Of late, I have been noticing a puzzling trend as I did some research on the offerings of financial products to women. This was partly driven by personal curiosity. I saw a lot on saving, budgeting, paying down debt, and cutting down debt. But I have always wondered and never quite understood why nobody has ever given me advice, personally, that an important aspect of my future financial security is increasing my earnings.
When I stepped back to think about this, the dichotomy felt absurd. But it was reinforced when I read article after article, book after book, and blog after blog targeted at women all talking about budgeting more, spending less. I never saw a single piece of advice in my admittedly early research that encouraged women to earn more, take higher-paying jobs or pick areas that were simply higher paying, or start a STEM-based company.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one wondering.
Starling Bank is a millennial-oriented mobile-only UK bank I became aware of recently. The bank seeks to re-imagine how banking is done, and did a study on this same question earlier this year as part of its campaign to “Make Money Equal”.
The analysis covered a linguistic study of 300 articles that talked about money. Among the findings that were truly astounding:
- 65% of money articles in women’s magazines define women as excessive spenders, while 60% of articles aimed at men recommend investing apps (the implication being that men are investors, and women, reckless spenders)
- Women are encouraged to maximize their economic contributions through forms of thrift like saving small sums, earning small amounts, or finding a means of financial support, like a parent. Or a husband. On the other hand, articles aimed at men suggest monetary success and financial literacy are essential to enhancing personal status and getting ahead of colleagues or peers.
- Articles aimed at women advise them to limit, restrict and take better control of shopping ‘splurges’. Articles targeting men rely on masculine stereotyped aspirations, leveraging codes of combat, strength, power, competition and performance to drive greater financial success and achievement.
It’s unclear from the article whether only U.K. publications were used in the study. Additional details were not made available to truly assess the implications of the report. But notwithstanding that, the findings certainly ring true to me across the pond.
The question that naturally arises is: so what? Does the tone of articles written in popular magazines really affect the business of the financial service industry? I think the answer is a resounding yes. The industry or anyone one else functioning in society doesn’t live in a vacuum. We are all consciously (and mostly unconsciously) subject to absorbing all the influences from mainstream media.
The person designing your next marketing campaign, or tweaking a key product feature for an affluent customer, also reads these same articles and is subject to the risk of being unconsciously biased by these stereotypical negative messages. The result may well be a product that imperceptibly tilts the message in a way that feeds this bias, and does a disservice to the provider as well as to its intended customers.
What’s to be done? While long-term change certainly requires efforts from multiple players and institutions (beyond the scope of this piece), this is a golden opportunity for financial services providers to stand out instantly and differentiate themselves from all the noise around them by doing a few simple things:
- Revisit current marketing and product-level thinking to understand where they already have built-in bias, especially with investment and wealth accumulation products.
- Consciously develop marketing messages that highlight and celebrate women who have worked hard for, and created their own wealth, without resorting to “black-hat” drivers or motivators like fear.
- Set aside a portion of their sustainability and philanthropic investments to promote financial independence and ambition among women and girls among their target groups – an example of doing well and doing good.
These steps will jump-start momentum to create more uplifting and positive changes in the way we talk to and about women and money. The potential waiting to be released in terms of new entrepreneurial value creation, greater and more active investing, not to mention the overall beneficial impact to the economy and society is truly immense.