Listen to this article
Have I been focusing on the wrong things with my children? As the parent of a girl and a boy I have spent the first few years of their lives insisting on gender-neutral toys and neutral clothing in the fervent hope that my daughter may choose to be a scientist and my son won’t hide his sensitive soul.
But it seems I should have been concentrating on a more subtle issue: that of gender-related financial literacy. New research has found that boys and girls show differing levels of financial confidence and, depressingly, this starts from as young as five years old.
According to new figures from HSBC, almost two-thirds of girls claim not to “understand money” compared with just over half of boys of the same age. The UK bank found that girls were also less likely to think they were good with their pocket money compared with boys.
Such gender stereotypes are challenged in a new book by children’s author Emma Dodd. In Fairer Tales: Princesses Doing it for Themselves, she claims to flip traditional fairy tales on their head by showcasing strong female leads. The idea is hardly new. I already own books that turn gender stereotypes on their head, such as the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different. But what is different is the emphasis on the female leads of the story being financially savvy and independent in order to live happily ever after.
From early childhood, gender stereotyping via popular culture and the stories we tell our children play an important role in shaping attitudes towards issues such as finance. The way people engage with money tends to be set at an early age. A study from the University of Cambridge found that people’s financial habits are formed between the ages of three and seven, which underlines the importance of getting children to handle and engage with money at a young age. The Cambridge research found that confidence in the world of finance — albeit with small amounts of pocket money to begin with — will be carried by youngsters into their adult lives.
But what concerns me about the HSBC findings is the wide disparity it found in how parents talk to each gender about money. Of the 500 children surveyed, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of boys had received a talk from their parents about money, compared with just over half (54 per cent) of girls of the same age. The parents surveyed also said they would feel more comfortable talking about money in front of their sons than their daughters.
This backs up research conducted last year by MyBank, a financial charity, that found that more girls than boys had “a crisis of confidence” in making money-related decisions. The charity collected data on 1,200 people between the ages of 11 and 25 and found that 48 per cent of females felt uneasy talking about finance, compared with 28 per cent of boys.
Worryingly, it seems that instead of helping our children, particularly our daughters, to overcome the barriers they will inevitably face in life (such as gender pay discrimination and a glass ceiling in the workplace) some parents are unknowingly helping to reinforce those discrepancies.
Why is it girls are expected to be uninterested in money? If we go back many decades, I concede the assumption may carry a sad logic when women were focused more on marrying well than on education. But even today, in my role as editor of FT Money’s Your Questions column, I receive many disturbing letters from women in their 50s and 60s who face getting divorced while also being fleeced financially because they lack an adequate understanding of their pension and investment rights.
I have female friends who say they don’t know anything about the mortgage on their property — and don’t want to know.
We have a responsibility to teach both boys and girls to be confident in dealing with their finances because habits learnt in the playground can be carried into the adult world. A report out this week from the Money Advice Service says activities such as playing shop at home, talking regularly about money, making shopping lists together and setting family budget goals with children as young as three were found to influence positive money habits that children would carry with them for life.
And it seems that teaching children about money could even have a beneficial effect on parents. The Money Advice report found parents experienced improvements in their own personal finances, with researchers noticing a 15 percentage point fall in the number of over-indebted parents after 12 months.
The answer to instilling financial confidence in our children does not lie solely in the purchase of forward-thinking fairy tales. But if we can get this right we can perhaps create a world where parents, and their children, can get a bit closer to that elusive goal of living happily ever after.
Lucy Warwick-Ching is digital editor of FT Money
Get alerts on Gender politics when a new story is published