Why Women’s Money Means Less

By Nadina L. Anderson

Is men’s money different than women’s money? How can we tell?

While men make more money than women, most scholars assume the physical dollars and cents are interchangeable. A woman’s dollar looks and feels the same as a man’s dollar. However, in practice, people exchange money in particular patterns.

Within families, husbands and wives earmark income to pay for different costs: rent, food, kids, parties, savings, etc. They decide whether to pool their income or leave them separate, when to spend versus when to save, who should manage joint resources, and how joint resources should be used. Together these decisions form a system or strategy of money management that couples use to survive and succeed in daily life. I argue that these strategies tell a revealing story about gender, money, and power.

I study how couples share money in Ukraine. By spending nine months conducting interviews with couples in Kyiv, I uncovered several patterns of exchange in families. In my paper for Gender & Society, I focus on the practices of thirty-four working class couples—describing how they spend, save, and share money. I discover that women’s money is not exchanged the same way as men’s money.

Managing money in Ukrainian families

 For poorer couples, earning money generally does not give Ukrainians a sense of pride or accomplishment. Men in particular feel exploited and betrayed by their employers and the labor market, making 40-50 cents an hour. Even in full-time positions, men cannot pay for their family’s most basic necessities.

Women try to save their husbands from feeling depressed or disheartened. They actively bolster men’s spirits by managing men’s money in ways that position their husbands as providers. However, this does not mean that husbands out-earn their wives. Out of the thirty-four couples in my study, twenty-two wives earn the same or more than their husbands. However, men’s money is spent and saved differently than women’s money, regardless of relative income.

I discover three main ways money becomes “gendered” in the home. These practices make men feel more like breadwinners, even when both partners contribute roughly equal amounts towards family expenses:

Placement and access: Men overwhelmingly bring their money home in cash, making it accessible to other family members. Women often keep their money separate: hidden in a bank account or kept in a secret envelope in a closet. This preserves the idea that women’s money is “private.” Men give money to women and ask them to pay bills, but women rarely give men money to do the same.

Earmarking: Women use men’s money to pay for “important” expenses, like rent, utilities, or car payments. They spend their own money on less visible things like education, food, medicine, train-tickets home to visit family, and other services. Over time, men’s money transforms into durable, tangible items like TVs, phones, cars, furniture, apartments, while women’s money seemingly disappears.

Timing of use: Couples sometimes spend men’s money first every month until it runs out. One third of my sample use this “his-then-hers” system. The couple spends the man’s money throughout the month until his cash disappears or his bank account gets too low, then the woman’s money “kicks in”. Women’s extra earnings are earmarked as shared savings. This helps both partners “feel” like the husband is the breadwinner, even if his wife earns more.

These findings suggest that couples use money to construct a gender boundary in the home: one that casts men as breadwinners and women as domestic managers. However, the gender boundary has some positive effects, like saving men from feeling emasculated in the labor market. Furthermore, when men give money to women, women interpret it as a gesture of deference and a token of gratitude. Men’s money provides a means of signaling respect for women’s unpaid labor. 

When I conducted my fieldwork in 2015, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine. I talked to many families who were struggling to keep their jobs, pay their rent, and stretch the budget from month to month. They often earned cash, lived with extended family, and managed to survive by working two or four jobs. This changed the priorities of my sample. Couples were not overly concerned with fairness or equality in the home—they were more worried about how to pay rent next month. Because of these constraints, my respondents’ stories are most representative of other poor or financially struggling couples, not wealthy couples. However, my research did lead to some larger take-aways about money, power, and couples.

Generalizing Beyond Ukraine

Anderson_2https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6848823919

1) Money becomes symbolic through exchange. When money changes hands, it can become symbolic. Money can symbolize care, affection, disdain, condescension, guilt, trust, and much else besides. Whether through communication or through unspoken understanding, couples usually come to agreement about what money means in the relationship. For example, if one partner thinks exchanging money means “care and affection” while the other assumes it means “disdain and disrespect,” conflict can emerge. Money can produce power when it invokes a sense of debt or gratitude in the other. Without feelings of debt, the link between money and power is severed.

2) Money can build trust. Because sharing money can be risky, successfully sharing money helps partners trust each other. Sharing can take on many different forms of exchange—unilateral giving, pooling, tit-for-tat, even dividing up costs in a systematic way. By behaving responsibly, partners prove to one other that they are trustworthy and competent. I found that men gave money to women as a gesture that husbands “trust” their wives, even if wives earned more money than their husbands.

3) Money isn’t everything. To understand power, one also needs to examine other resources, like labor. While money can cause friction between partners, monetary arrangements generally reflect deeper dynamics of the couple’s relationship. Fighting about money often reflects deeper disagreements about whose labor and well-being is more valuable. I discover that for many families, exchanging money is a method of symbolically giving value to labor. Couples in my study positioned the husbands as “givers” in part to symbolically give value to women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labor.

Nadina L. Anderson is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Arizona. She is currently completing her dissertation entitled “Money Talks: Trust, Power, and Exchange in Ukrainian Households” in which she explores processes of conflict and cooperation in marriage. her other research examines housing, migration, and internally displaced people in Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan.

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