The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These millennial women hadn’t invested before. The pandemic was ‘a wake-up call.’

Amid a financial crisis that demanded action, investing became an opportunity that attracted new entrants, many of them women.

Kim Salt for The Washington Post

In early April 2020, Juli Adhikari, 25, sat in front of her laptop, opened a Google search window and typed in three words: “how to invest.”

After browsing the Internet and talking with her roommate, Adhikari found Ellevest, an investment platform and financial literacy tool for women. Adhikari, a think tank policy coordinator, set up a $60 monthly contribution from her paycheck into a managed portfolio based on her desired risk exposure. After six months of positive returns, she felt more confident and increased it to $75.

“I really had to change my mind-set around building wealth,” Adhikari said. “You don’t have to have millions of dollars to put into Apple, it’s all about being comfortable investing.”

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The catalyst, Adhikari says, was the financial uncertainty she felt as the coronavirus pandemic was devastating the economy.

One month before Adhikari began investing, the virus had spread into a deadly and unprecedented global pandemic. Schools closed, businesses shuttered, and on March 16, the stock market dropped nearly 3,000 points, the worst single-day plummet in U.S. history. The world was lurching into a period of economic upheaval — with serious and widespread financial implications that disproportionately fell on women.

In the first 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, women suffered 1 million more job losses than men, and the unemployment rate for women of color was higher than for any other demographic in the United States. Yet during the same period, many women who had been taking stock of their financial health were also choosing to invest.

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The number of female customers at Fidelity Investments increased by almost 10 percent compared with a 7 percent increase in male customers, and between February 2020 and February 2021, the stock trading app Robinhood saw women on its platform quadruple.

Amid a crisis that demanded action, investing became an opportunity that attracted new entrants, many of them women. “In crisis, women wake up. They learn that they have to take control of their own money and they shouldn’t be depending on anybody else,” said Tahira Hira, an economics emeritus professor at Iowa State University.

But for many women, including Adhikari, it was still “a world I didn’t think I belonged in,” she said.

Growing up, Adhikari said, she did not discuss money with her family, which had immigrated to Northern California from Nepal when she was 8.

Adhikari’s family suffered in the 2008 recession, she said, changing her life substantially and leaving her with painful memories. “I remember my dad telling us tearfully that we were going to lose our house,” she said. They moved to a smaller home, and she was sent to a new high school.

When Adhikari experienced her second catastrophic market crash in March 2020, it was different. “Now,” she said, “I have agency to change my financial situation.”

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Role modeling of investing behavior starts at an early age. Hira has been studying gender disparities in investing for more than 30 years. She said that comfort with money starts with the way parents communicate about finances with their children.

“In a home, parents and grandparents talk to children differently about money management,” Hira said. “If it’s a boy, they talk differently. If it’s a girl, they talk differently. Financial socialization is very, very important.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million new brokerage accounts were opened. Despite market entry being at an all-time high, however, financial experts agree that investing is still a muscle that needs to be developed.

Schelo Doirin, 28, said she recognized the need for accessible investing how-to’s for women before the pandemic. In 2019, she founded Black Women Invest, a community for female investors of color. The group’s Facebook page started in 2020 with 300 members, Doirin said. Today, the community is more than 10,000 strong.

“The pandemic was a wake-up call for women,” she said. “It forced people to start to realize, ‘This job that I thought was so stable, it’s actually not.’”

At the height of pandemic lockdowns, Doirin found herself spending five hours a day on Facebook answering questions from other women about investing, trading, terminology and retirement. She is hopeful that her presence will signal permission for other women to enter the space.

“When you see someone that looks like you that’s doing something, whether it’s investing in stocks or investing in real estate, it becomes a little bit more real,” she said.

When Vickie Bajtelsmit, a professor of finance and real estate at Colorado State University’s College of Business, started her career and saw news coverage of men making huge profits from investing, she wondered if women were investing incorrectly. Instead, she found that “women are doing something right,” she said.

Analysis of investment behavior found that while women tend to make more risk-averse decisions, they create more successful long-term investment portfolios. But women have reason to be risk-averse, Bajtelsmit said. Their exposure to loss can have dire implications, especially for women with families and young children like Shelby Strong.

