External Factors That Can Affect Your Finances, with Brynne Conroy
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
Did you know that your financial situation can be influenced by the city or province you live in? Or by your parental status, your gender, or the colour of your skin?
My guest this week is Brynne Conroy, author of The Feminist Financial Handbook, and founding member of the website, Personal Finance by Women. Brynne sheds light on the numerous financial challenges facing working moms, visible minorities, and members of the LGBTQ2 community.
Our conversation is far-reaching. Brynne, who lives in the U.S., explains why she almost decided to move north of the border a couple of years ago, going as far as to make a couple of visits to Canada, and researching education and healthcare options for her children. While she still resides in the U.S., the experience taught Brynne a lot about the differences between our two countries.
We discuss topics like maternity leave, and the considerable impact that childbearing has on a woman’s career. Brynne stresses the need to make workplaces work better for families, both in Canada and the U.S. We delve into the gender wage gap, and how even today, long accepted cultural norms still affect wage differences between men and women.
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- How maternity leave works in the U.S.
- The potential career impacts of parental leave
- Understanding the gender wage gap
- Making workplaces work better for families
- Financial challenges facing the LGBTQ2 community
- How our culture can shape where we choose to live
Do you know that your financial situation can be affected by the city or province you live in or by your parental status, your gender or the color of your skin? My guest this week is Brynne Conroy, author of the Feminist Financial Handbook and founding member of the website, Personal Finance by Women. Brynne sheds light on numerous financial challenges faced by working moms, visible minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Do you prefer to invest in companies that are socially responsible? If so, our sponsor, Wealthsimple, will help you build a portfolio that focuses on low carbon, clean tech, human rights and the environment. Get started with socially responsible investing by visiting maplemoney.com/wealthsimple. Now, let’s chat with Brynne.
Tom: Hi, Brynne, welcome to the Maple Money Show.
Brynne: Hi, Tom. Thanks so much for having me on.
Tom: Not too long ago you put out a book called, The Feminist Financial Handbook. It brought up a couple interesting points I kind of wanted to dive into on the show. First of all, I found it interesting that during this time you were looking at possibly coming to Canada. Can you kind of dive into what led to that?
Brynne: Yeah, definitely. After our 2016 elections a lot of Americans were looking at how to immigrate to Canada. I was one of those Americans. I was a little concerned. It was very shocking what happens. Today I am still very concerned. But at the time of the election, I was looking at trying to move to Canada in the next few years because I wasn’t ready to jump ship yet. I wanted to see where things were going, obviously. I have an autistic kid so an important thing for me wherever I move is always what kind of health insurance is available to them. I was looking at different provinces and came to realize pretty quickly that the two best ones were going to be British Columbia and Alberta. I couldn’t quite figure out how to afford Vancouver, British Columbia. That wasn’t going to happen with access to services and everything so I was looking at Alberta. I actually made a trip out to Calgary just to get a feel for what everything was like in the middle of the winter. I actually super-love the city. I’m still here in the States but I learned from talking to you that even if I had moved to Alberta, had I tried to get my kid onto health care because they have autism, there’s such a long waitlist that it might take a while.
Tom: Yeah, that’s one of the things people I talk to from the States don’t always realize. Yes, things are covered through taxes and everything, which is great. We want to be able to make sure everybody is covered. But the downside is it often leads to increased wait times—everything from a regular doctor visit to any kind of specialists. But at least you have access to it which can be a huge improvement compared to being down in the States with no insurance or something like that. I would take any kind of access (even with a delay) over not, if that was the choice to be made.
Brynne: Definitely. It’s kind of a similar story here in the States. I put out this guide every year on Medicaid which is our state-run health care system specifically for autistic kids. And I’m super-lucky because I live in a state where my kid not only has access to health insurance but also access to enough medical providers. The part of the state I live in is good because there are actually doctors who can help my kid. But if you go to other states, yeah, you can be on a waitlist until your kid is 30. And some states just won’t even extend that coverage. At least for that demographic, our countries might be not too dissimilar.
Tom: So maybe there’s just a wait time problem in general and we may need more doctors or something.
Brynne: Or be more willing to pay for more kids care. I don’t really know. Here I think it’s mostly dependent on where you live. If you live in an urban area, it’s probably more of a problem about access to health insurance. But we definitely have some rural areas where it’s hard to get professionals in the first place, for sure.
Tom: When you were looking at coming to Canada, what were some of the programs you were comparing? What were some of these decision points?
Brynne: I was looking at just coverage for basic therapies if you have a kid with autism. Things like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy. Here, with Medicaid, we have access to that for disabled children so I was looking for a provincial plan that kind of provided the same type of access for autistic kids. And also, I was looking to move to a school district that would provide both of my kids—the one on the spectrum and the one who’s neurotypical, with what they needed educationally. So I definitely checked out a couple neighborhoods while I was up there. It’s been a couple of years now so I don’t remember which ones.
Tom: Schools are one of the things I’ve thought about before, actually, too. I’ve wondered in the past if I should move to the States. The two biggest reasons were real estate prices and weather. But with some of the differences in culture, one of them was schools. Was it better or worse or are they just different? One of the biggest points was my kids and what’s it like living in the States compared to Canada? I didn’t get down to a neighborhood look or anything, but I just kind of wondered that in my head. Did you find difference in schools in general or was it pretty similar?
Brynne: Specifically, when you have a special needs kid there is probably some type of local online community you can plug into with parents and moms who are talking about their experiences dealing directly with the school district, day-to-day, on the ground. Not just what the school district might advertise or stats they may receive from local papers but what it’s actually like. That’s something I took advantage of.
Tom: Another thing I know you looked into is maternity leave compared from the US to Canada. What’s that look like? First of all, what does it look like in the US?
Brynne: We don’t really have too much of a maternity leave here. The only federally mandated option is family medical leave. If you work enough hours and you’ve been with the company long enough, then you can get up to 12 weeks per year for any family medical leave you might need whether that’s an injured soldier or coming home or you’ve got cancer and need to go to the doctor. Or, you have a baby. All of that stuff falls under the same umbrella. And it’s unpaid. Some companies will privately offer maternity leave but not usually. And if you’re getting that benefit you’re at a pretty high pay grade. Some states have a short-term disability insurance fund where you pay out of every paycheck like you were talking about with the Employment Insurance in Canada. You pay into that system a little bit and when you’re out you can take a partial payment. But there are very few states that do that.
Tom: And what’s maternity leave like here in Canada? I should point out, even though you’re not Canadian, you did research quite a bit of Canada for your book.
Brynne: I did. In Canada, you guys have a lot more benefits than we do. Or I should say, a lot more opportunity to claim benefits than we do here depending on which province you live in. When you are on maternity leave, I believe you get a longer period of time than we do, especially when we’re looking on the paid front. But in some provinces you can definitely get paid—I think Quebec is actually the highest paying one for the longest period of time.
Tom: Yeah. With us you get 55 percent of your income but it’s also dollar-capped. If you’re making a certain amount, you’re going to get less than 55 percent. And it lasts roughly a year. I might be wrong by two weeks. I know at one point it was 50 weeks. I can’t remember if they moved it up to a full year. And then there’s an option where you can actually go to a year and a half but you’re not receiving more money. They just give you less throughout. You’re still getting that same one year portion but it just happens to go across a year and a half. It would be tough for a single mother to live on that because you’re talking about half of your income. But it’s certainly better than 12 weeks of no payments. I much prefer our option here.
Brynne: Yeah, for sure. And that’s another thing… Just because something is better than it was doesn’t mean there’s no more room for progress. Like you said, if you’re in a lower income household where you might not have a lot of savings built up, taking that 50 percent cut is a lot. And now you’ve got a new child to provide for and you have to take care of yourself physically.
Tom: Even here, if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and all of a sudden your income is roughly half, that’s going to lead to debt or things like that. The other thing I should point out is, here in Canada, part of that year is maternity leave. I believe it is 15 weeks. And then the rest of the year is parental leave. And parental leave can go to either parent. I actually took advantage of that with our second child because my wife never went back to work after our first child. With the parental leave, I also thought the 55 percent was too small an amount. We were just living on my one income. But thankfully my work topped up to 70 percent. And that was only for a 6 month span so that’s what I took. I took the 70 percent for 6 months. Anything beyond that seemed like it would be too tough to take that income hit at the time. Thankfully, my employer did have that top up option.
Brynne: Yeah, for sure. And kudos to your employer.
Tom: Even with the regular parental leave, it’s just the fact that either spouse can take it. That applies for adoptions too. It’s not just having an actual birth. Just becoming parents gets you that parental leave.
Brynne: That’s awesome! Also important too, there have been studies showing that when dads have parental leave available to them (or the non-birthing parent) and take it, it actually helps with the gender-gap because a portion of the gender-gap can be attributed to mothers taking time off and not maternity leave. And that kind of skews the employers’ views of them (thinking maybe they’re going to choose family over work) whereas men don’t have that same experience when they have children. So if we can demonstrate that we value both partners as caretakers for that child, it kind of mutes that argument or bias a little bit. And hopefully, it can help us close the gender pay-gap a little.
Tom: It’s actually good that you brought that up. We were kind of joking about that within my work. We were calling it the “career killer” because I was actually one of the first people to take it once my work offered that top-up. Once they started that, I was one of the first people to take that so we were kind of joking that it was a career killer because if you’re willing to take that time off, it can look bad to the employer. It depends on who your boss is, of course. We were joking about because I actually didn’t think that 100 percent. But I get the point that with the right person they may think, “Oh, are they going to have another kid? Why would I want to promote them?” We were kind of making a joke. But also to take that time off you are kind of saying that family is more important. I knew that but that’s still the choice I wanted to make. I wanted to spend the time with my child.
Brynne: Yes, exactly. There’s nothing wrong with family being more important. Building healthy, happy homes is part of building economic stability for the future. Yeah, sometimes I feel like with money we take the heart out of all of it for the sake of the numbers. I don’t know if that’s a healthy way to be living our lives. So I really like that you’re saying, “Yeah, but I wanted to be home with my kids also.” That was an important part of the decision for me because it’s so true. I don’t think we should be discouraged from making those decisions that are right for us in our souls.
Tom: Again, though, I see the other side where if you’ve got the wrong employer, they’re going to see that as a mark against you. They may think you’re leaving them at a bad time and are probably wondering what date (exactly) you’ll be coming back. With maternity leave you don’t actually have to tell them your return date. I believe it’s only a month before. So whether you’re taking 6 months like I did, a year (or year and a half like you can), you don’t have to tell them your exact return date until a month before. You kind of have all the power which is great because so many times the employer has all the power. It’s nice to be able to say you’re giving notice that you’re taking the leave and you don’t have to give notice as to when you’re returning right away.
Brynne: Yeah, for sure.
Tom: You mentioned how this can contribute to the wage gap. Let’s go into that a little. I hear so many things about it and I agree that part of it is real but I just want to go into what makes this up because I think some of it can also be a little like hiding in plain sight, like we’ve already talked about. If you’re leaving your employer, obviously that’s reducing your wage for that period of time.
Brynne: Absolutely. One thing I think is important to remember is that women have been having babies for a long time. The only reason it’s disrupting the workplace is because now women are actually able to work in the workplace. These workplaces have been built by men because that’s who was working. It’s not an accusatory thing at all, but men’s bodies don’t need time to recover after their wife has a child. So I think that part of it is about recognizing that, yes, women are punished whenever they make these decisions. And we all have the ability to make our own autonomous decisions within the systems we live in. But also, is there a way we can re-imagine workplaces so they work for families— so they work for parents who are both taking ownership of the care of their children and build workplaces that retain talented mothers who are dropping out of the workforce like flies? It’s really kind of an interesting time we live in because with “remote work” or working with your employer to do something like coming back part-time, having remote work is still largely a privilege. It requires access to technology and the ability to use that technology in a way that’s going to make you money. But it’s interesting to see how maybe we can change workplaces to be more accommodating rather than just punishing women for a system in which they’re never going to be able to… It’s just not physically possible to expect a mom to come back to work a week after she has a kid.
Tom: I can’t imagine it. Again, with our leave, the first 15 weeks is maternity leave. It’s not the parental leave. So there’s a guaranteed 15 weeks just for the person who gives birth. The rest is parental leave that can be pieced out either way. A funny story; I was so new to being one of the first people to take the parental leave in my company that I actually had HR tell me that they thought I couldn’t take it until week 16 just because they were so used to having maternity leave for 15 weeks before parental leave. When I told them I wanted to take my parental leave on week one they said, “I don’t think you can do that until 16 weeks.” They were completely wrong so I educated them on that. That’s how set they were on how this all works. It’s the 15 weeks maternity leave and then parental leave kicks and they couldn’t understand how it would work when there’s two people taking the leave, combined.
Brynne: That’s funny.
Tom: And this wasn’t that long ago. My youngest child’s just about to turn eight so I was having this conversation eight years ago. They just didn’t understand how that all worked together.
Brynne: That’s too funny. Kudos to you for being a pioneer, too. That’s awesome.
Tom: It felt pretty nice to do that. To take that leave, obviously, to spend that time with my kid in his first 6 months was great. With our first kid, I think it took one or two week’s vacation time. But then it was it was the traditional, “Bye honey. Enjoy the baby. I’m off to work.” And she had to deal with the child which is much harder work than me sitting at my computer. But that’s the situation we had with the first child.
Brynne: Yes, definitely.
Tom: With the wage gap, are there other times where this comes into play? I believe you cover this a bit where it’s not just gender but also race that can affect wages?
Brynne: Yeah, definitely. And something else important to note about the wage gap is that another common reason that people cite for it is that women choose to go into fields which pay less money. We do tend to be culturally encouraged towards fields where we used to either do the work for free or it’s lower paying work. At least here with education, nursing and things like that. But when organizations like the World Economic Forum and all these organizations that measure the wage gap—when they “norm out” for everything, there is still a 4 to 8 percent wage gap here in the US. It’s something that exists. There is a major part of it that is discrimination. Then there are other factors like the fact that maternity leave doesn’t really work for women. Or the fact that we go into lower paying fields. What was your initial question? I’m so sorry.
Tom: No, no, it’s all good. Look, let’s go with this first, actually, because it’s an important point to bring up. There was a point in my career where I felt like I was being underpaid. It wasn’t so much about women or men. Just in my department, period, I had a hint that I was being underpaid so I went and asked for a raise. I made a very solid case and ended up getting a $10,000 raise. I remember it was a five figure amount. Whether it was an even $10,000, I don’t remember. But that was just from asking. And I wasn’t some super-aggressive male about it. I just made some good points. I used some numbers on how I saved the company money here and there. Is it partially because females won’t do that as much? Or that they do that and just don’t get the same type of respect from certain employers?
Brynne: It’s interesting because I think for a long time we’ve been operating on the idea that women don’t ask. And so we’ve been really encouraging women to be more assertive and to go in and try these negotiation tactics that work for men because we assume the reason men succeed more is because they ask more. There was a university study a couple years ago in England where they did a joint study with universities in the US and Australia. And at least in those three countries which share a similar (but not identical) culture to Canada, women did ask just as often as men, but they were rejected 25 percent more often. I think a lot of what goes behind those numbers is that when we walk into a negotiation asking in the same way as a man, probably isn’t going to be received the same way by the person on the other side of the table whether that person is male, female or whatever. We have these cultural constructs where whether or not we know we’re operating under them, we project out into the world around us. So when a woman comes to us to ask for a raise, we’re going to take her actions differently than we would if a man came in. I think that’s a large part of it. And I don’t think it’s something we do on purpose all the time. It might just be something that’s baked into our culture. But by being aware of it we can start to change it and modify our own behavior and kind of bring up the same things in conversations with others who haven’t experienced it.
Tom: That’s kind of where I was heading with the respect thing is. If I’m a boss, I’m thinking it’s not even about gender. But, if two people came to me asking for a raise and I’ve only got certain budget, then you start thinking about things like who is more likely to leave and who is just going to accept, no. So yeah, these biases can become part of it. They’re not outright being sexist but they’re looking at it as what choice do they need to make and what’s going to work out best? I think there’s this idea in a lot of people’s heads that you can say no to these women and they’re going to still work and go along with it. It’s not outright sexism, but it’s this kind of “back of the head” thing that affects your decisions.
Brynne: Right. Definitely.
Tom: I was just wondering how race plays into this? I believe you’ve covered this before; that it’s not just a gender thing.
Brynne: Here in the States, when they measure the wage gap, they also measure the racial wage gap. Right now, for every dollar that a white man earns in our country, a white woman earns about 80 cents. Women of Asian descent earn a little bit more while every other minority earns less. Most notably, the Latino population gets paid the least.
Now, in Canada, I was looking at these numbers and found them split into two different surveys. I have information on how the wage gap persists across race and then how the wage gap persists across gender in Canada in each province, but not necessarily a blend of the two even though I’m sure that exists. I’m sure there’s probably data out there but I just don’t have it.
Tom: I’m not sure either.
Brynne: I have to find the right organization that gathers that information.
Tom: Or they just never released it that way. But you’re right, it probably exists.
Brynne: It seems like it would, right?
Brynne: It’s interesting because the wage gap is very different across provinces depending on gender—and also by race. There are a couple of provinces where being a minority is actually to your advantage as far as the wage gap goes. I know Prince Edward Island is one of them. I don’t want to cite the wrong one for the other. But I thought that was interesting because that’s something we don’t have in any of our states here. The wage gap, I believe, is pretty white.
Tom: That’s a pretty small province too though so it might just be one of those things where it’s easy to throw the statistic out the other direction. Again though, does some of this come down to a choice? Do we know if it’s sort of—I can’t see why ethnicity would affect where you want to work, but could it be some of that?
Brynne: I’m not sure how to answer this for Canada.
Tom: Fair enough.
Brynne: In America, I know our education system, particularly with our history of slavery, we had segregation in the South and in the North we had housing laws which still persist to this day which largely keep populations in major urban areas segregated even if it is not under that name because our schools are decentralized and geographic and because (at least in my city) minority neighborhoods tend to be in one area. Pittsburgh is a little bit different because of our geography and neighborhoods are very isolated. But I believe it’s a problem in many of our urban areas. Schools with minority children just don’t have the same funding. So, when we’re talking about pursuing a career or even pursuing the belief that you could go to college or have a career, even though there are programs out there to help you, you might not know about them and you might not believe you can do it. In our country it’s very much about access to opportunity and also the cultural messaging we get about our own worth and capabilities.
Tom: There’s still one segment I want to cover that I believe you cover in your book which is LGBTQ. How are their finances affected differently?
Brynne: There are a lot of ways—I learned some stuff about financial transactions when you’re transgender that I didn’t know before during the course of writing this book. It can be hard to get a bank account if the gender you present with doesn’t match the gender on your paperwork. Even changing your paperwork so that you can get that bank account or check out at the cash register; if you buy alcohol or cigarettes at the store you have to show your ID and that cashier has full discretion to either grant you the purchase or not. There are little things like that that end up being big things when you’re just trying to go about your day-to-day life. There’s also the issue of safety. And this is something that comes out sometimes in personal finance. You kind of touched on it a little bit when you talked about potentially moving to some of the smaller American markets; this idea of geo arbitrage. I love this idea. With my kid I can’t pursue it because like I said, we have super-great access to health care for them here. And that’s really awesome. But for the LGBT population, something that I had noticed just over the course of my life with my own friends was when people hit 18 or hit a certain point in their careers, they would leave home and head to the coasts. As I was interviewing women for this book and researching different statistics, I found this wasn’t just a trend among my friends. It was a larger trend, period. They would go to the coast but they’d also go to Chicago because Chicago has super-good protective laws for the LGBT community. What was happening was they were moving to urban areas because they felt they could live an authentic life more safely there. The culture was more accepting. And when I looked at the same trend for Canada, they pretty much said the same thing except they weren’t going to the coasts. They were just going to bigger cities like Vancouver, Toronto or wherever there were big urban areas to kind of seek cultural refuge and safety.
Tom: And that’s a huge cost of living problem here in Canada. In our media, all you ever hear about is Vancouver and Toronto when it comes to real estate. They never talk about the cheaper options everywhere in between there. It’s always in the press about these two cities and how it’s going to cost you a million dollars just to have a small house. I could see that if they feel they need to go to urban areas, urban areas are expensive. I’m just outside of Calgary and part of the point of that was it’s much cheaper than Toronto in Vancouver. I can still live outside the city where it’s slightly more affordable. But if you feel the need to be in downtown Toronto or Vancouver, it’s going to be quite the expense.
Brynne: Yeah, definitely. And that’s the same thing in our country. We have housing crises across all of our cities right now so it’s really hard even just to find somewhere to afford rent. It can be a real challenge. I also want to clarify to you that I don’t mean to paint our entire Midwest like a big, terrible, unsafe place for people that might not be straight and white. Culture has changed a lot since I grew up. We have gay marriage here now and we are learning to become a lot more accepting as a culture. I think it’s more of a generational thing. But certainly as I was growing up (and unfortunately, still is today) that danger was and can be real. But there are also beautiful, wonderful, people too.
Tom: It’s about wanting to be somewhere where you fit in somewhat. I totally get that. It’s the same reason I’m not sure I can live in the States because it’s just different. It’s not always better or worse. There are different levers there.
Brynne: I guess the only difference would be the amount of safety. You would totally be safe in most American cities. So if someone’s moving because they fear for their life or fear they won’t find a job because there’s no protective laws for them in that state, it becomes more of a survival situation rather than one of election. And so they may carry a little bit more gravity beyond just the numbers I think we would usually look at with geo arbitrage.
Tom: I know Canada is a bit more of a progressive country. Just talking to you in person before recording, our whole political spectrum is slightly more to the left. Maybe we see less of that in Canada. I can’t speak to it because you’re right, I can probably go live anywhere I want and never have to really think about that. Well, thanks for coming on the show and speaking for these different opinions and voices I can’t always cover. I appreciate that you’ve researched this from all the different angles and talked to different people for your book. Can you let people know where they can find you online?
Brynne: Absolutely. With the book, I would really stress to people that it’s not my story. It’s a collection of stories and issues I can speak to as a white woman who grew up in America in a Christian household. There is a whole array of experiences out there from women both in Canada and the US that I just couldn’t speak to. But, I found a bunch of amazing women who are willing to share their stories. They’re really interesting and I would just check out them and their work. You can find the book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Also, a lot of independent booksellers have it too. And you can find me on a new project that I launched called, Personal Finance by Women at personfinancebywomen.com. There we are amplifying the voices of women in social media but specifically, the independent financial media.
Tom: Great, thanks for being on the show.
Brynne: Thanks so much for having me.
Thank you, Brynne, for showing us some of the outside factors affecting the finances of not only women but various minority groups. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/brynneconroy. If you’re on Facebook I would love for you to join the Maple Money Show Community where you can ask questions, share your best money tips, or just hang out with people like yourself who are interested in all kinds of money related topics. You can search for the Maple Money Community on Facebook or head to maplemoney.com/community. And don’t forget to tune in next week as Erin Chase joins the show to discuss the benefits of meal planning. See you next week.