This may be the age of equality, but women still expect a man to provide for them financially. Not a good idea, suggests Aminatta Forna
I can get you Deutschmarks at six per cent." Some years ago I walked into the kitchen at a party in St John's Wood and overheard that single line of conversation. As time goes by and I try to get to grips with unit trusts, tracker Peps and private pensions I think of that remark. What the blazes did it mean? Was it a loan rate, a currency exchange rate, a with-profits margin, what would be an appropriate response - yes, I'll take 10,000? And finally why was everyone in that room a man? There wasn't a single woman in that discussion, whatever it was about.

When it comes to money women still do not regard themselves as equal. They do not plan for the future or do things like take out endowment policies for school fees. Despite the fact that many women now earn as much as their partners, women still hold on to a set of values which fundamentally sees providing as a male responsibility. That means that although a woman may earn significantly, she does so without thought for the future, without considering the need to provide for dependents or even make a long-term plan for her own security. At least, so says Colette Dowling, feminist author of the forthcoming book Myth of The Money Tree, (HarperCollins, pounds 7.99) in which she argues that women still allow men to become their caretakers.

Back in the Seventies, when the feminist movement was still fresh, Dowling's research into women's attitudes towards men and money provoked her to write her first book, The Cinderella Syndrome, which rapidly became a bestseller. Now she is insisting that women have claimed their independence only in part. Cinderella's dream has been reshaped into a more subtle form of dependence.

A straw poll of women demonstrates that Dowling may be right. Most of the women I interviewed for this piece felt at some level, whether explicitly or otherwise, that the primary job of any husband or partner was to earn - even when this idea conflicted with a different set of values about equality and their own autonomy. Although Fay, a divorcee, always had a job during her marriage, she does not regard work and "breadwinning" as the same thing. Breadwinning was her husband's job. "I wouldn't be happy at all with the idea that my salary actually mattered to our standard of living," remains her view, even though, when pressed, she is unable to provide any rationale for it whatsoever.

One in five women earns more than their partner. Andrea is one of them. Yet she holds on to the notion that this state of affairs is only "temporary, until he is earning more", despite the fact that they have been together for 10 years and matters have never been any different.

At the cinema, in the newspapers, on TV and in the women's magazines the message has been broadcast unchallenged for decades. What a man does and how much he earns matters at least as much as what he looks like. In Friends Monica tries so, so hard to force herself to fancy the software millionaire who shows up in her diner.

A new movie, Ever After, just opened in the US, is the story of a feisty, independent woman who meets an arrogant prince. Oh, she's a modern lady all right, she stands up to him and teaches him how to care. But she still marries him and she still ditches the regular bloke, her boyfriend.

The message contained in Ever After is insidious and as bad for men as women, argues Warren Farrell, so-called leader of the US men's movement and author of Why Men Are the Way They Are and The Myth of Male Power. Men quickly learn that women will reject them if they do not have money, whatever other qualities they may have. He traces the roots of the current thinking back to the times when marriage was a straightforward financial transaction, which did not include romance. The trouble now is that women want it all. He calls it the "Diana syndrome". "Women haven't stopped wanting the prince, but now they want communication, orgasms, a sense of self and love, as well."

Farrell argues that in the past, if women were treated as second-class citizens, the majority of men below the upper classes had even lower status. Whereas a woman could trade on her youth, looks and sexuality, a man has only ever been worth the sum of his wealth. If he is born poor or fails to make the grade, no woman is interested. The gender revolution, continues Farrell, has created a host of new options for women alongside the old ones, but failed to do the same for men who are still stuck in the "breadwinner" role. There is inequity between the "multi-option" modern female who gets to choose between work and home or a combination of both, and her "no- option" male counterpart. And the middle class, Western female is the biggest winner of all.

Women like Barbara Amiel, married to Conrad Black, or Bel Mooney, wife of Jonathan Dimbleby, are able to pursue writing careers, campaign for the countryside or launch vegetarian food labels precisely because they do not actually need to work. At Demos Helen Wilkinson, author of Tomorrow's Women, identifies this group as the "New Age Angelas", one of several categories of women identified in the study. They are women who, like Diana, may espouse a set of more caring, sharing values while their husbands get on with the dirty business of making money.

Anna Murdoch's wholesome reputation remained amazingly untarnished by her association with Rupert. "The key point about 'Angela'," says Wilkinson, "is that she's been able to shift in values and lifestyle precisely because she is starting from a relatively high income. Demographically she is almost certainly in a relationship and probably has a high-earning husband to support the shift."

For more ordinary couples it is the arrival of children which usually brings traditional assumptions to the fore. Lara, an illustrator who has just had a baby, admits: "It simply never occurred to me that the choice to take time off work, how much, and whether to work part time, belonged to anybody other than me."

Dowling heard this time and again. "Women feel that if they are going to have a baby they deserve to be looked after. It may seem only right, but," she proposes, "relying on a man, even to this extent, is not healthy." She tells women not to consider having babies unless they know they can support them, a suggestion considered radical. For a man it is regarded as the only responsible position. Helen Wilkinson concurs that a double standard exists. "Women (and men) still tend to think that women should have the choice to work; we never really hear anyone saying 'responsibility' to work, even though economic trends suggest that it is a necessity for both partners to work."

It seems as though some men are finally getting fed up. Huw, a journalist, remarks: "Frankly, it seems to me that women today want it both ways. Both my wife and I were fed up with what we were doing when the baby came along. She couldn't leave her job fast enough, but I was expected to keep my nose to the grindstone. Then when I'm home and she's tired of playing mum, she expects me to be a New Man and bathe the baby."

Two men I spoke to broke off relationships with women whom they suspected saw themselves as future dependents. One man was self-employed, while the other worked in television, notorious for short contracts and job insecurity. "Forget it," was their shared response. They weren't afraid of the emotional commitment, they were afraid of the financial responsibility.

But Dowling argues that women are the real losers both individually and collectively and that includes even the "multi-choice", "have-it-all" women. The reason is that: "Money equals power - political, social and economic power, as well as control in a relationship." That remains true, even in this era of positive values, and will be even more true when those glorified sentiments take a pounding in the recession supposedly around the corner.

And to male readers of the Independent on Sunday, Warren Farell has this piece of advice. "Don't pay for her on the next date. Men sit there and listen to women talk about their careers, how independent they are and so forth. Then when dinner comes to an end he reflexively pays. He's giving her a signal that it's fine for her to keep what she earns for herself. As importantly, he's expressing the degree of his own inferiority because he's afraid if he can't pay, she won't want to see him again." If that's the case then so be it. Seems there really is no such thing as a free lunch.