‘Never give up your career for a man.’ These words of my mother’s rang in my ears throughout girlhood, adolescence and young womanhood, until, about a decade into my marriage, she finally accepted I wasn’t going to.
The very opposite of an Austen-esque Mrs Bennet, desperate to engineer a good marriage for her daughter, my mother’s belief was that any woman in possession of a brain must be in want of a job. A room of one’s own? Certainly. And a bank account, a pension and some shares.
Although I have on occasion mused about how lovely it must be to be supported by a doting husband, my mother, as always, is right.
In the past, an advantageous marriage might have been one route for women to live in financial comfort. Now, however, relinquishing one’s career is a perilous choice.
In a recent divorce case, a former head teacher lost her battle to be compensated for abandoning her job when she married a millionaire doctor who had promised to look after her financially.
Katriona MacFarlane was only in her forties when she gave up what her lawyers described as a ‘promising’ trajectory in teaching for marriage.
Several years on, he asked for a divorce. A judge ruled she had no right to be compensated for her lost career despite having missed out on hundreds of thousands of pounds of potential earnings and valuable pension entitlements.
Harsh? Perhaps. But if this case brings home to women the perils of surrendering our financial independence, then it has performed a public service.
As top divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag tells me, the days of lifelong maintenance awards are waning.
If women, or men for that matter, decide to give up work in order to enjoy a lifestyle provided by their partner, they then cannot also ask to be reimbursed for money they might have earned if they had carried on with their job.
So as Vardag says, if women want to guarantee their future financial security and freedom, they would be well advised to maintain their careers and businesses and keep their options open.
In these supposedly liberated times, this might sound obvious. But traditional roles persist, and although women often manage the day-to-day household finances, men frequently make the big calls on large purchases and major investments.
Women are still likely to earn less than men, and if we have kids, our careers might be put on pause. All the more important then, that we should not leave our financial security to chance.
If you are splitting up, your first move should be to ask the bank to freeze joint accounts or insist both of you have to approve withdrawals.
Sarah Pennells, who founded SavvyWoman.co.uk, a financial website for women, says she has heard so many horror stories about joint bank accounts when couples split that she is now wary of them despite the obvious convenience factor for couples.
This isn’t just about insurance against divorce, though: there is plenty of incentive for women ensconced in the happiest of relationships to maintain financial independence. Having your own savings and pension means making the most of tax allowances and reliefs, and more resources as a couple.
Every woman – and every man too – should try to build up a ‘running away fund’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s earmarked to escape a spouse, a job, or to avoid the British winter on a damn good holiday – just the thought of the money brings a lovely warm glow.
Maybe it sounds unromantic, but money can be a minefield for couples. Women need to take an interest, make sure we know what’s going on, read the financial pages to educate ourselves a bit, and be involved in major decisions. We need to keep an eye on joint finances and read all the statements for the mortgage and credit cards. Don’t leave it all to him and assume ignorance is bliss.
And if you can’t discuss money with your partner, or if he insists on keeping sole control, then sorry, but I’d say that was an alarm bell.
Ruth Sunderland is City Features Editor of the Daily Mail
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