The case for financial feminism in building an equal society
It’s not news to say that Covid-19 will impact women’s work, health, and rights. While men are more likely to contract and die from the virus, research shows that women will feel the long-term economic and societal consequences.
Data from the UK Women’s Budget Group shows that women are the majority of frontline workers (77%), the majority of low paid workers (69%), and the majority of people with caring responsibilities, paid and unpaid. Likewise, the British think tank, Autonomy, showed that of the three million people in ‘high risk’ jobs in the UK, 77% are women, with around 980,000 of vital female workers being paid beneath the poverty line.
Women are also overly affected when it comes to the availability of support — or lack thereof. Female entrepreneurs are finding it harder than their male peers to get access to finance. Pregnant women feel all but forgotten. Many mothers are struggling to juggle jobs and childcare.
“My fear,” said Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, “Is that this crisis will significantly undermine women’s financial security and financial independence. Of those working at National Living Wage levels, 61% are women. But we could see wages dragged down further, combined with a deregulated labour market with some employment protections relaxed or removed altogether. If the Government decides it needs to get the economy going at any cost, then women may pay the price.”
But the long-term ramifications of Covid-19 do not need to spell disaster for women.
Yes, the immediate impact of the pandemic will be felt by women.
No, that doesn’t mean we’re going to regress to the 1950s.
In fact, coronavirus could act as an accelerant through society — driving forward positive trends and reshaping gender norms as thoroughly as World War II.
For example, in 2019, we saw the largest number of female-founded “unicorn” start-ups and more women leaders featured on the covers of magazines. We’re also seeing more women and women of colour in senior roles across politics, business and technology than ever before.
Nina Mohanty, one of the Women in Finance Power List, told me that though it might seem strange, the pandemic may be an opportunity to redefine what we accept as normal. “Covid-19 is making a lot of women think about the stark inequalities they are facing compared to their male peers,” she said. “Even the most privileged are affected by the pressures of lockdown. I see this moment in history as an opportunity for us to make sure we end up with more equal workplaces and a more equal society.”
However, in order to ensure those trends in female success accelerate and society builds back better than before, we need to talk about women and money.
We must prioritise financial feminism in the recovery discourse.
“When you think about it, women’s relationships with their money is the through-line of feminism,” argues Nina. “From inheritance to owning property, holding titles or having the right to vote — it’s all tied to our finances.”
The link between women’s empowerment and women’s finances is why financial feminism advocates for “the financial equality between genders”. By focusing on issues such as gender gaps when it comes to pay, debt, investment and overall wealth, we can unpick antiquated power structures and rebalance them. This includes addressing subconscious factors too — like the way our money influences our mental health or defines our sense of self-worth.
When I spoke to Alex Holder, author of Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life, about why we need to prioritise financial feminism in the conversations about Covid-19, she noted, “It’s not just because women earn less, which we do — there’s a 13.1% mean gender gap for full-time workers in the UK — but women have also been socialised to think and behave differently with money.”
This is why financial feminism is needed by everybody. “Regardless of gender or race, everyone needs to feel that money is a topic for them.”
The problem is women have historically been excluded in conversations about money — especially in the context of their own lifestyles and choices.
Alex pointed out that if a woman seeks financial advice, chances are she will end up speaking to a man as male financial advisors outnumber female advisors six to one, meaning many women end up getting advice from people who don’t necessarily appreciate their unique pressures and lifecycles.
Likewise, studies show that men and women are spoken to differently about their money — the research behind #MakeMoneyEqual revealed that 73% of money articles in men’s magazines focus on investing, whilst one in nine articles in women’s magazines tell their readers to ‘cut back’ to ‘save pennies’. This follows into financial advertising, advice, and our everyday experiences with money.
“So much of the problem with money is down to implicit bias, making the cycle hard to break,” said Nina. “Unless something forces us to confront the issue.”
Something, perhaps, like a pandemic.
Perhaps Covid-19 can become a call-to-action for women everywhere.
We will see the struggle and the strain and say: enough is enough.
We will fight to make things like maternity and paternity leave fairer. We will encourage flexible work practices that help women return to work and families to manage childcare. We will advocate for better pay and greater job security for all.
But to do this we need to work together as a united front to elect more women, to build more inclusive business models, to ensure greater equality in the workplace, to invest in more female-led and female-focused companies, and to recognise women’s unpaid domestic labour in economic metrics and decision making.
So, how? you may ask.
The first thing we need to see is government action.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, recently said that women need to be the centre of the recovery plan if we want to recover from the pandemic faster. Doing so is a matter of building long-term social resilience.
At the highest level, the UK government therefore has to take responsibility for making sure women are not irreversibly impacted by the pandemic on a financial level. This is what Sam and the Fawcett Society have been working on so tirelessly as part of the Make Women Visible campaign.
