• Perspectives
  • 15 April 2021

Women & wealth: for richer and poorer

The question of wealth is relative. Should one be considered wealthy with investible assets of S$50,000, S$200,000, S$1million or S$10 million? How much wealth is enough?

Princes and paupers have similar priorities – to amass, grow, enjoy, utilise, invest, preserve wealth to achieve life goals and leave a lasting legacy. “Are you rich or poor?” was the first question a Primary One classmate asked of me. “Neither, and it shouldn’t matter,” was the glib reply as advised by my mum.

For women, a key priority to build economic resilience for ourselves and our households is financial literacy and inclusion. This applies to developing nations ravaged by the pandemic and in middle-class, affluent Singapore.

Regardless of wealth brackets, financial inclusion aims to provide women access to the know-how, confidence and skills needed to manage their own and family finances.

The World Bank defines this as access to useful and affordable financial products and services (such as transactions, payments, savings, credit, and insurance) “delivered in a responsible and sustainable way”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected women in profound ways.

The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report showed that women were more susceptible to the detrimental impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as they were more likely to work in healthcare and shouldered additional care-giving burdens during lockdowns. As caregiving can be underpaid or unpaid labour, the economic impact is unquantified in many parts of the world.

US President Joe Biden said job losses and threats to economic security have eroded more than 30 years of progress in women’s labour force participation. In response, he signed an executive order to establish a White House Gender Policy Council to advance gender equality and address the challenges for women who have borne the brunt of the pandemic effects.

What does it mean to empower women economically?

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation defines women’s economic empowerment as having: one, access to income and assets, two, control of and benefit from economic gains and three, power to make decisions. The foundation calls it “the transformative process by which women and girls go from having limited power, voice and choice at home and in the economy, to having skills, resources and opportunities” for economic freedom.

Its two-year investigation in 95 countries showed strong links between empowering women and positive outcomes of better nutrition, family planning, investments in education and healthcare in their families and communities.

In Singapore, one of the key accelerators for economic empowerment is ready access to quality education and work opportunities, which have enabled women to access income and assets over the past decades.

However, it is equally important for women to build the confidence for making financial decisions and exercising control of their own and household finances. Ironically, affluence among women may not always be associated with confidence and awareness about financial and wealth management.

At least two local surveys highlight this. The OCBC Financial Wellness Index 2020 report, based on a survey of 2,000 working adults aged between 21 and 65, explored the theme of women’s financial habits and retirement planning.

Attitudes toward investments varied according to gender. Only 60% of women surveyed had investments versus 75% of men. More Singapore women than men see investing as gambling, but those with the confidence and knowledge to invest did their own research and achieved better investment results (versus expectations) than men.

How does motherhood affect women’s financial choices? Mothers were more likely to prioritise providing financially for their loved ones, over their own retirement and growing their own wealth. Singaporean women are generally less prepared for retirement planning compared to men.

The Financial Women’s Association of Singapore conducted a survey on financial literacy at the start of this year. The results and recommendations will be submitted to the Singapore Government’s consultation process on gender equality and issues in Singapore. Initial findings suggest that the areas that finance professionals surveyed are least confident about are “debt, retirement and insurance”.

A dipstick poll which I conducted with a group of friends offered corroborative evidence of reticence and perceived lack of aptitude for financial matters. Here is a group of highly qualified professional women confessing that they lacked confidence to manage their own finances or wealth.

In respective life stages, each of us may be an earner, saver, spender, provider, borrower, investor, and beneficiary of financial resources. How we exercise proper stewardship can define our own future and that of our dependents.

When women feel truly empowered (regardless of wealth brackets), their financial resources result in lasting impact based on their propensity to invest in education, nutrition, and healthcare for the welfare of children, households, and communities.

That is why in developing nations, philanthropic bodies focus on influencing government policy for gender equality, enabling financial and digital inclusion and raising awareness to put assistance dollars into women’s purses.

How can we change attitudes towards financial planning and wealth management?

Improve financial literacy

Financial awareness can be incorporated into school curricula by simplifying and explaining financial concepts early.

Young working adults can be better equipped to build and manage their incomes responsibly. Knowledge about managing debt levels, savings and investment skills is foundational to building financial resilience for individuals and families.

Demystify financial planning and general mistrust of financial products

Financial and retirement planning is unnecessarily portrayed as sophisticated and complicated. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board, banks and insurers offer a host of useful resources like retirement calculators to assess financial adequacy and facilitate financial planning. Complex terms, risks and disclaimers are best explained in plain, direct language. 

Increase awareness of basic Investment concepts

Eschew the instant gratification of “get-rich quick” schemes, in favour of prudent risk-taking for the longer term. Balance the priorities of savings, investing for income and capital gain, manage the level of leverage in portfolios and focus on long-term goals.Investment portfolios should be adequately diversified with uncorrelated asset classes (for example, gold versus risky assets), sufficient cash buffers, avoid concentration risks (such as over-allocation into a single security which may underperform) and provide geographical and sector diversification. 

Digital and financial inclusion are critical for women to exercise self-leadership and choice to be educated, invest assets wisely and make crucial lifestyle choices for themselves and their families.

There is no reason for women to shy away from financial literacy and proficiency.

In the global arena of international economics and finance, women trailblazers are taking the lead to alleviate the woes of the world – Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank; Janet Yellen as US Treasury Secretary and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Citigroup’s Jane Fraser is the first female chief executive officer of a Wall Street bank, while OCBC Group’s incoming CEO Helen Wong will be the first woman chief executive of a Singapore bank.

With a unique ability to stay grounded while achieving greatness, women’s focus to “just get things done” will be an edge in an age of authentic leadership – at home and at work.

This article was published in The Business Times on April 14, 2021.

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