Thursday, January 12, 2006

When Bad Things Happen to Good Messages

I attended a Barbara Stanny seminar yesterday called Overcoming Underearning (which incidentally happens to also be the title of her new book--smart). The event mostly centered around her own experiences with anecdotal references to her climb up from the bottomless pit that is creditors-knocking-on-the-door kind of money worries to the kind of financially secure future that many people dream about. Then today I came across this article at about something called Bag-lady Syndrome. Both had good messages to convey, namely that women should take a more active role in managing their finances, but before you can get to them you get distracted by rampant gender stereotypes gambolling about like playful puppies.

Women everwhere, apparently, according to both Ms Stanny and the author of the Bankrate article, grow up with the expectation that there will always be a man to take care of them. As a result most of their life is spent trying to be decorative in order to attract their Prince Charming and that is why women often find themselves in their twilight years alone and destitute. In the words of the article:

Women typically depend on the males in their life (father, then husbands) to perform the earning and saving roles, while they typically manage the household and raise the kids, largely a spending role. Women are often left out of big-picture financial planning and investing and typically don't have friends who work in these fields to advise them. And it's hardly news that women on average don't earn as much, or advance as far, in their careers compared to their male counterparts.

and that:

Women are raised to be competitive, to look a certain way, to dress a certain way, in order to marry Prince Charming, and the prince is going to be our savior.

and that as a result:

Women tend to be unprepared and overwhelmed when widowhood or divorce suddenly plops their financial security in their hands. If they've long feared they will wind up a bag lady, these transitions can feel like the nightmare is about to play out in real life.

According to the article men don't have these fears. They do have money fears, but those are the rational kind like being injured, dying young or being laid off as opposed to the irrational female fear of simply running out of savings before the angel of death comes calling. Now I realize my personal experiences and the fact that I have always fancied myself more in the role of the savior than the saved may have something to do with it but I find that a little hard to swallow. Women are not new to the world of personal finance or entrepreneurship. Columbus may have discovered America but it was a woman who financed his trip. Nor are they weaklings. Even in Fairy Tales very few of the heroines are completely and utterly passive. Rupenzel helped the prince climb the tower, the Little Mermaid rescued her prince from drowning, the Queen outwitted Rumpelstiltskin and Gretel was the one who pushed the witch into the stove.

This isn't a rant against men. I like them. They are sweet, they put their arms around you when you cry and are very handy with tools. I also think men do have a certain edge in money matters because they have a level of emotional detachment that women often lack. What bothers me about the article is that any article geared towards any segment of population, not just women, that starts with negative stereotypes rather than with positive role models not only dilutes the accomplishments of that segment but reinforces the same insecurities and myths it claims to be attempting to dispel. At one point the article says:

Women are in denial about it, but when you name it and you make them feel like they're not alone, then very few women remain in denial about it.

Women (and even men) who are naturally vulnerable and therefore more suggestible can easily become convinced that they have all these fears when the suggestion comes from an authoritative source. This can have the exact opposite effect than desired. Instead of becoming emancipated they can very well get trapped in this so called bag-lady syndrome twilight zone. Isn't there a better way to get the message across?

So if you are someone, woman or man, just starting out or simply unsure of how to go about managing your finances, here's my advice:

  1. Get comfortable with money. Get comfortable saying it. Don't be afraid. We fear what we do not understand. Learn about how money works. If you like history, read up on the barter system and how that evolved into the modern currency system. The more you know the better you will feel.

  2. Know how much you will need. Fear of not having enough is often really a fear of not being in control of one's life. You can have millions and millions of dollars and still feel that way if you don't know exactly how much (or how little) you need to be ok. Use this retirement calculator.

  3. Learn the basics of personal finance. Stop reading fluff articles that tell you how this is the age of empowerment and start reading books that tell you how to calculate your personal rate of return. Or find a good finance planner. Or do both.
I didn't feel like I learned a lot from the Bankrate article but I did enjoy the end of the Barbara Stanny seminar, the last 15 minutes when she stopped assuming that we are all helpless little things waiting for a man in a suit to come give us a pretty, pretty ring and told us to take charge of our finances, ask for that raise and embrace our inner bitch. I like anyone who can turn the word bitch into something positive.


At 1/13/2006 7:05 AM, Blogger Amdollar said...

I'm glad to see that women are taking a role in the workplace. Raising awareness about gender discrimination is a positive thing, however is this really a new topic? I mean I'm all for equality, but at my work, its an in-your-face attitude and it does get overwhelming. I like the comment about how men like tools :) I dont know why thats true.

At 1/13/2006 7:21 AM, Blogger Caitlin said...

I just finished "secrets of six-figure women" by Stanny yesterday. Due to that crappy title I never would have picked it up if Dawn hadn't mentioned some positive things about it on her blog.

I *loved* this book, and the ironic thing about the seminar (and so, I would presume, about her new book) is that what you describe as the good final 15 minute part is what her ENTIRE previous book (6-figs) is about.

It sort of seems like she just is trying to re-package the guts of her previous book which is fine for a seminar, but wringing another book out of the same thing...I dunno.

I think there are LOTS of reasons why many women are chronic underearners and the ones who expected to let the man do it is probably a dwindling faction. I also know several men who are underearners and that's not the reason they underearn either ;)

I really hope she stops focusing on that one reason for underearning and goes back to treating all common causes (many mentioned in her previous book) with equal time and respect. This will hopefully open up the door to more easily benefiting the male underearners as well as the women.

I'm glad you posted this...very interesting (and timely for me! LOL)

At 1/13/2006 1:17 PM, Blogger mmb said...

visionary, when you say "is this really a new topic?" are you referring to my post or the original article? Neither are new topics but as long as stereotypes abound so will reactions to it. Just because it has been said before doesn't mean it isn't worth repeating. :)

That said, I am sorry to hear about your workplace. Feminism taken to the extreme is just as bad as gender discrimination. I believe women are strong and capable of excelling at many things but I don't believe in rubbing it in the face of every man I meet. You should make your concerns known to whoever's making you uncomfortable and if they truly believe in equality they should respect it. Hey, it can be a test!

caitlin, where the seminar lost me is that it didn't really give us any tools for making better financial decisions. There was almost no talk about investments or smarter career choices. Just a lot of "Prince Charming isn't coming so stop waiting." Since I wasn't waiting in the first place I got bored. Based on your comment, I may have to check out her books now but I think I will stick to the library. ;)


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