Women Need To Start Talking About Money

There’s this sort of culture built up around Not Talking About Money for women, and I’d argue that culture is incredibly persistent and also incredibly damaging.
Publish date:
February 28, 2012
money, personal finances, women in the workplace, glass ceiling, fair pay, pay gap

Talking about money, women and people socialized as women1 know, is Not Nice. It’s not polite to discuss money matters, whether it’s how much something costs or how much you make or how much you pay for a given service. Discussing finance is crude and inappropriate, and it will make you look terribly gauche in social environments because it’s something too complicated for your fragile sensibilities to handle.

I mean, gosh, numbers!

There’s this sort of culture built up around Not Talking About Money for women, and I’d argue that culture is incredibly persistent and also incredibly damaging. Grown-ass women have a hard time talking about money, women have trouble mentoring each other through money problems, and young women often get limited financial education and are just sort of thrown into a shark-infested pool2 and left to fend for themselves. As a result, many women struggle with financial problems that are not of their own making, but they’re cast as hapless and unable to perform basic life functions.

As I hope we all know, women make less than men. The precise statistics can vary by field, experience level, and race; Black women, for example, make strikingly less per dollar not only than men in general, but also less than white women. This economic disparity is striking, and it hasn’t gone away despite considerable agitation to change pay rates for women and promote a more equal culture of compensation.

There have been all sorts of attempts to equalize pay, but women continue to make less, and women continue to have trouble getting paid more, let alone getting paid what they are worth. This culture of not talking about money is a huge contributor; it’s really hard to ask another woman what she’s making. If she’s in a position similar to yours, it might be nice to have that information to compare, but the silence surrounding financial topics makes you reluctant to ask because it’s impolite, and her reluctant to answer if you do ask.

You’ll be labeled as rude for trying to get comparison information to help develop your career; even women acting as mentors may find money discussions uncomfortable and not appropriate.

Or the other person may not be able to answer because she’s signed a nondisclosure agreement, which is growing extremely common, particularly for people of all genders in senior positions. For women, though, it comes with an extra layer of social messaging; you’re being reminded that you should not talk about money, because it’s not polite. Don’t talk about money at pain of breaching your contract.

NDAs are, it’s argued, a good idea to prevent problems with competitors, but they also have the effect of making it really hard for people to research fair pay for similar positions, which makes it difficult to know whether they are being offered a good wage (or whether the compensation they are requesting is reasonable). For women, it makes navigating already dangerous waters even more difficult.

If you blaze on ahead and ask supervisors for more money, or enter negotiations for a new job with the goal of getting a better salary, you’ll be labeled as “difficult.” We hear all the time that “women don’t negotiate,” in a framing that implies that women would make more, if only they would stop being such wilting lilies about compensation. Evidence actually suggests, though, that women are penalized for negotiating. Which might explain why many are reluctant to do so, because they don’t want to lose their jobs or get bumped to the end of the list for promotion for daring to speak up.

Women often seem almost reluctant to share financial tools with each other, and as a result, many don’t have a good idea of how much basic things should cost. How much should you pay for an oil change? How much should you pay for a two-bedroom house in a neighborhood you like? How much should you pay for tax preparation3? How much should you pay for a decent used car? How about surgery? Or vet bills? A haircut? A facial? How much does a housekeeper cost? Similar lack of data hinders conversations about how much women should earn; what does a secretary make in your area? How much do other people doing the same kind of freelance work make? What's a reasonable executive salary?

Cracking open the culture of women and money requires breaking the taboo and actually talking about it; being frank about personal finance, talking about how people use money, discussing ways to use money more effectively. It’s a scary thing, to go against all this training that talking about money is Not Allowed -- there’s a part of me that isn’t very good at it -- but it’s an important step for tackling the pay gap.

There’s no reason women should be making less than men. And there are a lot of factors involved in why this problem persists. Women alone can’t actually fix the problem with wage inequality, and I'd note that one reason women make less than men overall is because they are less likely to rise to senior positions. Women shouldn't be tasked with breaking the glass ceiling without help, either. One small step for helping women earn their fair share is making them aware of what their fair share is -- and how to save, invest, and spend it wisely.

Publications like this one, with a heavily female editorial staff and a woman at the helm, are relatively unusual, still. They’re often in the fashion industry, which is dismissed by many people as “girlie” and “not important” even though it plays a key role in our society and culture -- interesting, isn’t it, that women are allowed to have a sandbox in an “unimportant” area of the publishing industry? A sandbox that in reality can be very subversive and may have a powerful impact on social attitudes?

And publications where women are encouraged to share intensely personal stories, to exchange intimate information, to band together in solidarity, to help each other out by sharing knowledge from their lives, are even more unusual. Jane has had a remarkable career [Thanks for remarking on it. And, by the way, I do make a conscious effort to talk about money. My daughter knows how much I make, what our rent is and what things cost, for example. I don't however talk to employees about what other employees make, which only makes sense, right? That's all. Carry on with and thank you for your important piece. --Jane], as have many of the women here [Yes! That's really all. --Jane], and I can assure you that ladies on staff make less than men doing the same work at similar publications – but I can’t tell you how much less, because it’s Not Nice to talk about money.

1. Some people are socialized as women, but are actually transgender and transition later in life, hence the caveat here; I was brought up as a girl, for example, and internalized a lot of gendered messaging about how I was “supposed” to behave. Return

2. By which, of course, I means rows of tables stacked with credit card offers at college orientation. “Here ladies, free money! Our cards even come in pink with sparkles! You like that, right? Because you’re ladies?” Return

3. A lady, of course, does not prepare her own taxes! That would just be silly. (Hey, do you think lady accountants pay tax preparers to do their taxes? Or do lady accountants cause, like, a logic short-circuit? Any women in the accounting profession who can weigh in on this pressing issue?) Return