Women, Decisions and Money

Who controls the finances in your household?

“Women now account for more than half of the workforce. Additionally, men have suffered the brunt of job losses in the recent recession, meaning that more and more women have been entering the workforce and those that were in it already, are now working longer and harder to make up the difference and make ends meet.  Women are now economic engines, and their progress in the labor force is intrinsically tied to our future prosperity as a country.”


In the States, in a day when, according to Valerie Jerret, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs, women account for half of the national workforce, I would think that at least half of them would be the head of their household. But according to statistics compiled by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA.gov), only 10%see themselves as the head of the household.

Women, as it turns out, are working longer hours and at a wider gamut of positions to make up for the revenue lost by men without jobs during the latest recession. But they’re still not controlling the purse strings. Women are still the primary care givers and seen as the nurturers, while the men maintain their traditional role as the worker and bread winner (http://mchb.hrsa.gov/whusa_05/pages/0303hcwc.htm). What happens when those roles intermingle and mesh? From my look-out point I see many families that have begun to blur the lines of traditional male/female roles. Of those families, many either share the burden of managing the family finances, or the women have taken over the task. What surprises me is that in the families where the women don’t work, as is centuries old custom, they also don’t control the purse strings.  

Why does it matter, you ask? Well, the decisions they make matter because they are different. Women prioritize in a different way than men. They tend to give priority to the children more consistently than men do. Men tend to view adult leisure activities as a must-do more often than women. This is true by statistic (see Sciencedirect.com), as well as by practical observation. Research has also found that men tend to be more confident about their financial prowess so they spend more freely. Women tend to spend more cautiously (if they are in charge of household finances – not if they are given a personal budget) since they are more anxious about handling the finances (see: http://www.natefacs.org/JFCSE/v26no1/v26n1Carpenter.pdf). You may notice if you look around you that the women you know are more concerned about the children’s activities and clothes than the men are. You may also note, if they control the family finances, that they are more cautious and more protective of the money they spend. If you do, then you can personally and practically concur with the research that I’ve found.

Last week, Time magazine featured three prominent women in finance, who effectively now run America’s finances, or at least spearhead its recovery.

Among them was Sheila Bair, the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and one of the first federal regulators to publicly sound the alarm about the collapse three years ago. She sat next to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair Mary Schapiro, the first woman to hold that post and the deciding vote to initiate the agency’s recent lawsuit against Goldman Sachs. Across the stage sat Elizabeth Warren, chair of the panel bird-dogging the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout and the chief advocate for new consumer-finance regulations that banks and their allies have spent millions to oppose.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1988953,00.html#ixzz0pMUqhly1
The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” (May 2010 issue)

By contrast, risking political incorrectness, NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF wrote last week in a New York Times Op-Ed (May 22, 2010) that  “if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed.”  (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/opinion/23kristof.html?scp=1&sq=obamza&st=cse). He was talking about a village in the Congo, but he could just as easily have been talking about an inner city American family. Kristoff argues that in traditionally patriarchal cultures them men control the purse strings and often make decisions that are debilitatingly inappropriate for their families. In a Congolese village Kristof meets an impoverished family who’s children have been expelled from school for non-payment. They are the Obamza’s:

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed.

But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time.

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine. By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month — almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

The story is not unique. A search on “gender attitudes toward finance” reaps a stream of resources comparing emancipated attitudes toward finance with those of traditionalist, and finds that societies with traditional notions of finance as a man’s realm are dis-served. Mostly the women in these societies toil and the children suffer, while the men decide how to squander what little they have as best they can.

If you believe Time magazine, you’d have to believe that women are becoming more accustomed to a role of financier, rather than back seat consumer. But if you look at Kristof’s Op-Ed, you’d have to think that across the world women still find themselves without control on home budgeting. Whereas in the States, more control over finances may be just a matter of asking or taking on the task, around the globe the lack of financial control for women is a product of age-old preconceptions that keep hard working, good thinking women out of the realm of finance.

Unfortunately, the staus quo may dis-serve some of the neediest families around the world and even at home. But attitudes can be changed. Less than a century ago, here in the states, a woman working and controlling the household finances equally with her husband would have been unthinkable. Today it is practical. No reason why tradition can’t assimilate to change in every other corner of the world…as long as we make sure we get out the word that we, globally, expect the empowerment of women to beat its path forward in every corner of the world.


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