Women, insecurity and money: Overcoming the confidence gap

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.

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Fredrik von Oberhausen
Fredrik von Oberhausen
5 years ago

It is a pity that you do not pass on any links to the studies and the statistics Kristin. When I discuss stocks and index funds with women then I sadly often find that they are not interested in the topic. It might come from the time horizon and what we are interested in. As an example I care very little for coupons and sales for saving money today and I think that type of daily savings interests women more. I on the other hand go for stocks and index funds which are often showing costs today (with fees) but… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago

Yeah, sorry about the links 🙁 Unfortunately, I don’t have control over that.

Brant F
Brant F
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Kristin,

Are you saying you can’t provide links to statistics because the site won’t let you? If so, why I am reading this site if they won’t allow their writers to provide evidence of their claims? If not, what are you saying here?

Linda Vergon
5 years ago
Reply to  Brant F

Hi Brant, A fair percentage of external links break, require users to register in order to view content, and could even pose a security concern for our users — and this led us to change our linking policies recently. We can’t always guaranty that a site is trustworthy or will be in the future and we don’t want to take that risk. But I am happy to provide the information/studies that Kristin says informed her post today: 1. A Fidelity Investments 2013 Couples Retirement Study Executive Summary: Disconnect between Couples; Women Less Engaged 2. An article on LinkedIn by Kathleen… Read more »

Brant F
Brant F
5 years ago
Reply to  Brant F

Linda,

I can’t reply to you so I’ll reply to myself. I appreciate you providing information about the stats referenced several times in the article. Those pieces were quite interesting, though I didn’t agree with some of the conclusions drawn from the evidence presented.

Emma
Emma
5 years ago
Reply to  Brant F

@Linda – you can get around that by setting up broken link reports for your website, indicating in the link text that someone needs to login and if an article is on a questionable or dangerous website, how reliable is it in the first place? If a study is in a journal that requires subscription, you can still link to an abstract. As a reader, I like to know where information comes from because I want to weigh the validity of study or article for myself. Two of those four links are from people and organizations who are in the… Read more »

Louisa
Louisa
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

This is meant for Linda in post #34

The correct spelling is “guarantee,” not “guaranty.” Ouch. Editors are supposed to fix errors, not make them.

Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago

‘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?”’ Yes, it could be an issue for a man! You’re assuming that people don’t listen to you because you’re a woman. People don’t listen because they don’t want to be told they’re wrong by anyone. These things are issues for every human being. From my viewpoint (as a woman who became an electrical engineer in the 1980s) you have no idea what true sexual discrimination is. And I… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Ugh to the argument of “you don’t have it as bad as we did.” Come on, that doesn’t mean there’s not room for major improvement. And I have gotten on with my life, and I’ve done pretty well for myself. Being ignored or second-guessed doesn’t bother me nor does it hold me back. I roll my eyes and move on. But this is about a much larger issue that, statistically, affects women. And it’s something worth considering.

Christy
Christy
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Other people’s problems and issues do not invalidate yours. Thank you for the article – insecurity is the biggest barrier to our lives and it’s really important to talk about things like this in order to encourage.

Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

You completely missed my point. Just because someone doesn’t listen to you doesn’t mean they’re ignoring you because you’re a woman. Your personal examples of situations in which you “think” you may have been discriminated against are extremely weak. I know that inequality still exists. But someone ignoring your online advice? Have you ever been told to type up another engineer’s report because you’re a woman? Have you ever been assigned to be the eye candy at a presentation rather than the presenter when you’re the most technically competent person there? Have you every been rejected as a job applicant… Read more »

Midwest Jane
Midwest Jane
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

So unless you have experienced egregious sexism and inequality, you shouldn’t complain or even discuss it? In many respects, quiet sexism is more insidious and ultimately effects us all. It is true that many people (both male and female I might add) downplay the ideas of women or subtly treat them differently. If Kristen noticed a discrepancy, she likely wasn’t imaging it or being “oversensitive” (another gendered term). I remember a female professor of mine who once mentioned that she had to dress much more professionally than her male counterparts to gain the same amount of respect at the front… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Maybe I am completely missing your point, but I don’t think so. I think maybe you have the wrong idea about what this article was meant to be about. And maybe that’s my fault. So I’ll try to explain a little better. Since you asked, yes, I’ve definitely had to do stuff I was way overqualified to do. I’ve also been told to work in another part of a building because some of my coworkers were not used to working around women. Honestly, I actually didn’t even think about those things being discriminatory until you just asked. And, really, that’s… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

I’m not trying to attack you personally, Kristen. I’ve replied to your posts because I think you’re a talented young woman who has a lot of insight. I’m trying to help you see that these subtle slights might have nothing to do with your being a women. Everyone, man or woman, experiences these sorts of things. And honestly, how does this introspection over real or imagined slights help you move forward? How does it help you Get Rich Slowly? And how do you propose to address the more subtle forms of sexism? Laws have helped women with the more egregious… Read more »

Johanna
Johanna
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Marsha,

Women in other places and times have faced forms of sexism worse than anything you (or probably even your mother and grandmothers) ever had to deal with. If they tried to tell you that what they faced was “true discrimination,” whereas what you faced was not, would you be sympathetic to that?

You asked, “And how do you propose to address the more subtle forms of sexism?” By treating them as the real problems they are, to start, and by challenging people, male and female, who think they’re not.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

I don’t want this to turn into an attack, and apologies if I set the stage for this in my original reply. I do understand Marsha’s concern that by quibbling and worrying whether every little thing is discriminatory or gender-based, we might make things worse. But for me, that knowledge isn’t victimizing, it’s empowering. Knowing that there might be a really dumb reason for my insecurity helped me get over it fast. Plus, I felt supported knowing that other women felt this way, too. And that helped me take a stand. I spoke up. I asked for more money. I… Read more »

KC
KC
5 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

I have to chime in with Kristin here–there’s a serious danger in the “you don’t have it as bad as I did” attitude. I have had the experience of a kind of “harassment by proxy” in which older women managers assigned me to work with very problematic men so that I could learn “what it was like.” This has gone on for years and in spite of an official policy that said they were to report such behavior, not abet it. Unfortunately these supervisors had learned that this was a wonderful way to nullify newcomers who might pose a threat… Read more »

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
5 years ago
Reply to  KC

KC, your comment is so spot on for much of my experience in big law. There are the experienced women who serve as good mentors, and then there are the experienced women who stab others in the back and relish in putting the junior folks through the old ringer. It is such a shame.

Meg
Meg
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Marsha,

As a young female engineer I feel you are minimizing the amount of discrimination and lack of gender equality that still exists in many workplaces (including technical professions) even though the discrimination may not be as outright as when you first started.

At a time when women get violent threats (gamer community, everyday sexism) for speaking out about inequality and harassment such a dismissive attitude becomes part of the problem.

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Marsha, I understand that you may have had an especially tough circumstance being a female in your industry but telling another woman that she has no idea what true sexual discrimination is a rather ignorant thing to assume and say. You have no idea what someone else has grown through in life and what the journey has been. It doesn’t help when we as women put other women down. I expect more from all women. When you make the statement that others had it way harsher…and therefore no one else has the right to feel/complain/speak out etc. is trivial. Someone… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

A friend of mine once told me “things could always be worse, but they could always be better too”. Her point was that we can acknowledge someone else may have it worse, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges of our own that need addressing.

If you remove gender from the logic, just because I’m not $100K in debt like some people are doesn’t mean there aren’t changes I should make to improve my finances. It’s important to keep things in perspective, but I don’t think that should make us complacent either.

Linh
Linh
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Marsha,

I think you need back away from the keyboard and think more deeply about this and what you’ve written. With that kind of negative holier-than-thou-I-suffered-more-so-dont-complain attitude, I sincerely hope you are not in any kind of leadership position or a mentor to anyone.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

You’re brave tackling such a loaded subject 😉 Curious to see the comments on this one… I’m single so I don’t have the luxury of letting my husband manage the investments like so many couples I know. I don’t look at the issue as one of gender — it’s about me and what I do know and what I don’t know and what I can do to improve. … Until I come across a salesperson, service provider or advisor who treats me like a naive child or gets defensive when I start asking questions. I never know if it’s because… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Exactly. I never consider my gender in striving to earn more, negotiate my pay learn to invest, etc. But when I read and learn about this stuff, I can’t help but think about my own experiences. Sure, if I were a man I may very well still be timid and insecure. If I were a man, maybe I’d be earning the same amount. For the sake of the naysayers, and for my own sanity, I’m willing to assume that to be true. Yet the issue of equal pay (and this whole “confidence gap” thing) still exists, and it still affects… Read more »

Jan
Jan
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I am the financial person in our household, and have been for 32 years. It drives me wild when a planner insists that he needs to speak to my husband about an investment. I let them know that he does not indulge and we will not be purchasing from them! A man in that position would be considered wise. As an older woman, I am considered a bi—.
I haven’t found a woman planner yet. Still waiting for your generation to come up with one who is both assertive and not so swamped that she would take me on.

Holly
Holly
5 years ago
Reply to  Jan

We had some crawlspace work done on a property last year and the first person who gave us a quote said they felt uneasy talking to me about it without my husband there. I literally laughed out loud. I manage our properties- my husband has no idea what is going on with them half the time.

Mrs. Frugalwoods
Mrs. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

I have a very similar feeling at times when reading stats about women’s earnings and personal finance aptitude–I forget that I’m a woman too! It sounds odd, but I think it’s easy to gloss over the discrepancies and income gaps that persist to this day. There’s certainly a perception that women don’t have their finances in order and it makes me cringe when people talk about how much more money women spend than men. Not true for all people! Broad generalizations like this become part of society’s dialogue and are, sadly, easy tropes for people to fall back on. I… Read more »

Veronica
Veronica
5 years ago

Great article. I’m like you and I forget that I’m a woman and may approach situations differently and be viewed differently than a man. I also work with mostly men, which I believe has helped. I also want to point out that I could be considered more aggressive with finances than my husband, and he’s not shy with money! Women have certainly come a long way in this respect and that’s how we know these differences stem from how we’ve been socialized. It really doesn’t have to do with our genetic makeup. We aren’t hardwired to not speak up. We’ve… Read more »

Budget Girl
Budget Girl
5 years ago
Reply to  Veronica

I absolutely agree with this comment. I manage our finances: retirement accounts, IRA, rental property, kids’ college fund. I forget that I’m a woman — this is just something I like to do. Yes, I like to talk about index funds too. I know where we’ll be financially 5, 10 and 15 years from now if there are no major changes. I have contingency plans in place in case there are major changes. The only time I’m reminded that I’m a woman taking on a role that is traditionally male is when I come across folks who don’t have a… Read more »

PawPrint
PawPrint
5 years ago
Reply to  Veronica

“Let’s continue what our grandmothers and mothers have already done and socialize our daughters and nieces to speak up for themselves and grab life by the horns!” I agree, although I believe we face difficulties doing this. When my daughter was young, a boy was bothering her in class, and I told her to speak up when he did that by saying “No!” She did, and, instead of reprimanding the boy, the teacher got mad at my daughter for talking loudly in class. Today I got a text from my daughter, who has been negotiating with her employer for a… Read more »

Patricia
Patricia
5 years ago

Agree with Veronica, but also we must learn how to better take care of our futures. Sounds like you are doing that Kristin.

I would really like to find more ways for lower income people to get started investing. With savings plans ok, but being as low as interest is, safe and growing options would be a good thing.

AMW
AMW
5 years ago

I think I am somewhere inbetween. I have been self employed for the majority of my adulthood, which I believe makes you more aware of all sides of finances. I am very frugal with the day to day stuff but worry about it less than my husband. I am also the risk taker in the investment department. However, he is the ultimate negotiator and I even hate the idea of negotiating. We make a good team. However, I see the man/woman gap in my friends, my children, my nieces and nephews. It exists. And there is still discrimination worth being… Read more »

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago

This was a great article. I’m a self-employed woman with a good deal of corporate experience behind me. I just got off a call with a new client, and the fact that I didn’t budge on my service prices (because others were pitching the same work for less than half of my price) really threw him off. I have to give him props though, he appreciated my work and decided to hire me anyway because of my experience and quality. (To be fair, it may or may not have had anything to do with my gender, I don’t know. But… Read more »

Chellie Campbell
Chellie Campbell
5 years ago

Thanks for opening up about this subject, Kristin. It’s one very close to me as I have been teaching about money matters for the past 25 years. There’s a very illuminating book I read a few years ago titled “Women Don’t Ask” all about gender norms in all areas, but particularly about money (some of their stats on their web site womendontask.com are shocking). I’ve spent the last year writing my 3rd book “From Worry to Wealthy” which is specifically for women in business and is being released Feb. 3. The first chapter is “Confidence, Charisma, Clients & Cash” which… Read more »

Frank
Frank
5 years ago

First, let me say this is a very well written article. I enjoyed it. You explain your frustrations, anxiety, and perception of situations very well and induce in the reader to have considerable empathy. Excellent job. Your writing is usually good but this one stands out. It’s also handling a potentially violate subject–who doesn’t have confidence? I still prefer to see the world as less discriminatory than you are coming to see it. But, frankly, as you have pointed out, the statistics don’t bare out that optimism. In broad strokes, women earn less, women are higher educated (at least in… Read more »

