Sunél’s Blog | An evolutionary perspective of women’s financial independence

Sunél Veldtman, | 06 August 2021

When I embarked on a career in investments, I did not plan to stick around after I had had children. I was raised, with my four siblings, by our warm, loving, stay-at-home mum and corporate career father. With two post-graduate qualifications in finance, I had more than enough knowledge to determine my own financial freedom. But a lingering picture remained from my own childhood – a picture of my dad taking care of our family finances and my mum’s financial affairs too; a picture of being taken care of. It was this picture that influenced me not to want to pursue a career after having children; and to essentially give up my financial independence. My husband’s picture was the exact opposite, unusual for that time. His mum was the primary earner and financial decision-maker in their family. It took us a while to figure out that we were waiting for each other to take the lead in our financial planning.

That said, I didn’t give up my career, and eventually took full responsibility for my financial freedom. However, overcoming the resulting guilt that stemmed from my picture of what a good mum looked like took time and mindful effort. With regards to my financial planning, I must admit that at times, I still longed for someone else to bear the heavy responsibility of my financial security.

I wonder how universal this feeling is amongst women? I suspect it may now be less prevalent amongst the younger generation, but I frequently see it amongst women of my generation and older: the desire to be taken care of, or have someone else take care of their financial responsibility. I also frequently see the disastrous consequences such as when that partner did not assume responsibility either.

I always thought that it was my picture that solely shaped this desire – to not have to worry about my own money, to check out of my own financial responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone else could take care of the responsibility of ensuring my own financial future?

However, the longer I worked in my business, with women, the more I began to question this. What if it was more than just our picture that created this desire? The field of evolutionary psychology provides clues, over and above the pictures we harbour from our own childhoods, about why so many women still yearn to be cared for.

The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that our mental activity and behaviour are largely a result of our drive to survive and succeed; and that they were borne specifically within our ancestral environments. Brain patterns developed and consequently behaviours adapted which ensured our successful survival. For example, research in this field shows that women tend to select men based on their wealth – particularly during difficult economic times. Is it possible that women’s dependence on men for protection and food dating from ancestral times, still dictate our desires? That our ancestral brains still hold sway? Would this explain why men and women in the workplace, subconsciously treat women as though there is someone else taking responsibility for them (certainly, the salary disparity between men and women might support this argument)? And does it explain why men are treated as though they are responsible for a partner or family at home – which would partly explain why family men fare better than any other category in the workplace?

The desire to be dependent on someone else is called the Cinderella complex in other fields of psychology: where women are raised to feel safe and comfortable and hence are trained to be dependent. Studies show that those who had different pictures or received different training found it easier to be independent, and work towards financial independence. In my experience, women who have a healthy picture of financial independence were trained from a young age to think of it as a good thing. Alternatively, women who had traumatic experiences with financial loss in their childhoods developed strong desires to be financially independent, often to the detriment of their relationships.

Financial independence does not necessarily mean that a woman cannot take a career break to care for young children or even completely give up her career to be a stay-at-home mum. It is the contract – between a woman and her partner – about the division of financial resources that will determine whether she remains financially independent, as well as her own resolution to remain responsible for her own financial security. I believe that women should not give up financial responsibility, whether it be in the home or workplace. She should remain able and willing to be involved or take the lead to ensure that her current and future financial status is secure. This responsibility, to make sound financial choices for herself, should never be surrendered.

Bear in mind that the switching of roles, as breadwinner or primary earner, already happens frequently. And that as career trajectories become more unpredictable for all, the roles may switch from one partner to the other several times during the total career span. Therefore, each partner should take responsibility for their own financial security and engage in a collective financial vision as partners.

We must acknowledge how complex women’s relationship with financial independence is. It goes beyond the obvious stereotypes to the deep, subconscious patterns of our ancestors, our parents, our society and our own history. We still have a long way to go before women will enter the working world with realistic pictures and grids for financial independence. Evolutionary patterns take time to change! In the meantime, we must recognise the subconscious battle for women to want to be financially independent and train women on the importance of financial independence as a healthy part of adulthood. The more pictures young women have of financially independent and secure women, the more likely she is to become one herself. As we do so, we will change our collective pictures, one at a time, until our ancestral pictures are overwritten.

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