Financial Surveys Do Women a Disservice

Women and men may have different financial needs, but don't rely on recent studies to explain those differences.

Here are just three puzzling examples of studies from major life insurers about women's attitudes toward personal finance.

Take a recent study by Allianz ( AZ) Life Insurance. The headline of the press release declares: "Allianz Study Finds That Women Are Eager to Strengthen Financial Planning Skills, Despite General Feelings of Insecurity."

Further down in the release, a sub-headline states, "Women Feel Overwhelmed By Materials, Language." Reading on, though, one learns that only 44% of the participants say the information is "overwhelming/too much/hard to sort through" -- and this isn't compared with the overall population including men. Even fewer women say that the information is "complicated or hard to understand" (36%) or that they "don't understand terminology/materials seem foreign" (26%).

This guide from Prudential ( PRU) contains the headline, "Three-quarters of women feel they need help making important financial decisions." That's followed up by a chart entitled, "Level of Preparedness for Making Financial Decisions."

These findings may indeed be results of the survey, but the study leaves the reader wondering whether the same is true of men. The fact that only women's preparedness and amount of help needed is being monitored could lead some to conclude that only women need such help.

Then, there's this take from Northwestern Mutual, which at first seems to be an issue of health and happiness.

The release begins by linking proactive financial management with health and happiness for women. But it goes on to say: "The findings show that about half of women who are actively managing their finances are likely to report 'far too much stress to somewhat too much stress' versus more than three-quarters of women who don't take a proactive approach. But overall, women still report higher levels of stress and symptoms than their male counterparts."

While the press release focuses on women reporting more stress than men, the Key Findings in the study say women, "report being significantly healthier and happier than do men."

So, the press release is all about women, while the study's key findings mostly cover both sexes, and don't mention women until the bottom. Also, the press release discusses women's stress negatively, and doesn't mention the fact that women report being healthier than men -- so it has a bias toward the "bad" news about women, rather than the good.

These studies are emerging as more and more wealth is moving into the hands of women, who are operating as financial independents for more of their lives. So, naturally, financial firms want a piece of the action. It's important to realize the impetus behind these studies could be to bring business to the sponsoring company.

Sherri DuMond, a vice president at Allianz, says its study was done so the company and its partners "can work better with women and help them become better educated."

Mary Flowers, a vice president at Prudential, says, "Women have told us all along that they like to learn from each other. ... We use the study as a catalyst. It gets women talking to each other."

Northwestern Mutual responded but didn't have any comment ready by press time.

But -- do the studies really mean anything? Do they accurately reflect how women feel?

Loaded terminology doesn't help. Words such as "insecurity" and "overwhelming" probably wouldn't be used in studies about the general population, or about men, says Ann Dryden Witte, professor of economics at Wellesley College and a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

"I think that kind of language does not give credit to women's experience at starting and growing small businesses or making many of the household financial decisions," says Patricia Clarke, a management professor who is joining the faculty of Emmanuel College in Boston this fall.

Words like that could lead people to conclude that women know less than men about personal finance -- especially from the Allianz or Prudential studies, which don't bother to study men at all. After all, if something is being "looked at," the general implication is that it's a cause for concern.

"There's a huge gap in financial education, but that's across the spectrum -- men and women, poorly educated and highly educated," Witte says.

In fact, companies looking for signs of financial insecurity might be barking up the wrong tree.

Arika Larson, CEO and founder of women's financial-information group Women Be Wise, says, "I start at the same place for everyone, because I want to be sure we're on the same page -- because men don't want to admit that they might not know" what she's talking about. Larson is an independent broker who sells products for Allianz and about a dozen other companies. Allianz arranged for her to talk about its survey and her experience dealing with financial education.

So, men might not know much about personal finance, but don't want to admit it? That sounds like a group that needs some encouragement. These insurers might want to consider conducting surveys of men's needs ASAP.

"Though women tend to take longer to make a decision, it might be more based on facts," says Ginita Wall, director of financial-planning group WIFE.org. "Women tend to be more conservative than men are -- and they've been criticized for this -- but that can be a good thing."

Studies of women and finance run the risk of perpetuating stereotypes about the topic. Some of the biggest biases in surveys can occur in the error of omission -- and asking the questions about one group (women) while not asking them about another (men) could be seen as implying that women as a rule need help, while men as a rule are totally fine. Of course, neither is the case.

Regardless, some people assert that any discussion of women's financial situations is helpful.

Larson of Women Be Wise says, "Companies that are putting an emphasis on women and making materials that are more directed to women are doing a service."

And Flowers of Prudential says her company's study, and the discussion it engenders, creates "tremendous empowerment for women."

It is indeed encouraging that companies are looking at how women might be unique in their financial needs, though they shouldn't forget about the men. But if they don't consider how these surveys are interpreted, and whether they're getting a real measure of what's useful to consumers, the studies could be of little help in the long run.

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