end of the stick in some circumstances. I forget that what holds me back might have something to do with my gender. Then I read the stats and I think, “Oh, snap. That's totally me.”
Learning about this issue and embracing it has changed the way I think about myself, my gender role and my money. And that change has made a tremendous difference in my finances.
Earning more and overcoming insecurity
Like a lot of people, I am insecure. It's okay to be insecure to a point, I think. I am not a big Bukowski fan, but I do like this quote: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” I'm not saying I'm smarter than anyone; I'm just saying — a little self-doubt isn't necessarily a bad thing. It keeps you open-minded and educated.
But insecurity can hold you back. For example, I've always been afraid to speak up. In third grade, a scientist visited our classroom and brought crystals. We each got one, but I lost mine and reported this to my teacher. She said Rob N.* probably had it because, somehow, he got two crystals.
My teacher brought Rob to me. “Is this yours?” she asked. Sure enough, my own crystal was shining in his palm.
But I was afraid to speak up. I thought if I said yes, I'd be seen as a greedy, crystal-grubbing brat.
I shook my head. Rob shrugged and walked away with it — who could blame him?
I've never really thought about it before, but this is a painfully accurate metaphor for the problems women face with negotiating. If we speak up, we are perceived differently. The statistics show it, and many of us have experienced it. No wonder we're afraid to ask.
I didn't really start asking for raises or negotiating rates until I hit 30. I had a high tolerance for low pay, and it didn't do me any favors. But I realized that, gender gap or not, if I wanted to reach my money goals, I needed to speak up. I have no idea if clients now view me negatively after I've asked for more money. But as a woman trying to reach financial freedom and close whatever pay gap might exist between me and a hypothetical male counterpart, I can't let that stop me. Not speaking up would only reinforce that awful statistic.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity, as he was actually a nice boy. But “Rob” if you're reading this, give me back my damn crystal.
The role of empowerment in financial freedom
Since reading and learning about this issue, I've also forced myself to learn more about investing. And you know, it's not that hard. I get it. And my net worth has grown quite a bit since figuring it out.
I still think it is okay to second-guess myself and admit that I don't have all the answers. But I am getting tired of the little things — the small, subtle bullshit I come across and can't help but think, “If I were a man, would this be an issue?” Like when I wrote about being frugal and a commenter, assuming I don't have my finances in order, asked why anyone should listen to me. Or the time I chimed into a conversation among clueless male investors, who were talking about how index funds are stupid, and they completely ignored me. Or even the fact that I feel self-conscious about taking ownership of my financial accomplishments. I'm afraid of coming across as cocky.
It might seem like focusing on all of this is victimizing, and maybe that is part of the reason I ignored it for so long. But it isn't victimizing; it is empowering. It reminds me that it's not just me. Many women are also afraid to ask for a raise or to speak up or exude the confidence they possess because modesty and meekness and silence are more socially acceptable for our gender. Acknowledging the issue also makes me proud of the financial accomplishments I have made so far — I have found financial security despite the stats not being in my favor.
And finally, I feel thankful to have worked for people who “get it.” For the most part, my bosses have always been encouraging, supportive and understanding. Considering the statistics, that's pretty remarkable.
Kristin Wong is a freelance blogger who frequently writes about relationships for MSNâ€™s The Heart Beat blog. After paying off her student loan debt, Kristin decided it was time to pursue her dream and also put her English degree to use. She scrimped, saved and in 2010, left her hometown of Houston, Texas to pursue a writing career in Los Angeles. Since then, she has written for television, web, and occasionally, sketch comedy. When sheâ€™s not attached to her laptop, Kristin enjoys baking, amateur gardening, listening to 60s rock and exploring her city.