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I remember laughing with my sister a few years ago when her daughter, then in elementary school, declared that “only women are doctors.” It was an understandable assumption: She had yet to meet a male physician. My sister is a doctor in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and her daughter’s pediatrician was also a woman. Initially my niece wanted to follow in their footsteps. Then she decided she wanted to be an astronaut. And then a couple of years later, just as I was starting to wonder if things might be shifting for girls of her generation, my niece, newly adorned in pink dresses and sparkly headbands, informed us that she had scrapped her astronaut ambitions altogether. “I want to be a princess,” she announced.
“Snow White, Belle, Aurora… What little girl wouldn’t want to be a Disney princess? Wouldn’t want long, flowy hair, and wouldn’t want to make a wish in a well and have the perfect life?” asked Anya Dubner, a high school student and the teenage daughter of Freakonomics podcast host Stephen Dubner, in an October 2019 episode. “What you want is probably, because of Disney, this fantasy life where everything is so easy, and everything is perfect, and you find a prince. [But] having your ideal life be so easy to achieve is a really bad message to send to anybody… especially to girls.”
True, we’re mostly over the idea of being saved by Prince Charming, but vestiges of that narrative still stick stubbornly to our subconscious as girls—and even as fully grown women. While the princess stories have evolved, some elements never seem to change. The heroines are still conventionally beautiful, with flowing locks and the wide-eyed, dewy glow of youth. And it’s still their looks, rather than their smarts, that tend to draw the attention of men (and often the envy of women). “Pretty” and “princess” are synonymous, and evil and ugly are almost inevitably linked in these fairy tales. And while our heroines may be smart, adventurous, and independent-minded, they never have to worry about their income and ultimately end up finding their prince.
Is it any wonder then that so many women spend years building up their hopes instead of building up their wealth?
It’s not just Disney that has perpetuated this fantasy. The fact is, if you’re a woman, you’ve probably been lied to about wealth, and the importance of building it, your whole life. But wait, you may be thinking, hasn’t there been a ton of attention paid in recent years to women and money? Yes. And in particular, much has been made of the gender pay gap: that, overall, women in the United States still earn just 82 cents for every dollar that men do, and Black and Latina women earn even less.
But then there’s the gender wealth gap. We don’t spend nearly as much time talking about that. And it is much wider than the pay gap. On average, single women in this country have just one-third the net worth that single men do. (“Net worth” meaning the money you have built up in investments, savings, and your home versus the money you owe.)
Unless something changes, that wealth gap is unlikely to close anytime soon. Women are still earning less and setting aside far less for their future than men are. In one recent report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, nearly half of the women surveyed said they weren’t confident they’d be able to retire comfortably. And with good reason: The center found that women’s median retirement savings amounted to a third of men’s. A 2018 study from Merrill Lynch and the research firm Age Wave estimated that, by the time they reach retirement age, a man will have made as much as $1 million more in cumulative earnings than a woman.
Maybe a gap like that was OK fifty years ago, when the vast majority of households were supported by male breadwinners, and one income was enough to provide a comfortable life for a family of four. Back then most Americans could also count on pensions and Social Security to support them in retirement. But that’s not the case anymore. Yet we still aren’t being told or taught to build our incomes and wealth in the same way men are. In fact, we’re often discouraged from going after more money.
“Despite the numbers, we still believe—and it’s infused in what we teach our children—that men are the breadwinners, and for women, it’s optional,” Marianne Cooper, the sociologist at Stanford’s Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, told me. And this assumption that men bear most of the responsibility for earning and investing the money, while women are in charge of spending it, continues to inform the way parents talk to their sons and daughters about money.
Cooper said even she fell victim initially to the belief. “I considered myself to be financially independent because I was able to take care of myself—I didn’t need a guy to pay the bills or to pick up the check. But I was missing the larger point,” she told me. “Being able to take care of yourself today financially isn’t the same thing as being financially independent or financially empowered. Being financially independent means being in a position to take care of yourself for life and to afford the life you want, independent of whether you end up sharing it with someone or not.”
Still, survey after survey finds parents are more likely to teach their sons core breadwinning skills like how to build credit and invest their money. Girls, meanwhile, are more likely to be taught how to track their spending and budget.
A Giftcards.com survey found that girls even get less money from their parents, with boys in high school and elementary school receiving roughly twenty dollars more on Christmas, three dollars more for completing chores, and one dollar more for allowance. “Girls are paid less, and are taught that they need to save and budget, while boys are paid more and taught about investing and credit scores,” Bri Godwin, a media relations associate for Giftcards.com told Fast Company in 2019.
Is it any surprise then that the gender wage and wealth gaps persist? Or that women end up with less credit, less savings, and less money invested than men do?
At the heart of this is the fact that even today many parents are still holding on to two deep-rooted beliefs: that their sons will become the main providers for their families and that their daughters will get married. While women are seen as financial contributors who are able to have their own careers, we’re still expected to be the ones in charge of managing the household budget (and often the household)—not managing the investments. We’re taught how to budget our money but not how to grow it.
