Understanding gender differences

Portrait of a vibrant senior couple embracing while relaxing together at home.

Gendered social norms of what it means to be a woman or man can profoundly influence the way couples behave within a relationship. 

The way money is viewed, allocated, and even communicated is different for both women and men.

The impact of this socialisation will be more obvious for some people than others, and will affect hetereosexual relationships differently to homosexual relationships. 

Being aware of these differences means that other conversations may be necessary before you talk about money, or you may need to pause or stop during the discussion. 

Either way, be prepared and take your time, otherwise, these issues can become real barriers, and derail the conversation altogether.

Confidence with money

From a young age parenting styles can be gendered when it comes to money, which influences our confidence with money later in life. 

Research suggests that the parents of boys emphasise school grades, working, saving, and money matters much more than the parents of girls. 

Boys are also introduced to family bills much earlier.

This pattern of learning influences how achievements and positive outcomes are viewed. 

For example:

Men

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Success is seen as a rational, tangible, and measurable result - such as strength and earning capacity.

Women

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Success is more about personal attributes - such as empathy, kindness and personal wellbeing.

These perspectives can also influence the level of confidence men and women have around money.

For example:

Women

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Just as capable as men and aware of what's needed to get on track financially, but lack confidence and are quick to pass on responsibility.

Men

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Often left to take charge of the finances because women aren't confident enough in their own ability.

Women can find money difficult to discuss because they tend to feel less self-assured in their level of knowledge, and view their financial literacy (ability to understand financial language), lower then men.

For example:

Men

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Seen as earners and investors

Women

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Seen as spenders or household budget managers

This can lead to women worrying about getting things wrong, often resulting in procrastination, uncertainty and reluctance when it comes to money decisions. 

Simple decision-­making strategies then become more difficult and ‘sticking to what you know’ seems like the safer and easier option. Sometimes if a decision seems too complex, it can result in avoiding it altogether, instead of risking getting it wrong. 

During money conversations, it can be beneficial to check-in with your partner if you think an internal struggle may be occurring. If it is negotiating a way through take a break, discuss how they are feeling, ask how they would like to proceed.

Gender roles

Historically due to a world of hierarchy, colonisation, social norms and rules of conduct, men have been put at the top in a dominant position – determining that men should be the boss, run the household and manage the finances in male-­female relationships.

It is also common for men to express a strong innate need to be the ‘breadwinner’ in a relationship and take responsibility to provide for their family. 

However this comes with its own challenges – by sacrificing their time to work all day and make the money, their opportunity to spend time with their family and children is limited.

Women, on the other hand, see themselves more as carers and often feel they don’t have a say in money matters if they are not contributing financially. 

Even if they do feel comfortable not contributing financially due to other household commitments – the burden can still feel unbalanced.

Even today there is still an unspoken understanding that men will take care of the money. 

Regardless of which gender holds this view, it is often the woman that is left feeling untrusted or incapable. 

These differing values and beliefs are important to discuss, as both genders are likely to have different perspectives.  

When these views are assumed or ignored, it limits a couple’s opportunity to be open to other ways of doing things. 

In some cases, the confidence needed to have financial conversations can be damaged.

Social norms and messages

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Boys receive messages growing up around masculinity.

The messaging is usually about what it means to be a man and how it should be expressed.

Particularly in western culture, male characteristics are seen as being autonomous, strong, competitive and somewhat aggressive in order to win power and position.

This means showing any emotion other than anger, can be viewed as a weakness; making it hard for men to express or acknowledge feelings or admit weakness or neediness.

Because men are socialised with an individualistic focus, it can also discourage them from talking about or taking relationship directed actions.

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Women are often encouraged to be timid, vulnerable, kind, avoid conflict, and give to others (accommodating their needs).

This may explain why women tend to seek cooperation and harmony in relationships and view money through a partnership lens, often prioritising collective over individual spending, typically spending more of their income on purchases for the household, or to enhance social connections and relationships.

If women portray other qualities such as assertiveness, competitiveness, or self-focus, it can be frowned upon and viewed as unfeminine.

This perspective can make it difficult for some women to express their views and self-advocate in relationship matters.

Communication

For many couples talking about money is not an easy thing to do, and it only occurs when financial problems arise, often leading to relationship difficulties and arguments. 

Ideally, communication around money matters needs to happen regularly and in a way that works for both people. 

By understanding the social norms and messages (above) we can understand how these impact men’s and women’s communication styles.

A man’s communication style is generally authoritative, with the motive being to achieve actual, visible outcomes, and advance his own personal needs. 

This approach can lead to a perspective where family money is viewed as their own, particularly if they are the only one earning in the relationship. 

When this belief is reflected in decision-making processes, things can quickly become unbalanced – other contributions can be minimised, discussions restricted, and the health of the whole relationship can be undermined.

The way women communicate is quite different. 

Women often need more time to discuss things than men, as they seek a level of emotional understanding in their conversations.

Even when couples earn similar incomes, women enjoy consulting or informing their partner about their spending, even small purchases, as it reinforces the sense of togetherness and of being a team. 

Men however, tend to make decisions, even about big purchases, on their own without consulting or informing their partner.

These differences can become problematic particularly when dealing with a complicated or emotionally fraught issue, as men are likely to provide a prompt, practical, unemotional response (assuming that is what their partner wants), often leaving the other person feeling talked down to and unheard.

For example:

This example shows some of the differences mentioned above – the man is confused about asking permission, whereas the woman is seeking togetherness .

It is possible that the only experience the man may have ever had consulting someone else on a decision was as a child. 

Therefore, when it is suggested that decisions are made together, it can feel like an attack or inference that what was done, was wrong. 

The women may be feeling hurt, angry, or betrayed by such thoughtlessness by the lack of togetherness, – taking it personally and unaware of the difference in focus and communication style.

By understanding the differences in communication styles between men and women, more considered conversations can be had, where each perspective can be heard and appreciated.

family

Trust

Trust and love are also closely linked in intimate partner relationships and when you’re in love it can be easy to trust your partner with all your money matters. 

For many people, in particular women, the offering of love and trust is an essential and defining feature of commitment in all stages of a relationship, especially in the early days. 

This makes it difficult to question a partner’s decisions, especially around finances, or enquire about unknown debt, as it may seem that love is being questioned. 

Many women also feel that talking to their partner about finances will be perceived as them not trusting the decisions their partner has made – underpinning this trust is the belief that their partner would do the right thing, and act in the family’s best interests concerning finances. 

In fact, when having conversations about money, women often filter out questions that would imply a lack of trust in their partners. 

Men also want to be trusted to make good decisions with the family’s money, especially if they view themselves as the ‘breadwinner.’

However, if financial responsibility and decision making sits predominantly with one partner, what one calls trust may be experienced as control by the other, leading to feelings of exclusion and coercion that could lead to relationship issues.

From an emotional perspective, women tend to be relatively comfortable expressing their feelings and view sharing their own shortcomings as a gesture of trust within a relationship. 

© Good Shepherd NZ and AUT, 2021

Good Shepherd NZ has built this toolkit in collaboration with Dr Ayesha Scott of AUT’s Finance Department.