When Representative Katie Porter ended her troubled marriage, leaving was tough, but one thing made it easier: For years, she had handled the family’s investments and savings plans, and she was confident that she and her children would be OK.
“It was really important to me to know that I would be able to feed and house and care for my children that next month, and the month after that,” Ms. Porter, Democrat of California, said of leaving her husband, who she said had physically abused her.
Not enough women, she said, see competency in personal finance as key to freedom and security.
A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.
In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.
The primary reason those women deferred was a belief that their husbands knew more, the study found.
There have been worrying signs of a lack of progress toward gender equality at all income levels. A Gallup survey published in January found that opposite-sex couples ages 18 to 34 were no more likely than older couples to divide household chores equitably.
The gender gap in financial autonomy is especially critical now, with women at particular risk of getting sidelined during the coronavirus pandemic. Of the 1.1 million people 20 and older who left the work force in August and September, nearly 80 percent were women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.
A study published last month by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that a third of mothers had considered leaving the work force or downshifting their careers during the pandemic, with a majority of those citing child care challenges as a primary reason.
The UBS study also found that fewer millennial women than boomer women saw financial participation as necessary for equality, with 76 percent of millennials (ages 24 to 39) saying it was essential, compared with 89 percent of boomers (ages 56 to 74).
Many conversations about women’s empowerment are focused on negotiating salary increases, Ms. Porter said. “But what good does that raise do you if you don’t know what your savings plan is going to be with that little bit of extra money?” she said. “What good does it do to climb that ladder and get that next higher-paying job with better benefits if you don’t take the time to invest that retirement fund correctly?”
Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.
“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.
The UBS study has limitations: It did not survey the boomers when they were three decades younger, the age millennials are today, so it is hard to conclude to what extent the differing attitudes are because of age and acquired wisdom versus other changes. And the women surveyed, all of whom had at least a quarter of a million dollars in investable assets, may not be representative of their generation over all.
Erin Lowry, a personal finance adviser and the author of “Broke Millennial,” said one reason boomer women may be more likely to view financial independence as essential for equality was that they have witnessed what can happen without it: Many were raised by mothers who were denied loans or credit cards in their names, she said.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as the director of the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, litigated a string of cases that paved the way for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which prohibited creditors from asking about sex, marital status or the use of birth control.
“I know a lot of millennial women who are feminists, liberated and whatever, who let their husbands handle all the finances,” Ms. Lowry said. “It’s very much still an archetype in heterosexual relationships.”
One woman, a graduate student in her 30s, said that when she got married several years ago, her husband made most of the money and handled the couple’s long-term finances. That meant he had more say than she did in decisions like where their daughter went to school and where they went on vacation, she said.
He began to physically abuse her, she said, but because she depended on him financially, she did not feel as if she could leave the relationship. It was only after friends encouraged her to set up a separate bank account and take other steps to take control of her financial life that she could leave.
“There’s a complacency that the world is equal, we’ve got it made, we can do anything we want, we’re going to have awesome partners who will be our equals,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a pending legal case against her husband and because she was concerned for her safety. It’s easy to think financial autonomy is not essential when it is, she added.
“It’s part and parcel of our daily independence,” she said, “which has to be constantly reaffirmed.”