Interviews

The Insidious Role of Gender Bias in How Artists Grapple with Personal Finances

Our culture is quick to put down a woman who seeks money or power at the same time that it valorizes the men who do so.

(book covers via Amazon)

When I met Dr. Katherine de Vos Devine at a business retreat in November we bonded immediately. Both I (an artist and tax expert) and de Vos Devine, an intellectual property expert, art historian, and lawyer who works with artists, counsel clients struggling with the same money issues. Though neither of us is a personal finance expert, we address personal finance issues as professionals who help artists manage their businesses. I see artists repeatedly making the same expensive mistakes that could be avoided with some basic knowledge of personal finance. Furthermore, de Vos Devine and I both encounter women artists who lack confidence due to the pressure of harmful art and gender myths about money.

To open up a conversation about these issues, de Vos Devine and I did some research on a new generation of personal finance books. We discussed the myth of an objective set of rules that a previous generation of (mostly male) writers perpetuated, the emotional power of money, and how personal finance education in the US has shifted to address the self-limiting beliefs of women. We also considered the parallels between the disempowering messages that artists receive about money and those that specifically women receive. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hannah Cole: What made you dive into this type of personal finance research?

Katherine de Vos Devine: I had a very chaotic childhood, even though there was a lot of privilege. As an adult, I realized I knew nothing about personal finance. I was terrified of it, and I did not want my daughter to grow up feeling as disempowered as I did.

HC: All of the books you chose were by women. Was this a conscious decision?

KDVD: They’re all women because I wanted a role model. In my family, my dad had lots of money and my mom didn’t. I didn’t grow up with a woman who made money or understood how to manage money. I wanted a template to follow. In the broader culture, those are harder to find. If you’re a woman seeking to feel empowered about your career, growing your net worth, providing for your family, it’s harder to find women who are talking openly about those issues. It’s harder to start conversations about these topics with other women. I got very curious about this, and found the idea of the “money story” in my research. This is your entire history with money. It’s a very psychological approach to personal finance. It’s not like a get rich quick scheme or an ascetic approach.

In her book, Worth It, Amanda Steinberg identifies money types. My type was “the Epicure.” Epicures love spending money on beautiful things and beautiful experiences. I like beautiful clothes, going to the beach, buying nice things for my daughter. All these other books had me feeling guilty about that. But Steinberg says it’s OK to love beautiful things — but there are other things to think about, too. Having that legitimized was really important. It used to be that when I would open up Mint [a personal finance spending tracker app], I would feel so much guilt and shame that I couldn’t breathe. I had to deal with my feelings about money before I could do any kind of concrete planning or make behavioral changes.

Dr. Katherine de Vos Devine (photo by Nicole McConville)

HC: Why do you think it’s so hard for women to talk about personal finance?

KDVD: It wasn’t until the mid-’70s that we could even have credit cards of our own. It’s pretty new!

HC: When I’m talking to younger women who are resistant to the word “feminism,” I always mention that. It’s important work and it’s not very long ago that things were a lot worse.

KDVD: I think there has been so much growth in this area since I started doing this reading. It’s been exponential. I felt like even three or four years ago it was a lot harder to find women writing on personal finance. There wasn’t the chorus that there is now.

HC: I was just reading through a Suze Orman preface, and she mentioned in it that when she wrote many of her personal finance books 15 years ago, the field of behavioral economics didn’t even exist yet. Behavioral economics, for those unfamiliar with it, is the study of the actual ways that humans make economic decisions, encompassing the psychology, emotion, cultural influences, and irrationality of those economic decisions. The crazy thing is that economists have for so long conducted their work with the assumption that people are rational actors. But this is patently untrue — money decisions are often not rational.

KDVD: My orientation in this was from my master’s work — I studied the history of art markets. Economists who study historical art markets are very clear on the reality of irrational actors. No art buyer is assumed to be rational. In fact, that really was the shift where I stopped reading these books where the author assumed I was a rational actor who should stop wanting nice things.

HC: There are a lot of trends and bandwagoning in the art world — “irrational” behavior from an economic perspective. When you talk about art, it’s easy to see why passion gets involved. What’s funny to me is how those same trends and passions are also at play with money decisions where there is no art commodity attached.

KDVD: The books I read by women were embracing pleasure and accounting for irrationality. In many of those older personal finance books [by men] it’s as if there’s some set of rules that we could all follow — like in Ramit Sethi’s book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich. But if there were really a formula, everyone would follow it.

HC: What was the revelation with these books?

KDVD: Amanda Steinberg’s book has the idea of the money types — she writes that to plan for your life, you have to know what you want. And maybe what you want isn’t what everyone else wants. I read that and realized I didn’t want the big house or fancy private school. I wasn’t expressing my values in my spending or my life.

It was a big wake up call. After reading that, it led to some intense conversations with my husband and our stockbroker and financial planner. Our broker told us we needed to stop putting all this money into our daughter’s college fund because it told her she needs to spend it in a certain way. That felt horribly controlling to me. We were in this giant beautiful house, but it was so expensive to maintain that we couldn’t go on vacation or put money toward starting my business. So we changed everything.

Doing the “safe” thing didn’t necessarily make me feel as safe as I thought it would, and it wasn’t even making me happy. That gave me the curiosity and the courage to get more unsafe and more happy.

HC: Giving up spending habits can be about increasing happiness and aligning your values.

KDVD: This is a core difference between these writers and the older school of personal finance, and it’s definitely about happiness. I’m waiting for Marie Kondo to write a financial planning book at this point: “Does your purchase spark joy?”

HC: That exists! They’re called the Minimalists. They are all about having way less stuff, but when you do buy something, making sure it is truly the thing that you want and that it will function well and improve your life.

KDVD: I now think of things as experiences …. An art collector once told me that he only buys pieces that cause him to have a new experience with them every day. Now when I buy art, that’s how I think of it. Will this artwork soothe me, confront me, etc. I really pissed off a room full of art collectors saying that. I was speaking at a private Duke University event, and there were all these rich people looking for my 10 top tips, and I was like, “No, you’ve got to form a relationship with the artwork.”

HC: Let’s get to the last book, Secrets of Six-Figure Women: Surprising Strategies to Up Your Earnings and Change Your Life, by Barbara Stanny. What made you read that?

KDVD: Barbara Stanny is really great for changing one’s mindset. It’s grounded research in real stories, and broad-based. She talks a lot about money stories, too.

If you start reading about women and personal finance, many writers refer to Barbara Stanny. She’s the daughter of the H&R Block founder, but was older when she learned about money. She came from a privileged background, but one in which women weren’t supposed to talk about or direct money. Her writing is generally rich in data, based on interviews, since she was a journalist. Secrets of Six-Figure Women distills principles from about 150 women.

My mom wasn’t a role model in this way, but my friends’ moms had big fancy jobs, assistants, closets full of designer clothing. I saw that people could get there, but I had no idea how to get from A to Z. Barbara Stanny does sociological research. What do successful women do? One thing she says is that successful, high-earning women get out of their comfort zone. And many of us have a limited mindset. I look at myself and I think, “Why do I think I couldn’t do that?”

HC: I go to all these business development workshops for women, and the self-limiting beliefs of women is an epidemic. Women are told all the time that their problems are “just personal.” But when you get into a room of 100 women all setting goals together, you see that every last one has the exact same “personal” problems. It’s like the message to us is, “You’re all alone. Don’t look over there at all those other women you could join together with and create some real, powerful social and political change.”

KDVD: Here’s the thread between artists and personal finance books written by women: they address the self-limiting beliefs clearly and first.

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With Barbara Stanny, she found that women’s self-esteem increased when they made money. I always felt really bad about that. In high school, I organized my free periods so I could leave early to go to my job and earn a paycheck — that made me feel good. But then I felt bad that it made me feel good.

HC: It’s important to dig into where we receive these subtle messages that give us a resistance to making money or wanting power. Can you name some of the places this came from for you?

KDVD: I got called “mercenary” in my PhD program by someone on the faculty. Because I wanted to do things that were paid and not just work for free.

HC: I got called a “capitalist pig dog” in my graduate MFA program when I sold a painting during a school open studio. Yet selling that painting gave me the freedom to work in my studio all summer instead of having to be at a job, so it was really important.

KDVD: We canonize and deify artists who make it in the marketplace, and yet on our local level, we put down artists who “sell out.” There should be something in the middle. There should be affirmation for artists who are able to support themselves. Break out the champagne! We should celebrate when we enter a new tax bracket!

HC: Celebrate a culture of thriving. And uphold it.

KDVD: Those day-to-day community interactions are some of the most important. Those are the subtle messages we receive and internalize all the time.

HC: Sallie Krawcheck talks about that in her article Just Buy the F**king Latte.” There is research that shows that we use different words with boys versus girls when we talk about money. “Power, wealth, risk” are for boys. “Save, preserve, be careful” are for girls. I’ve been noticing the way I use those words and trying to change it. Our culture is quick to put down a woman who seeks money or power at the same time that it valorizes the men who do so. Our language and attitudes still do not approve of women who do that.

KDVD: I’m trying to give my daughter resources I wish I’d had as a child. Amanda Steinberg says you are “worth it” and talks about “believing in your worth” and caring about your “net worth.” Money is not just about power; it’s about empowerment. I really hope the arts community will embrace that.

HC: This is so true.

KDVD: Yes, because my work is about empowering creatives to take risks and thrive. Money greatly enhances your ability to take risks and thrive — getting comfortable with that fact means getting comfortable with your expectations and your beliefs. That’s all very doable. It’s not as opaque or scary as it seems. That comes up in my client work: you’re protecting your intellectual property so you can share it safely. Sharing your creative property unlocks the ability to expand, to reach more people, to increase your opportunities. But you really have to get solid on your issues with growing, and your belief in your ability to grow.

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Books discussed:

Dr. Katherine de Vos Devine is a lawyer, art historian, and intellectual property expert empowering artists and creatives through legal literacy education and individual consulting. She will be launching de Vos Devine Law in 2020. Follow her on Instagram @devosdevine.

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