Mansplaining Retirement

Mansplaining Retirement: How to take control of the conversation On Your Own Terms.

While I love my pension, I absolutely HATE the word “retirement”.  Since I stopped working in public higher education and started accessing my pension three years ago, I’ve been asked the question often. “How’s retirement?”  I always cringe a little before responding with my standard line.

I’m not retired. I’m refocused.

It’s true I get a regular check from the Virginia Retirement System after 36 years in public education as a teacher, counselor, principal, and college professor. Like so many of my teacher-peers, I earned it and I’m fortunate to have that great benefit to support me in my life after years of service. Education is a career I loved and would still be doing if I hadn’t gotten weary of the bureaucracy that undergirds the system. In fact, I am still doing it in my own way. A big part of my work now is focused on helping professional women, like me, create change and contribute meaningfully in the world on their own terms after “retirement.”

I started thinking about what it would mean to “retire” about six years before I made the move. I was not burned out or tired of teaching. I was still challenged and interested in the work, and I found my students and my colleagues both inspired and inspiring

As tenured faculty in an educational leadership program at a state university, I also had a fair degree of autonomy. I was starting to wonder, though, what it would be like to live life on my own terms – totally in charge of both my work and my personal life. 

I wasn’t craving golf and leisurely vacations so much as finding new ways to share my gifts of teaching, leadership, and facilitation without the burden of grading and lengthy reports alongside faculty and committee meetings that didn’t make good use of my time and talents. 

Wasn’t there a way to do what I love and what I’m good at while having more freedom to work when, where, and with whom I chose? Wasn’t there a way to contribute on my own terms?

With this in mind, I made an appointment with my financial advisor. My husband and I usually take these meetings together, but this time I had a specific question about my individual plans for the future. 

After a few minutes of obligatory pleasantries, I asked the question I was there for. 

When can I afford to retire?

My husband had already taken early retirement after running his own successful business. Now, he was included on my health insurance policy through the state. That fact, to me, seemed to be the main barrier getting in the way of my own next steps.

The response I got was not what I expected. Instead of answering my question, my advisor looked at me sideways with one of those condescending paternalistic and dismissive glances and said,

What are you going to do with yourself if you retire?

Now, it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that question on its surface. It’s actually a really important question. Every person thinking about stepping out of a secure employment position for any reason should be asking such questions of themselves. 

What? Why? How? Can I afford it? Will I be satisfied? How will I spend my days? How will I find purpose in my life? How will I use my time and talents?

Of course, these are essential questions. However, “Financial-Planner-Man” (hereafter referred to as FPM) made a big mistake when he asked them of the wrong person, at the wrong time, in quite the wrong way

They don’t often say so outright, but financial planners, whether they be men or women, have a vested interest in keeping you working as long as they can so they can keep your money working and growing for you – and for themselves. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a fact that comes with necessary boundaries.  

Given the inherent conflict of interest, it was not wise for my FPM to be the one asking those questions while outright avoiding the question I asked him first. 

When can I afford to retire?

I had, and still have, a very clear idea of how to live a meaningful and productive life. I did not need FPM inserting himself into any part of that conversation with me, myself and I. Even if some of his motivation for asking …

What are you going to do with yourself if you retire?

…may relate directly to my finances, it struck me the wrong way because of when and how he asked it.

Every woman I know has had the experience of a man giving them that look. 

Oh, little girl, I know better than you do what is good for you.

It is well past time to put an end to the mansplaining. I’ve already switched doctors and dentists in favor of women in those roles for much the same reason. As it turns out, it’s much more complicated to get rid of FPM. 

The field of financial planning is dominated by men. In fact, even as more and more women flood into the medical professions, the financial industry is at least 65% male. Even women who have successfully broken into the ranks of the financial planning industry describe the environment as hostile to women as both colleagues and clients (Hynes, C., no date, Where are All the Women Financial Planners? 

Word to the wise, if you are in a position to do so, it is well worth the time to shop around for your FPM or FPW. There is data to suggest that FPM’s misjudgment of women investors actually has financial repercussions for women. Have an initial conversation and take note of how you feel in their presence. If you have a male partner with you, notice if FP manages eye contact with you. One research study found that even FPW make eye contact with the male partner more than 60% of the time when meeting with a male/female couple (Chapman, H., 3/2/21, How the Financial Planning Industry has Failed Women…And How We Fix It,

If you are reading this, you are likely to have a longstanding relationship with a financial planner. Once you (and your partner, if you have one) have spent years working with an advisor, there would be accounts to sort out and fees to be paid to enact any major change in representation. That might be the appropriate option for some, but my suggestion is much simpler and more direct.

If you, like so many women, have had uncomfortable moments with a mansplaining FPM, it’s time to take charge of your next conversation. These three simple steps can help:

  1. Write down your questions and talking points in advance. When you enter a meeting with a clear agenda, it is much less likely to go astray.
  2. Head off “mansplaining” by taking charge of the conversation. After the necessary greeting and pleasantries, women can take the leading role by setting their written agenda on the table in front of them and starting with a simple directive introduction like “I’ve jotted down my questions for you today.” Then, introduce your list of items head on and one by one.
  3. If your FPM turns your question around or tries to take you in an unwelcome direction, use a little bit of humor to call him out. A wry smile and a “I see what you did there. I’ve got that part covered. What I need from you is…” can turn the conversation back in the direction you intend. 

When you take charge of the conversation, FPM will be reminded that he works for you.  He will also see firsthand the communication skills you use in your professional life every day and remember just who he’s dealing with.

Once you are clear on the security of your financial wellbeing and begin to make plans in earnest to engage the “r-word” in the way that makes sense for you, that’s where I come in. As a change educator, I help women who’ve figured out the financial side of retirement to consider their responses to all the rest of their big questions including this one:

How will I best use my time and many talents to design a life I love on my own terms while contributing meaningfully to the world around me?

Tuning in to ON YOUR OWN TERMS on Win Win Women at 9:00 a.m. Pacific on Fridays can be a great place to get inspiration and support. If you stay for the conversation afterwards, you will be richly rewarded in the interaction with others ready to change the world on their own terms, too! 

Written by Patti Talbot