Own Your Money Like You Own Your Sexuality: The Depressing Truths About Women & Money

When it comes to attitudes towards money, are young women moving backwards?

One prominent author, Leslie Bennetts, at the April 27 event I attended for Maddy Dychtwald's new book on women's economic power, Influence, complained that young women she'd encountered were mostly interested in bikini waxes and how to get a man. I disputed that, but one finding in Dychtwald's book did give me pause.

In the discussion that followed Dychtwald's presentation, Bennetts described going on tour for her 2007 book, The Feminine Mistake and being profoundly disappointed in young women's lack of interest in their own empowerment, economic and otherwise.

Though I'd argue that plenty of women are interested in it, when I actually got a look at Influence: How Women's Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World For The Better, I found a surprising passage that might have lent fuel to that particular fire. So I decided to call up Dychtwald to talk about it, which she was more than happy to do. (She'll also be hanging out in the comments of this post today, so feel free to ask any questions.)

Dychtwald, a demographer, and her co-author Christine Larson provide a sweeping look at cultural shifts and changing demographics, arguing that they're leading towards an "unprecedented economic emancipation." Some of Dychtwald's original research for the book included surveying 3,000 women about their attitudes towards money — control and leverage of one's finances being rather crucial to economic empowerment — and put the respondents in five categories based on their attitudes towards their money. Those categories include "perceptive planners," "power partners," "alpha females," "uncertain searchers," and "supportive traditionalists." (For a more detailed breakdown, see here).

She found that about 8 percent of all women in the survey fell into the "supportive traditionalist" category, the most passive and male-dependent one. But when it came to younger women — in their twenties in particular — the results were more dramatic:

"I was shocked to see that younger women were almost twice as likely as mature women to call themselves Supportive Traditionalists, even if they weren't married. They were more likely than older women to worry about usurping the man's role, to think money might make them less attractive to men, and to say that they'd see their partner as 'more of a man' if he took control of the finances."

Dychtwald also did focus groups to supplement the survey, where some young women said things like "I'm his responsibility and he enjoys that... if I can have that life, I say, why not?" and a single young woman saying she wanted her future mate "to be able to say he's so proud of how much money I saved." This didn't vary significantly by education level, region, or race and ethnicity, Dychtwald told me. It did vary by age. (The focus groups skewed urban, but the surveys were designed to include rural and suburban women.)

Dychtwald has a 23-year-old daughter, whom she took with her to focus groups. "She was not blown away by hearing young women saying, 'I'd really like to have a man that could take care of me,'" Dychtwald recalled in our interview. "She said a lot of her friends feel the same way. She did not see in conflict with wanting to be a supercharged executive. It was just a fantasy."

To put these numbers into context, women already come to issues of their own money with a societal disadvantage:

According to a 2007 study on gender differences by Tahira Hira of Iowa State University and Cäzilia Loibl of Ohio State University, women are still less likely to be socialized in financial matters, and they are more likely than men to find investment decisions stressful, difficult and time consuming. The study also found that it often takes a life event, like getting married, to prompt women to save and invest, whereas men were more likely to start investing gradually.

These differences can have major consequences for women's full participation in society. In addition to earning less overall, women tend to live longer and also accrue less retirement savings, through moving in and out of the paid workforce to care for children or elderly parents. Expecting someone else to take charge of your financial life isn't likely to change those statistics.

So what's going on here? Are younger women really opting out of their own financial empowerment, because math is hard and poledancing classes are more fun? Here are a few ways to read the data:

1) Everyone dreams of being Cinderella at some point, and they'll get over it. Well, by everyone, I mean young women who grew up on Cinderella stories. Dychtwald allows in the book that these can just be "youthful fantasies about a rosy future — fantasies that our older subjects had since let go as youthful folly." Many of the older women in the survey had been disabused of the notion that someone else would fix everything by divorce, widowhood, or remaining single. Dychtwald told me that around age 32 or 34 was when women tended to take control of their finances, though there were several women in their 50s and 60s who had had rude awakenings.

2) Young women are taking their liberated status in society for granted. This is a frequent refrain of older feminists who feel as if younger women are ungrateful for their hard-earned battles. "Young women, when they're fantasizing about, Who am I going to be, the key is that they forget that what came along with the opportunity to be cared for financially was taking on the role of breadmaker and homemaker completely," offers Dychtwald.

3) Life sucks, so might as well find someone else to deal with it. Dychtwald suggests, "Perhaps young women are throwing up their hands and retreating from financial responsibility after witnessing the painful struggle of their own working mothers to balance life, family, and money," she wrote in the book.

4) It's not such a big deal. Dychtwald points out that the identities are fluid — women often move among the financial profiles throughout their lives. There will always be supportive traditionalists.

5) The younger generation is less likely to define its value through its earning power. A generation that has become, for various reasons, comfortable with a greater dependency on their parents no longer sees its fulfillment through being in charge of the money, so might as well cede it to someone else — in this case, a male partner.

But how many men are "supportive traditionalists"? Dychtwald also had more informal moderated discussion groups on the topic in her native San Francisco, one of which included men across the age spectrum. They were asked to respond to the statistic that a quarter of women outearn their husbands.

She described to me the reaction of a young teacher: "He said, 'It really makes my day because that means that I might be able to marry some woman whose income will allow me to stay home for the kids. There was another guy in his 20s and two guys in their 30s, and they were open to hat idea. But the men in their 50s, 60s and 70s were appalled. They thought he was an alien. They get so much of their identity from who they are in the workforce that they can't even relate to the comments. The younger men got their identity not just from their role in their careers and also from their family."

The same could be true of the younger women, she says. But with a key distinction: "I don't think that either young men or young women are given very much financial education so that they can spread their wings and become more independent. I think it's across the board bad, but it's worse for women."

Interestingly, a recent poll found that the recession may have been a wake up call for young women:

Nearly half of women aged 18-39 years old who were questioned in the poll said they are increasing the amount of money they save or invest, compared to 29 percent of those over 40.

Regardless of what explains Dychtwald's numbers, it's patently clear that women have a long way to go when it comes to money. "What has given women the wherewithal to exponentially increase earning power is education. The next step is financial empowerment," says Dychwald. "Just like you own your own sexuality, you need to earn your financial power."

P.S.: If (like me!) you're getting a strong sense of your own ignorance in these matters, beyond say, having a checking account, LearnVest is a site specifically set up to educate younger women about money in a way that neither involves a pink chick-lit cover nor a ton of jargon.

More: Which Of The Five Money Profiles Are You?

Influence: How Women's Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World For The Better

Related: Financial Advice by Women for Women [NYT]
Young Women Refocus Money Priorities In Recession [Reuters]
LearnVest [Official Site]

Image via Netfalls//Shutterstock