Strong, 31, is a former math teacher turned educational adviser who invested for the first time during the pandemic. She lives just outside New Orleans with her husband and 5-year-old son. Before the pandemic, she did not consider investing. “I was making barely enough money to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said, “so there was no money to play with.”

But when her mother died in late 2019, she inherited money that she kept in a savings account. And when the pandemic hit, Strong and her husband saw the world around them crumble. Educators were struggling, and her husband, a mental health therapist, was working overtime.

Strong spent months searching the Internet for a financial planner. “I don’t remember ever seeing a woman’s name come up,” she said. When she and her husband found a financial planner, she took the lead.

Now, Strong is passionate about dispelling myths that only the wealthy can get involved in personal finance. “There are people who give financial advice who have no idea what it means to be hungry, who have no idea what it means to be housing-insecure,” she said. Strong has learned throughout the pandemic that even putting $5 a month away for the future is enough to promote financial empowerment. “You know that in an emergency, it’s there,” she said.

For many women, the pandemic provided the time to focus on setting financial goals. It also generated media hype around investing that Sabrina Scull, 27, heard about in early 2021 at a dog park in D.C. Two men in their early 30s sat on a bench near Scull, and while their lab puppy ran around with her rescue dog, they discussed WallStreetBets and GameStop.

When Scull got home, she read articles about the phenomenon: A group of amateur traders had gathered on a Reddit subgroup called WallStreetBets to raise the stock price of companies shorted by more established Wall Street funds. One of these stocks, GameStop, increased by 400 percent in a single week. What Scull noticed, she said, was that it seemed predominantly male investors were finding financial success. It made her think, “If so many people are investing right now, primarily men,” said Scull, “why am I not?”

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She downloaded the Robinhood app and put in $1,000. Instead of WallStreetBets stocks, though, Scull opted to invest in sturdy companies that she believes in, a method she calls “slightly strategic but mostly value-based.” As assistant editor of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, she chose green energy and solar companies. Since March 2021, Scull said, she has increased her investments by 7 percent.

Although she agrees that making a profit would be nice, her real goal is to learn how investing works and build a network of other women doing the same. Anna Gordon, 23, remembers having the same mind-set when she started investing.

Gordon was finishing her degree in economics at Johns Hopkins University when the pandemic hit in early 2020. She had heard about investing from a few of her friends and, with extra time to do research in her dorm room on campus, started using the Robinhood app.

As a risk-averse investor, Gordon initially put $300 in her account. She had been following the vaccine race closely and thought investing in companies like Moderna and Pfizer would be a good way to learn how the market worked. “I never wanted to be super wealthy,” she said, “but if I somehow found a great investment that magically paid off my student loans, I would be really happy.”

While Gordon found success in vaccine company stocks, she dabbled in a few others that were less fruitful. From April 2020 to August 2021, Gordon’s portfolio decreased by $100, she said, which she finds can be embarrassing to talk about.

“I noticed in my friendships that women tend to be harder on themselves with the losses,” she said. “My guy friends only talk about the wins.”

Through experimenting with small investments, Gordon now has a better understanding of the strategies she can employ to mitigate risk. “You can take all the econ classes in the world,” she said, “but you still don’t get a feel for how the stock market works until you’re investing in it.”

Like Gordon, Adhikari sees investing as an opportunity to learn about personal finance. After researching the benefits of long-term investing, Adhikari is now saving for retirement. She has $1,000 in her Ellevest portfolio and her investments have increased by $30, she said. She hopes her portfolio will eventually double as she continues to contribute small amounts monthly.

Hira and Bajtelsmit said that with increased access to investing resources on social media and online communities, it’s a great time for women to boost financial wellness.

And as Adhikari sees it, nothing should be a barrier: “I have less money to invest than maybe somebody else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should not try.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where Tahira Hira is an economics emeritus professor. She is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University, not the University of Iowa.

This story was part of a collaboration with The Lily, The Washington Post’s platform for stories central to the everyday lives of millennial women.