It’s Sunday brunch time at a trendy bistro in a hip urban locale. You spy in the corner a group of confident, well-coiffed, animated young women engaged in what appears to be an intense discussion over their gluten-free waffles and eggs Benedict. Can you wager a guess as to what topics are on the table (as it were)?
E) All of the Above, except D.
The correct choice is most likely E. But if you chose D, then—unlike the young women in question—you are already ahead of the curve.
The above scenario is pure conjecture, but it illustrates a troubling trend. Despite the dismantling of numerous social, historical and systemic barriers to gender equality—and despite the fact that women now have unprecedented access to the tools and training to assert their will at work, in public and at home—women today are just as likely as their mothers and grandmothers to leave the big financial decisions to men.
Surprising, sure. But, in the face of some fairly bald statistics, also alarming. In most parts of the world, women continue to outlive men. The divorce rate among women over 50 in the developed world is on the rise. By the end of their lives, 80 percent of American women are expected either to be single or to be otherwise solely responsible for their finances. Without having mastered even the most basic skills of financial planning, many women will find themselves not only aging alone, but also aging at a loss.
As in most endeavors, the key to financial success often depends on assembling the right team. At the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, the rock-star trio of UBS global wealth manager Paula Polito, high-profile family law attorney Laura Wasser, and noted journalist and behavioral economist Carmen Rita Wong gathered to discuss money, women and the unnecessarily complicated relationship between the two.
Moderator Gillian Tett, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times, led the discussion by copping to the not-uncommon trap that despite being driven to pursue a career, she still succumbed to the “Prince Charming myth” early on in life: the “idea of a guy riding in to rescue [you] and pay for everything.” This pervasive fantasy, all agreed, remains a stumbling block for many women.
Citing a groundbreaking UBS survey on women and finances around the world, Polito emphasized that more than half of widowed or divorced women over 50 polled said they regretted not taking control of their finances while they were married. More than 90 percent said if they could advise young women today, they would tell them to do things “differently” than they had. (As long-term dividends go, that advice seems like a surefire payout.)
In her role, Polito is in a position not only to advocate for her female clients but to teach them how to advocate for themselves. Yet, according to the UBS survey, 68 percent of women still choose instead to surrender financial control to their partner.
Wong followed up with a personal memory of her immigrant mother, who received a check from her husband every week to cover household expenses and never once thought to question or weigh in on how much. “I’m here today because of her abdication,” Wong said, referring to her mother’s commitment to raise her six children to pursue success and independence. But her mother’s inability to speak up for herself literally became a matter of life and death when, years later, she could not tell her children she had lost her health insurance and wound up with a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer.
As a prominent family lawyer in Los Angeles, Laura Wasser considers advocating on behalf of women as a large part of her job. But Wasser also strives to empower her clients to stand up for themselves—she’s been known to spin divorce as a “learning opportunity” to recast the “next chapter of their life.” She said that women often show an instinct to abdicate control regardless of their professional path or social status.
“Often, women will come to my office with no clue about their family finances,” Wasser said. “Wealthy, sophisticated women—Mrs. Executive Producer, Mrs. Movie Star, Mrs. Studio Head. Every store is open to them, and yet they don’t even have a credit card in their own name.”
Surprisingly, she finds that even young professional women who outearn their husbands have a tendency to surrender financial control, “either because they’re stay-at-home dads or just because they offer to take care of things.”
Part of the problem, suggested Tett, is that conversations about money just aren’t really, well, sexy. “Let’s face it,” she said. “We’re more likely to discuss sex with our girlfriends than money. But those conversations are vital.” Wong agreed, adding that money—and how one manages it—is one of the greatest powers a person can have: “Food, water, sleep, sex, money. These affect everything … and [knowledge about money] can change an entire ecosystem.”
Wong also pushed back against the notion of joint finances—“our money”—that many couples internalize, saying it “enrages” her that women have fought so hard for equality at home and at work but are willing to accept a double standard when it comes to how they handle their household budgets. “Women need to have the conversation first with themselves,” she said. “We need to fight assumptions about money from men, from the system, about our intellect and what we know…. Instead of internalizing these assumptions, we should be lit up.”
While Polito agreed with Wong that there is an “emotional side” to money, especially when partners or other family relationships are involved, she also advised women not to avoid the “rational side” of the conversation. “The emotional side is to define your values and fears and discuss them with your partner to create a framework,” she said. “The rational side is to then ask questions like, ‘What’s my cash flow? What do I need to live on now? How long do I think I’ll live, and how much money will I need then? How do much do I want to contribute to charity, or to my children?’ Liquidity. Longevity. Legacy. Simple.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.