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Much has been written about the gender wage gap.
And it is significant, especially when you consider that women now make up nearly half the workforce and are graduating in larger numbers than men from college and graduate school. As of 2013, median earnings for women working full time were about 78 percent of those for men, according to the Census Bureau—a narrowing of just 2 percentage points in a decade.
But that's just part of the story, say a growing cadre of researchers and financial advisors.
"The wealth gap is a much more meaningful gap both in terms of overall economic stability and how well women are able to provide for their own future and their family's future," said Mariko Chang, a former sociology professor at Harvard University and author of "Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It."
The wealth gap is also wider, which could have dangerous implications as millions of women age into retirement.
"Women and Wealth," a new report commissioned by the Asset Funders Network to identify ways grants could be used to help close the gender wealth gap, found that while wealth generally increases with age, "a wealth gap persists across the life cycle."
While Chang, who authored the report, noted that the gap appears to narrow in retirement, she called it "deceptive" as it takes into account widows who have more wealth from inheritances.
In fact, the report concludes, women receive far less income in retirement than men do and are more likely to rely on Social Security for the majority of that income, though their benefits tend to be smaller because they're likely to have earned lower wages during their careers than men and taken time out of the labor force at some point.
Given that women live longer and have lower incomes in retirement, Chang argues that they must rely even more heavily on savings than men do. But research shows women actually set aside less money for retirement.
A BlackRock survey of 4,000 American investors released earlier this year found that 53 percent of women had started saving for retirement, compared with 65 percent of men. And among those who'd started saving money, women had accumulated less than half the amount men had: $34,900 versus $76,800.
That lines up with other surveys, including one released earlier this year by market research firm Mintel, which found women are much more likely than men to have saved less than $50,000 for retirement, and lagged men "considerably" at higher amounts.
Some of the difference can be attributed to the gap in wages between men and women—of more than 100 occupations with comparable earnings data tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, men earned more than women in all but one category (stock clerks and order fillers). So even if women contribute the same percentage of their income as men do to their retirement accounts, the amount is likely to be smaller.
The BlackRock survey also noted a divergence in savings behaviors. While 45 percent of men surveyed said they were willing to take on a high risk in order to achieve a good return on investment, just 28 percent of women felt the same. The firm also found that among female investors, cash represents a greater proportion of their investments than for men: 68 percent compared to 59 percent. (That may seem like a good call lately, given the market volatility, but over time stocks have consistently outperformed cash equivalents, such as U.S. Treasury bills, bank certificates of deposits and money market accounts.)
Robyn Kaiserman, a financial services analyst at Mintel, said that past research suggests women sometimes simply default into cash equivalents because they don't understand their plan options, and then leave the money there. "For whatever reason, [we've found] men are just far more interested in financial topics than women and are more aggressive about research," she said.
Women are also less likely to increase contributions when they get a raise, she added, missing out on potential returns on the additional contributions. "It all costs them a lot," said Kaiserman. "I find it very disheartening to see that women in particular still aren't doing what they need to do [to build wealth], and I don't know why."
Chang said many women are at a disadvantage because they lack access to what she calls the "wealth escalator." More women than men work in part-time positions or in contract jobs that don't allow access to employment-related benefits like retirement plans, and any accompanying employer contribution matches, and subsidized health insurance.
They're also more likely to be single parents and have more people to support on their incomes, and the cost of child care, medical care and college have all risen rapidly in recent years, Chang said.
Younger women, who are graduating from college and graduate school in higher numbers than men, are also shouldering more student debt. And researchers have noted that they're earning less than their male colleagues too, a combination which can hurt their ability to build wealth.
In her research, Chang found that single women have only 32 cents of wealth for every dollar owned by single men. "From the traditional economic model, single women should look exactly like men," Chang said. "The fact that they don't is really telling."
That makes it exceedingly important that women continue to build wealth, setting savings aside and contributing to a retirement plan, even as they pay down debt, say advisors.
But even among high-earning women, many seem reluctant to take an active role in managing their money and building their savings.
"Sometimes it's a lack of time to focus on [their finances]. Women are very busy—they're dealing with children, aging parents, careers," said Anne Copeland, head of private wealth management for Regions Wealth Management Group, which recently launched a "Women and Wealth" program to expand its focus on women. "Sometimes it's just a lack of confidence."
In a report released in late August, "What Do Breadwinner Women Want?" authors Eileen O'Connor, co-founder and managing principal of Hemington Wealth Management in Tysons, Virginia, and Heather Ettinger, a managing partner of Fairport Asset Management in Cleveland, compiled data from surveys with 1,074 breadwinner women.
They found that even among women breadwinners who currently work with a financial advisor, 62 percent felt they are "not as knowledgeable about their finances as they would like to be" and nearly 1 in 5 said they are "not knowledgeable at all." Another 38 percent admitted to feeling that they and/or their partner were leaving money or benefits on the table.
O'Connor called it a "remarkable disconnect," as 70 percent said they consider educating themselves about financial plans and investments to be very important.
"It relates to an underconfidence, but it also relates to advisors taking the time to explain things," said O'Connor, who found that many respondents were dissatisfied with their advisors.
As more firms expand their focus on women, and hire a more diverse roster of advisors, that could change. (Only 3 in 10 financial advisors are women, according to a 2013 Insured Retirement Institute study, yet 70 percent of women seeking advisors say they would prefer to work with a woman.)
Whether or not they work with advisors, women are becoming more aware of the burden they face in ensuring they have enough wealth to support themselves for life, said Kaiserman. "The awareness is there, even if the behavior hasn't changed yet."
Ellyn McKay, one of the women who participated in the breadwinner survey, said she got into the habit of saving early on. "I put money away every year since I was 25," said McKay, now 55, who runs a successful consulting business near Washington, D.C. "You have to pay yourself first. It doesn't matter how much. Just get in the habit of it."
Still, McKay said she has paid much more attention to her finances since she and her husband divorced a few years ago. When they were married, she said she scaled back her involvement in the family finances, which she regrets.
"When I got separated, I thought, if I can't get myself together financially, how can I ever really be successful?" said McKay. "Getting more information, getting a handle on what the numbers meant and what I could do to impact those numbers in a positive way, gave me real confidence."
Kaiserman is optimistic that more women will come to the same conclusion over time. "I'm hopeful that the wealth gap will shrink as more women realize they need to take responsibility for their own financial future and be active, even aggressive, about it—and assume they need to get there on their own," she said. "Even if it doesn't turn out to be true."
That's a lesson McKay is teaching her own daughters, who are now in college. "Know the kind of life you want to have," she said. "And know that if you want it, you have to work for it."