Are women "intimidated" by finance? Photo: Getty.
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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.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder