Cinderella had her shoe returned to her by a prince. Snow White was kissed by a prince and awoken from her slumber. Sleeping Beauty repeated this story line. In a traditional fairytale, the princess is saved by a prince. She is a damsel in distress unable to save herself. Women are told over and over again that men are in control of women’s situations and circumstances. Finances are no different. We haven’t moved past the fairytale version of life that many of us grew up on.
I graduated with an MBA, and an undergraduate degree in business and finance. But, for 17 out of the 25 years of my marriage, my husband almost exclusively led the financial trajectory of the family, while I looked after the house, the children and most of the domestic duties. Much like the workplace, the division of tasks in our home was done according to traditional gender roles. This isn’t an unusual set up. In most of the world, cultures, ages, men are in charge of finances, regardless of who on paper has the credentials. Conventionally, marriage delineates functions between men and women, and hands over the financial role to men like most of the careers in STEM fields. Unless the woman is a single mother who also owns a business, children rarely get to see their mothers at the helm of their financial affairs.
As I became a parent, raising two children I realised that my husband and I would be their first example of a leader. Furthermore, these two boys were going to be two men one day, growing up, possibly entering a marriage of their own and I had a responsibility. Neutralising gender roles and role modelling a gender balanced relationship in our family was my moral motive to prepare them for a changing world. I reclaimed my MBA brain, reactivating it, so I could reassume some financial responsibilities. I ask myself now, why did I let it go in the first place? My husband assumed the financial role because I gave it up. Was it a cultural factor? Was it an implicit bias I had? Was it circumstantial? He was working, earning more and I decided to step off the career ladder, by default becoming the stay at home parent.
Gender roles in the workplace
Gender plays a large part in business leadership discussions. In the boardroom, many discussions around gender roles take place, many of them concluding that roles at home impact dynamics in the workplace. The motherhood penalty (a term coined by sociologists arguing that working mothers encounter disadvantages in pay, perceived competence, and benefits at work) is a pivotal indicator of home life influencing perceptions of women at work. On the flip side, data suggests men benefit from a wage increase when they enter fatherhood, coined as the fatherhood premium.
Understanding finance and financial management are universally important. So, why do men take the lead? Awareness and skills in financial areas are not meant to be restricted to women of a particular culture, education, background, profile. Knowledge is universal, if women want it, they should have it. This idea feeds into pay equity, often the differentiator between salaries are said to be because of negotiation tactics. Are we taught this in school? How do you negotiate if you have little awareness or skills with money? Let alone in negotiating compensation? Not everyone has an MBA to lean on.
In 2021, women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men.
Pay transparency is becoming more important in companies, with technological advances like Glassdoor popping up, and a cultural shift away from secrecy around salaries. Transparency is key to financial independence and awareness, women know they are being paid an unequal amount to men generally. But, away from the workplace and within the private sphere, how can women initiate self-empowerment by taking control of their financial knowledge and position, while most marriages steer away from this dynamic? I propose that a conscious culture change is crucial. By stopping behaviours that no longer serve us, specifically around gender roles at home, we balance the scales.
Back at home
If we look at gender roles at home through a cultural lens — we often replicate the experiences of how we grew up. I stepped off my career ladder to assume my motherhood role in the way I imagined I needed to as a stay at home parent. I, therefore, earned less than my husband, so he took the helm in monitoring and dealing with our finances. My mother, despite working with my father in the family business, also assumed the lead in the parenting and the domestic role in our family, while I was growing up. She did not take on financial responsibilities or book keeping, yet she probably would have been really good at it. If we are to change how women are seen at home and in the workplace, the most important piece of this puzzle is actually the stigma against men. Men are stigmatized for being stay at home fathers. But, in hindsight, my father would have made an incredible stay at home dad. Women are the de facto caretakers. But, the decision of who should stay at home should be guided by who wants to, career aspirations of both individuals and financial and life goals. If meritocracy is to apply in the workplace, it should apply at home too.
Gulnar Vaswani is a Diversity & Inclusion consultant, thought–leader, board advisor and executive coach to CEOs. Social scientist meets spiritual warrior, Gulnar is re-imagining leadership for the 21st century. Her latest initiative, GPS GO, is a unique program empowering millennials to find their inner coordinates and harness their leadership abilities, with the larger social dynamics in mind. Follow GPS GO on Instagram (gps_go_) for mindful musings and updates!