More boys than girls also report that their parents talk with them about setting financial goals. And in an annual survey produced by T. Rowe Price, twice as many boys as girls reported having access to credit cards and accompanying lessons on how to use them. The same survey also found that, across the board, boys feel smarter about money and better prepared for their financial future.
Often this isn’t the result of any conscious decision by parents to withhold credit- and wealth-building advice from their daughters. It’s that we still haven’t wrapped our heads around the idea that these will be essential skills for girls to master in order to succeed as adults.
Even financial adviser Judith Ward, who works at T. Rowe Price, worried that she might have talked more about money with her son than with her daughter. “I find myself looking back on the way I talked to them about money matters while they were growing up. Did I inadvertently favor my son over my daughter?” Ward asks in an essay she wrote about the results of her firm’s survey, which found that parents are more likely to talk with their sons about financial goals, credit, and saving. “Should I have talked to both of them more?”
Couple that mixed messaging with the incessant pressure on women to maintain our wardrobes, our homes, and our appearances, and the billions of marketing dollars aimed at encouraging us to spend our hard-earned money to do it, and it’s not hard to see why even women who move into higher-paying careers still lag behind men when it comes to saving and investing money for their futures.
Even media created by and for women tends to reinforce these old tropes about budgeting versus investing. A couple of years ago, the research firm Age Wave analyzed the money coverage in the most popular women’s magazines. Out of nearly 1,600 editorial pages it analyzed, guess how many covered financial advice? Five pages. Five! Women’s magazines are full of tips on how to shed ten pounds, look ten years younger, and pick the perfect little black dress, but not how to pick stocks or build an investment portfolio to fund our dreams and our retirement.
When publications that target women do offer money advice, the focus is typically on spending less money—not growing more of it. Anne Boden, CEO of the British bank Starling, commissioned a linguistic study a few years ago of three hundred money-related articles. She found that 90 percent of money articles aimed at women suggested spending less, while the majority of those aimed at men focused on investing and building wealth. “Women are told to cut back on coffee to save up for a new pair of shoes,” Boden told The New York Times. “With men, money is all about power suits and investing and long-term goals.”
What are women encouraged to invest in? Our wardrobes. Google “women’s investment fashion pieces” and you’ll get more than 28 million results, including headlines like “30 Investment Pieces Every Working Woman Needs by 30” from Vogue (the first: a $3,260 “neutral wool coat”) and Goop’s “Invest Wisely: 10 Classic Pieces That Pay Dividends” (including a $1,264 shirt dress). What’s an “investment piece”? It’s basically an addition to your wardrobe that costs the equivalent of your paycheck or more. Outside of a handful of vintage designer bags—which can run anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to more than $40,000 (meaning they’re out of budget for many of us)—most items in your wardrobe, even designer pieces, will typically lose value the longer you own them, especially if you’re actually using them.
Men, meanwhile, get headlines like “How to Become a Property Millionaire” (Esquire), “How to Make a Million Dollars” (GQ), and “Investing in These Stocks Now Could Make You a Millionaire Retiree” (Fool.com).
It’s not just that women’s magazines and websites don’t offer a lot of advice on investing in stocks and bonds and real estate—assets that are expected to increase in value over time and can provide you with additional income. It’s that the financial advice they do give tends to focus on being able to cover just the basics. Extra goes to little luxuries like new shoes or a girls’ getaway, rather than to saving for a house with a walk-in closet to put those shoes in or saving for a future that allows you and your loved ones to travel regularly. We’re encouraged to be ambitious when it comes to our careers. Why not when it comes to our money?
Understanding how millions of us have been conditioned to think about wealth differently than men have—and not in a good way—is key to creating a mindset that will empower you to build wealth like a breadwinner. The truth is, most of us need to overwrite a lot of programming we got encoded into us growing up (and even as adults) in order to confidently grow our money.
Imagine instead if you’d been raised to believe you’d be responsible for taking care of yourself financially—and maybe a family, too. That you’d been taught how to invest in stocks and bonds and encouraged from a young age to start investing as soon as you got your first paycheck. Imagine if you’d learned how to negotiate everything from a job offer to the best deal on a used car, and how to build good credit without sinking into debt. What if, by the time you were living on your own, you already had a sense of what you’d be earning and what your expenses would cost you? And managing money—and asking for more of it—felt perfectly natural. How would that have affected the choices you made?
Happily, it’s never too late to retrain your brain. Whether you’re twenty-two or fifty-two, single or married, shifting to a breadwinner mindset is one of the fastest, most effective ways to take charge of your finances and your future. This is about reprogramming the cultural sabotaging that has been baked into our subconscious early on. It starts with becoming aware of all the messages you’ve already absorbed about breadwinning and then transforming them into beliefs that will propel you toward the life of your dreams.
Adapted from Think Like a Breadwinner: A Wealth-Building Manifesto for Women Who Want to Earn More (and Worry Less) by Jennifer Barrett with permission from Putnam, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer L. Barrett.