Women Won't Achieve True Power Until We Start Talking Frankly About Money | Opinion

We are in the midst of a robust national conversation about gender. We're talking about the shifting roles and expectations of men and women, and whether the U.S. is "ready" for a female president. We're discussing the forces that hold women back in our society—whether it's sexual harassment in the workplace, girls not having coding experience, or girls being told to be perfect while boys are told to be brave. We're even talking about how gender itself is defined.

At their core, these conversations are all about power: who has it and who doesn't. But one thing that has been missing from the debate is money.

We cannot talk about power without implicitly talking about money, as the two are inextricably interwoven in a capitalist society. More money equals more power. It confers power in personal relationships, power to give your candidate a better shot at being elected, power to walk away from a job you don't like, and even the power to parade around in your half-open bathrobe in front of junior employees, as former television host Charlie Rose apparently did, and get away with it for years and years.

As a society, we send the unspoken message that money is a masculine construct, which all genders internalize and which thus reduces the relative power of women. This starts with the differing messages that we—parents, schools, the media—send to our daughters and sons about money. These messages help to hold women back and push men forward.

For example, recent research tells us that parents tend to talk to girls more about saving money and being careful with money and to boys more about making money and building wealth. Parents typically give girls smaller allowances for the same chores, particularly during the teen years, while teachers give girls lower grades in math for the same answers. (You read that correctly.)

As boys become men, their money media are Bloomberg and Fox Business, whose viewerships skew heavily male. As girls become women, the women's magazines we read talk down to us about money, describing financial planning as "difficult" and telling women to "buckle their seat belts" before reading an article on financial planning; they subject us to quizzes to "determine your money type"; and they present smart financial planning as more about "skipping the latte" than about building a diversified investment portfolio.

In popular culture, Carrie Bradshaw—among the savviest of urban women in television history—couldn't afford her Sex and the City apartment because she bought too many shoes. In a scene infamous to the show's millions of fans, Carrie then struggled to do the math to understand just how much her shoe habit had cost her. She was the person so many young women came of age wanting to emulate, and she was smart about everything, except money.

Sex and the City
Actresses Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall film "Sex and the City: The Movie" on September 21, 2007, in New York City. Brian Ach/WireImage/Getty

Error Messages

As adults, when women start to invest, we receive messages (from the overwhelmingly male investing industry) that we are more "risk-averse" investors than men (not according to my firm Ellevest's research), that we are not as good at investing as men (when women actually outperform men, both as individual investors and at the professional level, according to multiple studies from Warwick Business School, U.C. Berkeley and many others) and that we need more financial education (fair enough, but so do men, who don't receive similar messages).

In fact, the money industry—Wall Street—telegraphs its male orientation loud and clear. If it weren't enough that 84 percent of financial advisers and 90 percent of mutual fund managers are men to drive that point home, then the Wall Street brand symbol of an angry, snorting bull leaves no doubt.

Women consistently receive a drumbeat of messages over the course of our lives: We are not good with money; we are savers, not investors; and money is a masculine construct. We duly internalize these messages and see "being bad" with money as a feminine—even attractive—trait. In turn, we typically pass the responsibility for investing to the men in our lives: In opposite-gender relationships, the male partner takes the investing lead in 83 percent of households, versus just 2 percent in which the woman does, according to research from UBS.

These messages have the further effect of shifting the blame for women's lower levels of wealth and greater incidence of poverty onto women themselves—and away from the systemic challenges we face. If we were just better with money, if we were just better at financial planning, if we could just figure out how to get that raise, if we could just give up that latte-a-day habit, if we could just close our "confidence gap": These are held out as the answers.

Thus, the systemic factors that hold women back financially are given short shrift in this blame-shifting-masked-as-personal-empowerment approach. Rarely does this narrative include the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a mandated paid maternity leave, or that 81 percent of women in a survey last year said that they had been sexually harassed at some point in their lifetimes, or that young women carry a disproportionate share of crippling student loan debt, as a study by the American Association of University Women recently found. If, as the National Institute for Retirement Security has reported, women retire with two-thirds the money of men (and less for women of color, according to the Urban Institute), it is somehow your fault, a combination of your personal shortcomings and not trying hard enough.

Money Secrets

The blame shifting and negative messages mean that money remains the final societal taboo for women, wrapped in shame. For many women, there is no amount of money they can earn that they are comfortable sharing with their friends: It's either too much or too little. If a woman makes more than her male partner, she is given the message that she emasculates him. That's why both genders are more likely to lie about their income in those circumstances, a Census Bureau study found (men inflate what they make, while women deflate) and why their marriages are more likely to end in divorce, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The result is that women prefer to talk about literally any other subject more than money—including our own deaths, a Merrill Lynch study found last year.

How does a woman effectively negotiate for a raise when she has internalized that both money and aggressive negotiating by women are fraught minefields? The answer is that she often doesn't, and the gender pay gap remains stubbornly fixed, data from the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows. At the current rate of progress, it will take another 40 years—until 2059—for women to reach pay parity. Make that 100 years, or 2119, for black women and 2224 for Latinas.

The cost to us as a society and economy is profound. It should be no surprise that a sexual predator like a Harvey Weinstein preyed on women who had much less money than he did; the same was true of the women that Rose paraded in front of and that CBS head Les Moonves bullied. At a more macro level, consider the incalculable cost to economic growth of all the women who have left the workforce because their salaries didn't cover their child care costs, or who didn't start businesses because they couldn't raise the money (in the venture capital world, women CEOs get just 2 percent of funding dollars), or who do not have enough money to support themselves when they outlive their husbands. That women have historically given less in political donations likewise has had a cost to us, shifting the political landscape in untold ways that affect us all—although this trend may be changing, given a dramatic increase in donations from women over the past two years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Harvey Weinstein
Disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein leaves the state Supreme Court on April 26 in New York. Don Emmert/AFT/Getty

What's the answer? There's no silver bullet, but there are actions we can take: We can talk about money in the home, in the same way with boys and girls. We can make sure our daughters see their mothers involved with the household money and investing. With my daughter (and my son), I talked about money a lot, with what I'd call pretty radical transparency. That included talking about my professional ups and down and what they meant for us as a family. And I let them "see me sweat," when I lost my job, got promotions, started my own company.

Outside our homes, we can teach personal finance in school (it's a lot more useful in life than trigonometry). We can demand more transparency on gender and other minority-based pay gaps at work. We can buy from and invest in companies whose values align with our own, whose leadership teams reflect the modern world, and at which we would want our daughters (and our sons) to work. And we can provide parents with a mandated paid family leave.

Money is not everything. But it is something: It's a source of power, and we as parents—and the media—are unknowingly hurting our children, teaching our daughters a helplessness around money, and forcing our sons to bear the majority of the stress around money.

So if we truly want to empower our girls, it's time to acknowledge that empowering them about money is a critical part of the process—and to act on it.

Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, an innovative digital-first investing platform for women. She is the former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.