Does having a guy in the room make a difference to women’s comfort levels and willingness to talk about money?
After two years of accumulating data, I can now answer that question with certainty.
Let’s roll back the clock to the beginning of February of 2018. I had just announced the launch of my Women’s Money Group, a community for women in which I offer monthly workshops, Q&A sessions, and coaching. A few acquaintances expressed reservations. “How are you going to get women to talk openly about money? I don’t see how that’s going to work.”
Perhaps, but I suspected that given a safe, no shame, no blame, no judgment environment, women would open up.
I was stunned to discover how true that was!
I went into the first workshop cautiously optimistic. Thirty-three women had registered to participate. No one knew what it was all about and most of the women were strangers to each other. Still, within fifteen minutes the energy was amazing. Not only did I not have any difficulty in getting them to speak, I couldn’t stop them!
There were questions galore, vibrant group discussions, and a lot of laughter. Many of the comments on the feedback form talked about how comfortable and freeing it was to finally have a space to talk about money.
For the next nine months, the trend continued. Women participated, talked, shared, learned, progressed, and connected.
Then, in December of that year, I opened the doors to men for the first annual co-ed WMG workshop. Many of the women were accompanied by male partners, fathers, sons, and friends.
Since I didn’t want to prejudice the outcome, I went into it with a researcher’s curiosity: “I wonder what this will do to the atmosphere and the feeling in the room?” It didn’t take long to get an answer.
Instead of chatter and laughter at the start of the meeting, there were quiet exchanges. The women were still friendly, but in a more muted way.
When I asked questions, I was met with silence and shy smiles. Getting a response was like pulling teeth.
When I asked people to share their thoughts and experiences, once again there was hesitation, reluctance.
It was So. Quiet. In. The. Room. I couldn’t believe the change in the women.
Afterwards, I went up to one of my more outgoing members, who is normally a vocal participant in all discussions, and I said, “What happened tonight? You’re normally so talkative. You hardly said a word! What happened? Did the topic not resonate with you?”
She shook her head and said, “No, no, it’s not that at all. I don’t know. I’m confident, I love my husband, we have a great relationship and I’m very comfortable around him, but I just didn’t feel comfortable talking tonight. It’s certainly not that I’m shy! I don’t know what happened.”
She couldn’t answer my question. I think it baffled her as much as it did me.
I spoke to another outgoing member who runs a team of men in a non-traditional field as part of her job. She, too, couldn’t say why she suddenly clammed up.
One month later, when we were back to a women-only group, the volume shot up again: lots of discussion, comments, shared experiences, questions about stumbling blocks, expressions of empathy – the gamut.
It was impossible to come to any conclusions, back then, because the co-ed experiment was a first. Perhaps the women were not accustomed to having men in the room, so they dampened their participation. Maybe everyone was tired. It was, after all, roughly one week away from Christmas day. It could have been a one-off for any number of reasons. I left it at that and made a note to pay attention to the dynamic the following year.
Eleven months of dynamic workshops, discussions, and Q&A sessions followed. It’s worth noting that the vibrant conversations did not stem from the fact that the women were in their financial comfort zones. Quite the contrary! Here’s a list of the topics we covered in 2019:
You’d think that if anything were to silence women, it would be tackling an area in which they often feel uncomfortable or unknowledgeable, such as investing. And yet, those workshops yielded some of our best conversations and Q&A sessions. The topic clearly wasn’t a factor.
Fast forward to December 17th, 2019 and the second co-ed WMG workshop, in which we tackled the topic of how to improve our financial habits . I was eager to see if the pattern of behavioral reticence would repeat itself or if December 2018’s workshop was a one-off.
It happened again – silence, hesitation. Friendly faces and smiles, but little-to-no interaction.
In fact, it was so obvious that a newcomer to the group said in her feedback form: “Great communication. Too bad the group didn’t participate as much.” The irony was that there was far more interaction in the online group, who were joining in from different cities via livestream. They had a blast talking about how to use high-end ice cream as an incentive to improve financial habits!
Here’s what’s interesting about that night: The men were all friendly and pleasant. They also seemed to get good value from the evening as evidenced by their replies on the feedback forms. Here are a few of their comments, for example:
“Awesome! Better than all my university profs. I enjoyed learning about habits and how they form, how we break them. Clear, concise information.”
“Great and practical ideas. Very engaging.”
“I appreciated the information on how to improve our habits to tackle debt and overspending. Very useful.”
They didn’t talk very much either, but then again, they were at a Women’s Money Group meeting. It’s not surprising that they were hesitant in such an environment! Their reluctance to participate didn’t surprise me at all.
So it’s not about the men. They were great.
This, my ladies, is about us.
I won’t pretend to understand what goes on when otherwise confident, outgoing women silence themselves in the presence of men when talking about money. What I have is evidence that it happens, but no research about the why.
I have a hunch, though. I’ve seen this repeatedly in many areas when it comes to women and money. Simply, it’s this: we second-guess ourselves in an environment that isn’t fully safe. Safety, in this instance, is all about not feeling stupid. It’s about sticking to our financial comfort zone which, according to my research, revolves around the day-to-day management of money.
Anything else – investing, protecting our assets, planning for the future – is outside of that safety zone.
Even topics relating to money management, such as financial habits, can leave us feeling uncertain in the presence of men because we assume, wrongly, that they’re better with money than we are. It’s important to note that the men themselves aren’t the ones telling us that; we’re the ones unconsciously holding on to outdated scripts and myths around the idea that men are the money experts. It doesn’t help that so many in the financial industry, including talking heads on television, are men.
We often defer to men. Sometimes, we even abdicate to men and in doing so, we lose our power over our money, our choices, and our life.
Part of the solution is to seek out opportunities to practice finding our voice and using it. The more practice we have, the more confident we become. The more confidence we have, the better we become at making good choices and using our money effectively.
I am grateful to the men who joined our group for December’s workshop. I learned a lot from them, including this key lesson: Women benefit tremendously from having a women-only environment in which to learn, exchange ideas, share frustrations, and strengthen their voice.
As the Women’s Money Group approaches its second birthday, I’m taking the time to compile the lessons learned from the series of experiments I’ve run to see what works. My members have been my beta testers. Here’s what I know for certain from the experiments: the Women’s Money Group is an effective tool to help women grow their knowledge and take their finances to the next level, whether that means growing their income, paying off debt, building savings, or learning to invest. It builds community and empowers its members.
As for the co-ed workshops, I’m not sure that I’ll offer them again, at least not for a while. I suspect there is greater value to be had in giving women one more opportunity to practice speaking in an environment where they feel comfortable doing so. With enough successes under their belt, my hope is that they will reach a point where they no longer care who’s in the room, just as I’ve learned to do over the last twenty years. If they have something to share, they’ll do it, secure in their belief in themselves. When they make mistakes, they’ll shrug, say “Isn’t that interesting?”, learn from the process, and then move confidently on to the next step.
What do you think about my co-ed experiment? Would the presence of men affect what or how much you share? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.