The legacy of language in the finance sector

Have you ever thought about the type of language that’s used in the finance sector?

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Have you ever thought about the type of language that’s used in the finance sector? Without having to think too hard it’s easy to come up with a number of some traditionally masculine examples, such as “building” a portfolio, the ASX “fighting” its way upward, watching a share or stock market “tank”, then there’s dawn raids, Death Star IPOs, Samurai bonds, scalping, whipsaws and kill orders, to name a few.

A study published by Tilburg University in the Netherlands in 2015 found that the language and metaphors in investor communication come from the same source domains which include war and combat, heavy physical activity and building and construction.

Now, this is definitely not to say that men like war, or that women don’t like sports and physical activity. Masculine language in finance is a product of legacy. It wasn’t so long ago that women worked only if they were not married. In the past, it was sons, not daughters that inherited a family’s wealth. In fact, if you go back to Jane Austen’s time, the only investment decision made by upper-class women was in choosing a wealthy bachelor to marry. It’s not so strange then that finance, a typically masculine sector, would use some typically masculine language.

The Dutch study also found that this kind of language works to exclude, rather than include women investors. It is a fact that women participate less in the stock market than men, and if they do, they generally take less risk. This gender gap in financial decision-making is often explained due to differences in risk tolerance and financial literacy, but the gap can also increasingly be attributed to the degree to which men and women identify with the language used in the finance sector. While masculine financial language works to exclude women, the study also suggested it creates feelings of familiarity and belonging among men.

Language and the way products are marketed are important drivers of inclusion and exclusion. A good example of this was the changes in marketing tack by both PepsiCo, Inc. (NASDAQ: PEP) and The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE: KO) in the way they marketed their diet soft drink products in the 1990s and 2000s. Marketers found that amongst male consumers, the word “diet” evoked images of the world of women and brought to mind the idea of fitting clothes and spending time in front of a mirror, so Pepsi Max and Coke Zero were born.

Due to increased female labour market participation and changes in socio-demographics, women as much as men are involved in taking care of their finances. So, could there be a time in the future where we knit or weave our portfolios rather than build them? Or perhaps a more gender-neutral financial language will emerge. Only time will tell.

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