DealForALiving
DealForALiving
5 years ago

This was a really encouraging read, and as long as you come back to the point of empowerment, I applaud you!

zoranian
zoranian
5 years ago

Many people forget that women also typically choose lower paying careers and take time off to have kids. These are not necessarily choices that we should discourage. I’m always up for increasing women’s self-confidence and decision-making. I have made the choice of lowering my income almost every year since I graduated college. Wealth management wasn’t the career for me, so I eventually made my way all the way down to a non-profit debt management financial counselor, before quitting to stay home with my kids. I work part-time to maintain my sanity and get a break, but I willingly take $8… Read more »

Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

This was an interesting read for me. I remember reading that women’s investments actually performed better than men’s. I’m wondering now if the real reason for that was because we might be intimidated by the process, and make less risky decision.

Chonce
Chonce
5 years ago

Great article Kirsten! I get where you’re coming from and I too was super shy growing up but I learned quickly that not standing up for yourself will get you nowhere. Inequality between men and women, especially in the workplace does exist and the more we open our eyes to it, the more conscious and informed we will become when it comes to speaking up and negotiating a fair salary.

mrs.
mrs.
5 years ago

OMG! Seriously? Wow! YOU are way too much of a talented writer to write this CRAP. Way to keep yourself down. “Oh, owie, I’m a frickin victim”. Like the female engineer who went to school in the ’80’s I went to law school in the ’80’s. If either of us had been such cry-babies we’d never even be employed. Grow the hell up, suck it up and count your frickin blessings. The ONLY thing that is holding you back is YOU.

Emma
Emma
5 years ago
Reply to  mrs.

Yes, and in 1989 a man walked into an engineering school in Montreal and killed 14 women and wounded many others because he blamed feminists for ruining his life. If you want to play “who had it worse” that’s where it ends. It’s an isolated incident in Canada, but how many girls have been attacked or killed in other countries simply for attending school? I could say “suck it up, you’re alive aren’t you?” but you don’t deserve to have your experiences dismissed or belittled. Maybe what someone else has gone through isn’t “bad enough” in your books, but that… Read more »

mrs
mrs
5 years ago
Reply to  Emma

Oh cry me a river – geez! Where is your generation headed?

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  mrs

Woah. I’ve never been insulted so quickly after a compliment! 😛 I don’t think you understand the point of this article. I’ve moved forward and done quite well for myself without even thinking that there could actually be more. I have “sucked it up,” and that’s not a good thing–that’s what’s victimizing, actually. And I’ve also been meek and soft-spoken without giving it much thought. When I started thinking about this stuff more, I was empowered. It motivated me to want to speak up for myself more, ask for raises, speak my mind. Since accepting that this inequality is an… Read more »

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

Interesting insights. My wife leaves all the investment decisions to me and I thought this was because I worked in finance. However Kirsten you might be right about the confidence gap. These insights are brilliant and I guess to bridge the gap we could both attend seminars and read up on investments so we can combine our minds to make better informed decisions. Thanks for sharing. Great post.

Pearl
Pearl
5 years ago

Hahaha oh man. I didn’t even make it past the first two comments. But I see the first is someone suggesting that women are simply not interested in investments and prefer couponing. And the second is someone stating that sexual discrimination is no longer an issue and that the “small, subtle bullshit” you perceive is not even a thing.
Irony much? Keep on keeping on Kristen! As a woman in my 20s, I, too, perceive it. And it bothers me, a lot! And it does matter! It matters to me, and to my life; it matters every single day.

Amanda
Amanda
5 years ago

Several disjointed ideas came to me as I read this article and its comments.
1) “It’s better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you’re not.” I’m the youngest and only female manger in my group. I’m loud and bossy as a person, so when someone called me a “tough broad” I take it as a compliment.
2) A serious problem in gender discrimination in financial advice is forgetting that women live longer than men.
3) Reflecting so that I’m not putting any employees under me through the ringer of “how bad I had it.”

Sara
Sara
5 years ago

Thanks for this article. I definitely see a lot of subtle discrimination against women and yes, a lot of it we are just so used to that we don’t notice. And building confidence – this year I got divorced, and one of the many mistakes I made in my marriage was not speaking up or doing things so my husband got his way most of the time. Since we decided to get divorced and I came to grips that I would have to be on my own I’ve asked for (and received) a week of vacation from a former employer,… Read more »

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