Women & Money | Shame & Guilt

5 min read

I love the Masters of Scale podcast, hosted by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and investor at Greylock. What’s not to like about a podcast about innovative business models, that is fun and committed to a 50-50 gender balance for guests?

Typically, each episode starts with one of Reid’s theories about scaling, which then he proceeds to test and tweak with his invitee. The theory explored on the 12th March podcast was

I believe you need a diverse portfolio of viewpoints to see the opportunities others are missing.

Reid Hoffman

His guest was Sallie Krawcheck, CEO & Co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform aimed at women. Sallie is a fantastic storyteller and her story worth telling. Personal picks:

  • The beginning of her career in Wall Street
  • Being named the “last honest analyst” when the dotcom bubble burst
  • Her vivid depiction of the “bro” investment culture
  • The founding of Ellevest  to fulling her “life’s mission to unleash women’s financial power and get them invested in their biggest goals”
  • Her commitment to drinking her own medicine: searching for a co-founder that was as different from her as possible, and leading a company with two-thirds women, 40% people of color, and a 50:50 female-male engineering team.

All the interview resonated with me but the following

we women have been socialized in a certain way. Money is really viewed by most women as sort of the guy’s thing. One example I’ll put out there is all the shame around money.

When I talk to women, there’s not an amount of money that we as women can earn, any individual woman can earn, that she doesn’t feel ashamed about. Whether she’s earning too much, because her friends aren’t and they’re going to be jealous, or too little because she wishes she was able to do more for her kids – whatever it is, society has really told us: shame, shame. 

So we receive these insidious harmful messages about money. And we had to break through that.

Sallie Krawcheck

That affirmation stayed on my mind and kept coming back days after listening to the episode. Shame simply doesn’t resonate with my “money” experience or that of other women around me. Could I get any insights from Brené Brown, an expert on shame

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

[…] I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

Brené Brown

Armed with this distinction, I interrogated myself about what money means to me. And the following two needs came up loud and clear

  • Independence: As an immigrant – and daughter of immigrants – it has been inculcated in me since a very early age that money, and especially having a reliable income stream, is key to attaining independence and control over my life.
  • Security: Money mitigates bad times: poor health, job redundancy, housing damage, natural disasters.

which in turn elicited a core value: responsibility.  The responsibility of maintaining a regular source of income, not dropping the ball with my savings, supporting my close circle if in need, demonstrating those I love that I care for them… To me, this non-exhaustive laundry list doesn’t look connected to shame, but more connected to guilt. And guilt is pervasive as well (sorry Dr. Brown, but I don’t always find guilt all that “adaptive and helpful”).

Whilst I don’t deny other women’s experience about being socialized associating money with shame, society has instilled into me – and other women I know – that money comes with a pint – or three – of guilt and condescension. And that shows in the language we use.

In the stimulating Medium article In Praise of Pink Covers and Redefining Chick Lit, Sandra Ann Miller highlights the difference in the vocabulary and tone used to refer to women and men non-essential expenditures (e.g. Contemporary Women’s Fiction belittled as “Chick Lit”). Some examples of how society labels such female transgressions with money are

  • Guilty pleasures
  • Weaknesses
  • Spending sprees
  • Indulgences
  • “Me” time

Conversely, I’ve never heard or read about a football season ticket, a poker night, an afternoon binge-watching the rugby Six Nations Championship, or a weekend spent playing video games referred to as “guilty pleasure”. Instead

  • A requirement (I need to…)
  • A desire (I want to…)
  • A sense of entitlement (I deserve to…)

Is this acute sense of financial responsibility only a trait of mine? Actually no. The UN reports that “When women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men.” Talk about gender gap!

What if we dare to shift the weight of that responsibility to 50-50? Would the world fall apart if both women and men would invest 62.5% of their income back to their families? What could women achieve if society would support them towards investing that remaining 27.5% of their income in themselves without guilt? Developing the business ideas they believe in (even if they fail!), the art they choose to create and appreciate, and the hedonistic activities they want to pursue?  

I believe “guilt” and the female hyper-financial-responsibility syndrome can be reframed and is curable! My first step: reframing my “guilty pleasures” and “non-essential” obligations in terms of needs/wants/entitlements.

What’s your relationship with money? And does it serve you well?

PS. Sallie – Your rock!

How does this article resonate with you?