Less than 50 years ago, women were not legally able to open a bank account or receive a business loan without a male co-signer. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 and the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988 changed that reality and were monumental moments in history, transforming female entrepreneurship and financial rights for women.

That lack of legal voice forced a historic and generational dependency on male counterparts to be the ones managing and controlling finances. Today, in a world where women can start their own businesses, manage their own business loans, and own property, they face a new problem. Suddenly, opportunity is everywhere and resources are abundant, yet the specter of generational exclusion from financial conversations lingers.

“Historically, women have not been put in a position where we have been included in the conversation, and even if the resources were ours, we didn’t get to make the decisions around those,” said Shilo Lockett, president of Comprehensive Wealth Management in Lynnwood.

“(Women have) overcome a lot, and now we do have a seat at the table. We can’t wait for permission to be invited to that table; we just know that we have a right to be there.”

Shilo Lockett. Photo by Keith Brofsky.

“Financial education was a privilege”

“I was lucky enough to have parents who were really committed to educating me about money, teaching me how to use a credit card responsibly, telling me how to invest, how to negotiate my salary, and I graduated college thinking that was the case for everybody,” said Tori Dunlap, founder of finance and career platform Her First 100k. “I realized very quickly that it wasn’t — financial education was a privilege.”

Dunlap’s experience is not the reality in which many women, especially women of color, live. Instead, they face societal, educational, gender, and cultural barriers that hinder them from obtaining the same level of financial literacy and independence as their male counterparts.

Women not only hold a majority of student loan debt in the United States, but they hold the most amount of debt in general. Even worse, Black women finish school with more debt than white women. Paired with the gender and intersectional wage gap, one can surmise that it is more difficult for women to pay off their debt, keeping them in an oppressive cycle.

“We have a culture in the U.S. where conversations around money are taboo, and that narrative is put forth by people, typically old, straight white men, who are already in power and who already have money,” Dunlap said. “So, our lack of education and our lack of (discourse) about money holds us back — it’s the patriarchy’s best way to silence us.”

Dunlap has dedicated her entire career toward helping women find their financial confidence and has a community of more than 170,000 followers on Instagram and more than eight times that on TikTok at the time of this writing. Not only does she discuss how to overcome financial barriers, but she also acknowledges and analyzes the larger systemic issues at play.

Photo by Victoria Lemos Photography

“All of these conversations have to be nuanced,” Dunlap said. “They can’t just be, ‘The reason why you’re not rich is because you buy too much coffee,’ because that logic doesn’t work; the math doesn’t even work; it’s also shaming; and it doesn’t acknowledge systemic oppression at all.”

And while conversations surrounding the pay gap finally are happening, and women are demanding to be treated better in the workplace, there still are topics that need to be addressed.

“What we are not talking about enough are things like the investing gap where women actually wait longer to invest compared to men, or don’t invest at all,” Dunlap said. “So, women are taking less money because of the pay gap, and it’s growing at a slower rate because of the investing gap.

“Women, on average, live seven years longer than men do, so we are expected to take less money, it is growing at a slower rate, and then we are expected to live longer on that money — it doesn’t make any sense,” she continued.

The divide in financial literacy for women starts at a young age, especially when households tend to talk about money differently with their daughters than with their sons.

“I see this in my own work, where I work with parents who have a boy and a girl, and they will have different conversations about money and careers with their sons than with their daughters,” Dunlap said, noting that encouraging female participation in household financial discussions at a young age can both model and normalize this involvement.

Especially during COVID-19, the need for financial literacy for women is at an all-time high.

According to a 2020 Economic Policy Institute study, women filed nearly 59 percent of unemployment claims during the COVID-19 health crisis, despite making up only half of the labor force.

Dunlap noted that society will be seeing the negative impacts for a long time. Women taking a step back from their careers keeps them from getting promoted, which then hinders them from earning more money. And while a lot of women don’t want to give up their careers, they also are expected to be the primary caregiver of children or ailing family members.

