Are women "intimidated" by finance? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Do women really need extra help managing their money?

A Financial Times columnist has written a book of financial advice for “independent women”.

A picture has been recently circulating online of a bearded, tattooed man wearing nothing but a white vest. With one hand he pulls the front of the vest down to expose his hairy cleavage, with the other he tugs a triangle of white cotton over his crotch. He is mouth hangs open, his expression is slightly vacant, and needless to say he looks ridiculous. The image is a parody by the Bondi Hipsters of a GQ shoot with the Australian model Miranda Kerr, and it provided a neat, internet-friendly comment on the way in which women are used to sell men’s glossies.

Sometimes an easy way to expose sexism is to flip the genders round. This, at least, is why the Bondi Hipsters image sprung to mind when a new book by the Financial Times columnist Mrs Moneypenny landed on my desk. It’s called Financial Advice for Independent Women. No one would write a book of Financial Advice for Independent Men – the assumption is that adult men are inherently independent. Apparently only some women are, and they should buy a special book on finance illustrated with an old fashioned old lady's purse and with chapter titles like “Your Financial Goals (or Money is Not Boring)”.

But ignoring the unfortunate title, is Mrs Moneypenny right, do women need different financial advice from men? She gives a few sensible reasons why they might. For a start, women live longer than men – the average woman in the UK will live 2.8 years longer than the average man. Women are also more likely to be caring for dependents, whether they are children or older relatives. And globally they earn less than men:  in the UK the gender pay gap is 18.2 per cent (check out this interactive on how the UK compares internationally.) 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women.

Considered as a general group, women are under more financial strain than men – they have to support more people with less money – which suggests perhaps they do need different advice from most men. At the same time, in the UK only 11 per cent of senior managers in banking are women – and a male-dominated banking sector is less likely to be sensitive to the specific needs of women customers, whether they are single mothers, caring for older relatives, or simply struggling along on four-fifths of the salary of their male colleague. 

Mrs Moneypenny then gives an entirely ludicrous reason for offering women separate financial advice: they “lack confidence” and so “in the areas of finance – so set about by jargon and idiosyncrasies – it’s all too easy to become intimidated” – a sentiment that sounds dangerously close to suggesting that women are scared by long words. (If this isn't patronising enough, check out Mrs Moneypenny's advice on how to read a newspaper.) 

It’s become quite fashionable recently to point out women’s lack of confidence – it’s a running theme in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and in a new book called The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  It might be true that a (rational and socially enforced) lack of confidence can prevent woman from successfully negotiating pay rises and climbing the greasy corporate pole, but that doesn’t mean they are less financially astute than men.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that – even if they lack "financial literacy" (another popular buzzword at the moment) - women are better than men at managing money, and are reliable customers for banks. Charities and microfinance institutions often find it’s more effective to give loans or cash grants to women, because they are more likely to pay back the money and less likely to squander it.

Despite this, in the US, women are consistently charged higher interest on their credit cards than men. And although a UK government review of women and banking concluded in 2013 that there was no evidence of banks discriminating against women when it comes to accessing credit (refuting an earlier IPPR report), it did suggest banks need to do more to engage women. A lack of discrimination doesn't mean that the UK banking sector is attuned to women's specific financial needs.

Yet perhaps the gender divide in finance reflects a bigger, and more important point: financial advice is usually least available to those who need it most, whatever their gender. It’s more expensive to access cash if you’re poor in the UK, because more than 300,000 of the UK’s poorest live more than 1km away from a free-to-use cash machine.

The UK’s wealthiest have access to private bankers who can give them personalised advice, but the poorest have to make do with mainstream banking services with a box-ticking attitude towards giving out loans and with little time to consider individual circumstanes. Campaigners like Faisel Rahman of the UK-based microfinance institution Fair Finance believe the least well-off need the same personal attention as the wealthiest. His organisation lends to those who have been excluded by mainstream banks, and by assessing each individual’s finances on a case-by-case basis he can make loans that are affordable and life-changing for his customers.

Given that women are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty, a banking sector that is more responsive to the needs of the least-well off will also disproportionately benefit women. Confidence and jargon has very little to do with it. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation