By Ila Ananya
At the risk of sounding like one of those ads which end with a man reading out the small print about market risks at top speed, imagine a family of three, with a child and middle-class working parents. Who in the family do you think would have health insurance?
Normally, one would expect both parents to have it; after all, health insurance is important. But a month ago, a survey by Apollo Munich Health Insurance, that asked 2,284 people about health insurance in their families, found that this wasn’t the case. Eighty percent of men and women, who took part in the survey across India stated categorically, that the primary bread earner should be the first to get health insurance.
And who was considered the primary bread earner even if the family had working women? Men.
More cursory general searches of financial and insurance-related advice for women often throws up such a similarly broad-wave-of-the-hand kind of results. For instance, another month-old survey by Birla Sun Life Insurance has found that only 50 percent of women in the urban population they surveyed have life insurance coverage, as compared to 72 percent of men. Out of all of Birla Sun Life Insurance’s customer portfolio, only 23 percent were women. And of these, only 26 percent of women started insuring themselves early (between the ages of 20 to 30).
What explains this imbalance? We all know the complicated relationship between Indian women and land ownership, and how, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, women account for only 9.5 percent of land holders in India. Women in areas like Rajasthan have to even give up rightful claims to property; and since rural women often don’t own land, they don’t get farm loans. But if for a moment we only address the urban woman in a capitalist economy, how much control do they actually seem to have over their insurance and investments? We asked financial planners if women continue to have difficulty in saying, “show me the money!” within the family unit, and it seems that by and large, they do.
Faye D’Souza, who is the editor of personal finance and real estate at ET Now for instance, writes that many women she has spoken to, “claim not to know anything about their own finances”, and leave such decisions to a man in the family, whether a father, husband, or brother. At the same time, however, D’Souza says that women say their biggest fear is of being caught unprepared during an emergency, and being forced to depend on someone else to provide for their retirement.
Perhaps this is partly what Priya Sunder, director of PeakAlpha Investment Services Pvt Ltd in Bangalore, refers to when she says that often, women only approached her for financial help and advice when they found themselves in situations where they are alone. Khyati Mashru, of Plantrich Consultancy LLP in Mumbai pointed out the same thing: women usually approached them in cases of divorce, or if they are widowed, because they are suddenly faced with having to handle money, and are being bombarded by complicated terms they haven’t heard of before.
In each of these cases, Mashru suggests, women usually prefer only to deal in fixed deposits. “They [women] have always wanted something with a guaranteed result,” Mashru says, and fixed deposits are less riskier than investing in shares. Women were most likely to go for fixed deposits because they seem guaranteed and possibly uncomplicated for people trying out investments for the first time in their lives. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a good sign, as Sunder suggests, because the interest rates for fixed deposits have fallen. “They were 13 percent in my father’s time and now they’re around 7 percent,” she says.
Where would women learn to talk money? It doesn’t happen at home. Part of Sunder’s work has been to encourage more women to be involved not only in the financial decisions of a family, but also to take stock of how much they are saving and the ways in which the amount can be multiplied. Until now, the general perception has been to avoid conversations about money, which was only left to the men.
Even online, usually the home for esoteric advice, most articles floating about, assure Indian families that life insurance for just men—the “primary wage earners”—is enough. You might even have come across Union Bank’s terrible zimmedaar pati ad about rewards directed towards fathers who don’t show their children love, but uses his card in ‘Max Get More’ stores.
In the US, books on women and money, for instance, continue to have pink covers with titles like Shoo, Jimmy Choo and Hot (Broke) Messes that we can really imagine most clearly on glossy magazine covers. Closer home, Padmaja Rajagopalan, a former wealth manager has also written about Shruti Kohli’s (2012) book, Petticoat Journal, that apart from having a cutesy title, doesn’t at all tell you how to manage your money. Given all this, I was absolutely thrilled when I found Jean Chatzky’s podcast Her Money, and how nice it felt to hear women seriously talking to women about money and saving. According to Chatzky, anybody who says women don’t need financial advice that’s specific to them is completely wrong, because women, whether they stay at home or go out to work, face different kinds of financial challenges.
Financial advice and autonomy is even scarcer for Indian women who aren’t working outside the home.
Roopa Venkatakrishnan, a mutual funds distributor in Mumbai, believes that in every household, women understand money very well. She says it’s largely because they are involved in buying everyday necessities like milk or vegetables, and need to know how to manage inflation—something that men seem to pay less attention to because they aren’t always involved in these transactions. So there’s no real reason to leave women out of the money conversations or to perpetuate the myth that women don’t ‘get’ financial planning, she argues.
But women are left out. Sunder says she has found couples where men continue to control the amount of money women are “allowed” to spend. In each of these cases, she’s encouraged families to open both individual and joint accounts, and to fix for themselves approximately how much money they can each spend per month. “Women shouldn’t have to constantly explain every single one of their purchases,” she says. Nowadays, she says providing a bit of comfort, more families seem to be open to doing this than before, she says.
“Slowly, more women are getting confident to make these decisions for themselves,” she says, and just as importantly, women seem to have the ability to look ahead long term, rather than just in the instant, as men do. As Venkatakrishnan says, we desperately need to be having more conversations about money, as we need to be talking about increasing women’s wages, which directly impact their savings.