ANN BENSON is a woman with mission.
As ''national investor information specialist'' with Merrill Lynch & Co., a New York-based brokerage firm, Ms. Benson conducts scores of seminars throughout the United States each year for women on investing.
''I leave no stone unturned'' in trying to show women how to invest and how financial planners can help women manage financial assets, she says.
The pool of potential women investors is growing. Almost 60 percent of adult women are collecting a pay check -- up from 43 percent in 1970. Yet women represent only about 37 percent of all shareholders of stock, according to the New York Stock Exchange.
Benson, a former actress and mother of actor/director Robby Benson (the voice of the ''Beast'' in Disney's ''Beauty and the Beast''), admits she uses every theatrical trick in her repertoire to make her seminars lively. Her goal is to educate and show women that investing is ''exciting.''
''There's been a lot of progress in informing women about financial matters, but there is still a tremendous need,'' says Margaret Daly, features editor and a veteran personal finance writer at Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
Guidance is ''especially important now,'' she says, since so many companies are switching from company-managed retirement plans to defined benefits contribution plans, where employees must make their own investment decisions. And because women tend to outlive men by many years, they need to save more.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that men and women have considerably different perspectives on investing. Fear of failure and fear of the unknown keep many women from jumping into the investment game, according to a landmark national study released earlier this year by Long Island University's National Center for Women and Retirement Research (NCWRR).
''Women have been socialized into believing that money means security,'' not a tool for investing, says Christopher Hayes, director of NCWRR. ''For most women, money is something used for the caretaking of others. Women are far less likely [than men] to ask the question, 'What can money do for me?' ''
This ''mattress stuffing'' philosophy, Mr. Hayes says, means many women will enter retirement without an adequate income.
Three-quarters of the women in Hayes's study say lack of knowledge about how to select investments is their main stumbling block to becoming active investors. Ironically, when women do feel in control of their financial affairs, more than half (56 percent) save and invest on a regular monthly basis, according to the NCWRR study.
Other research suggests that among many younger couples, women and men share equally in investing decisions. ''Women,'' Benson says, ''naturally do very well at networking.'' And in a large measure, ''investing and finance is about networking,'' she says -- that is, gathering information and making investment decisions. It is never ''too late'' for women to study investing, Benson says.
What steps can women take to make their money work harder and smarter?
*Take an adult education workshop (at a college or high school), say experts, on basic money management and investing.
*Seek out one of the many seminars from well-established brokerage houses. Experts caution that a participant should be wary of immediately buying that company's financial products. Use the seminar for information.
*Join a national investor organization, such as the American Association of Individual Investors, 625 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
*Use local library resources on investing; read newspaper financial pages.
*Start saving and investing for the long-haul as soon as possible. This is crucial, since women often leave the work force for periods of time, such as to raise children. But in the process, they may lose some retirement benefits.
Thus, women should consider buying into mutual funds, particularly no-load funds, which have no commission charges, and opening an individual retirement account, says Vineeta Anand, who covers retirement issues at Pensions & Investments, a trade publication. If women wish to purchase stocks, she says, they could do so through programs offered by groups such as the National Association of Investors Corporation, Madison Heights, Mi.