We need to see equality impact assessments published. These show who is being impacted by the decisions and interventions made so far and can help us understand ways to mitigate them going forward.
We need to see equality laws enforced — making sure that women, particularly mothers, are not being discriminated against as more businesses seek to reduce staff and cut hours.
We need to see data disaggregated so that we have gender specific insights, as well as breakdowns across ethnicities, income brackets, age, and disability. The more fine-tuned the data is, the more useful it is — and the better it will be at informing policy.
Businesses must also play a role in ensuring women are not left behind.
“So far, brands have been so focused on their own survival and maintaining awareness that I am yet to see many step up to the plate [when it comes to supporting women],” said Carmel Dickinson, a brand specialist at Finimize. “But the role of brands is really important at the moment as people turn to them for reassurance and a sense of the new normal.”
Top of Carmel’s list is representation. Across sectors, women need to be at the decision-making table and put forward as experts, ensuring female voices are heard and recognising the role of women in solving the crisis. “This was getting better, but now we need representation to offset the imbalance Covid-19 has caused to female workers and finances.”
It is also vital for financial brands to step up and talk about financial health.
Financial resilience in the UK has been critically low for years, with MoneySuperMarket saying around 14 million people in the UK spent every day stressed about their finances even before coronavirus. Banks and fintechs that claim to be customer-centric therefore must take steps and protect the financially vulnerable, as well as innovate to support people and businesses who may be unsure on how to look after their money during this crisis.
“You don’t have to have lost your job, or your industry to have been flattened to be stressed about money right now. Even those with rainy day savings are realising that this isn’t a rainy day, it’s a global pandemic,” Alex Holder commented.
Financial brands can help through directional campaigns and customer communications that help women understand their money better. They can proactively look for ways to provide insights to help women build their savings and pensions, shoring themselves against future crises.
For example, as Carmel pointed out, with women being more likely to outlive men but also to have smaller pensions and saving pots, traditional marketing is outdated and will do nothing to make things better. She said, “More than ever financial brands need to stop hiding behind the “but what if we get the tone wrong” and provide meaningful campaigns.”
Proactively supporting women will likely also see positive returns for businesses in the long-term. Consumers are watching brands and the way they treat their employees. “They will have to look at their internal culture and ensure there is no bias there — in their furlough, redundancies and how they return staff to work,” said Carmel. It’s a matter of survival. Businesses that mistreat their female employees now or that are shown to not practice what they preach in terms of inclusive work cultures are going to be caught out.
But most importantly, we all need to talk about money.
And talk about money. And talk about money. And talk about money.
Talking about money is one of the most powerful things women can do.
Money remains a touchy, tricksy, taboo topic. As women, we shy from our bank balances and feel guilty over so many aspects of our finances — how much we earn, how much we spend, how we dipped into our savings because we just couldn’t resist those gorgeous jeans, how we got onto the property ladder before our friends, how we missed that lux holiday back in the blissful days of 2019.
Covid-19 means a lot of us, who already had complex relationships with our money, are finding things even harder.
“Money issues can make you feel very alone, but there is so much to be gained from speaking to others and sharing your situation,” says Alex. “Try having a money conversation, follow some financial influencers on Instagram, interact with other women about money — you’ll soon find that connection is the best route to knowledge.”
But by talking about money, we start to undo those taboos and question that sense of shame.
Alex recommends that over the next few weeks, we can’t be ostriches with our heads in the sand. We should all practice financial self-care, ensuring we understand our key outgoings and what incomings we have. That way we can begin to understand our situation better. We can take control of our money and our lives.
For women, talking to each other about money and being honest about how Covid-19 is affecting our finances is essential. It’s what will ensure we remain part of the agenda for recovery.
Working together we can continue to bolster the positive trends around female financial empowerment.
After all, conversations about money have already changed thanks to women in just the last few years.
More women are writing books about money.
More financial brands are talking to women about investment and pensions and financial health beyond “spending less” — including ikigai.
And the media has been increasingly involved too — with Refinery29, the Metro, and Stylist (amongst others) working hard to challenge the way we talk about money to women.
We have a lot to be hopeful about, even in the midst of a crisis.
But we cannot rest on the progress of the past. We need to fight for women and our futures.
As Sam Smethers said, “The last recession and the period of austerity which followed disproportionately hit women, and women of colour in particular, hardest. We need to ensure that when we begin to emerge from this immediate crisis that we don’t let that happen again.”
Authors: Harriet Allner and ikigai
Harriet Allner is a writer, blogger and fintech specialist. She cares about stories that matter and is passionate about promoting conversation around money positivity and financial feminism.
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