Michelle Fait. Photo by Tara Gimmer Photography.

“Women often think about money in terms of their families, but rarely think about money in terms of themselves, especially when they are in a relationship,” said Michelle Fait, certified financial planning practitioner and founder of Satori Financial LLC. “I’ve talked to women at different career stages and levels of partnership, and they are already thinking about taking care of their parents,” Fait continued. “And caregiving is something that falls on daughters different than with sons — a future gift to daughters would be alleviating that worry.”

Alleviating worry works in tandem with understanding and dismantling the systemic oppression associated with women and money, and the first step is to be able to talk about these things with the intention of helping other women.

“For me, having the privilege of a financial education came with the responsibility to start having these conversations,” said Dunlap. “I realized that a financial education is our best form of protest as women and is our best form of being able to make choices.”

“Financial literacy means freedom”

For many women, expanding their knowledge of all things financial can be a particularly liberating experience.

“The lack of financial education reaches so many different parts of a woman’s life,” Dunlap said. “If she doesn’t have savings, she can’t get out of a toxic situation — like a relationship she doesn’t want to be in anymore or an abusive job — she can’t start a business or donate to causes she believes in. The lack of options that come with that lack of financial education completely transforms your life.

“On the flip side,” Dunlap continued, “Having that financial education means that all of those opportunities open up for you.”

From traditional financial consulting practices to the new era of financial influencers on social platforms, women possess the tools they need to rewrite the narrative and take their seat at the table.

Moji Igun. Photo by Victoria Lemos Photography.

“I think the more we talk about money, the better,” said Moji Igun, owner of Blue Daisi Consulting and one of Dunlap’s students. “Historically, Black people in America are less likely to benefit from intergenerational wealth, which maintains the cycle of poverty or the status quo of just getting by. Asking for exactly what I’m worth and getting it makes me feel powerful.”

Igun went on to posit what freedom looks like. If she is able to live the life that she is worthy of while being able to decide to whom she should dedicate her time and access, is that freedom?

“When we have access to tools like financial literacy and the conditions where we’re able to ask for what we deserve, we’re able to build better lives for ourselves and for the people we love,” she said.

“Even with my very modest income, I have a plan for my money that gets me exactly where I need to go,” she continued, “(and) that sense of peace is priceless.”

Closing the Investment Gap

Taking control of one’s financial narrative looks different for everyone. Here are some actionable tips from Tori Dunlap, founder of Her First 100k, to get started on the journey toward financial freedom.

Paying Off Student Loans

Borrowers should try to get the lowest interest rate available to them. Services like Juno can help with this.

Jumping Into the Stock Market

Start with a fund that gives market exposure across an array of companies, such as a stock index fund or global stock index fund. Remember that stocks are only one part of “the market” and are intended for long-term investing (five years or more). Recognize that one learns by doing. Also know that women tend to be better investors over time.

Paying Off Debt

Make sure to make minimum payments and to set these on autopay to avoid missed payments and start down the rabbit hole of late fees, penalties, and dings to one’s credit score, which will be harmful further down the line. For instance, carrying a debt of one type can restrict the ability to use debt of another type, such as student loans restricting the amount of a home loan for which one could otherwise qualify for. Lastly, remember that some debt is better than others; debt with a tax benefit is better than debt without.

Saving for Retirement

If you’re Investing as early as you can, even if it’s $20 per month, you’re doing a great thing. A Roth IRA lets one pay taxes now instead of after retirement, while a traditional IRA lets one pay taxes when they retire versus now. Max contribution over 15 months for both IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for individuals over the age of 50). If self-employed, have a SEP-IRA, which is taxed like a traditional IRA.

Negotiating Pay — Getting Started

Understand industry standards based on role, skill, experience, education, and location. Glassdoor, Payscale, and 81Cents are all great places to start. Ask male friends and colleagues questions about their salary — it doesn’t have to be specific, but a ballpark range. You might get a different comp range or salary target.