The challenge looms large for many women: how to achieve financial security to ensure a comfortable retirement.
To help women find answers, the National Policy and Resource Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., conducted a nationwide study on women's "retirement literacy." Researchers interviewed 500 women over age 50 to learn what they know about financial planning and what assistance they need. Results are sobering.
Although a relatively high proportion of women felt they had a very good understanding of government savings bonds and bank certificates of deposit, they felt significantly less knowledgeable about mutual funds. Only about 10 percent felt satisfied with their knowledge of 401(k) programs. They also indicated a serious lack of information about Social Security.
"There is still a prevailing attitude that money matters are male matters," says James Schulz, professor of aging policy at Brandeis and director of the project.
Even when women do plan well, Professor Schulz says, they face inequities in Social Security, which is weighted to benefit women as spouses. He sees the system as becoming "less equitable" as more married women work, because at retirement they do not necessarily get more in the way of Social Security benefits than if they had not worked at all.
Schulz also terms survivor benefits inadequate. He explains that a worker gets a 100 percent benefit and a spouse 50 percent of that benefit. If the worker dies, the spouse is entitled to the worker's benefit - 100 percent - and loses the spouse benefit. The 150 percent goes down to 100 percent - a one-third reduction.
"If the couple's combined benefit is just above poverty, a lot of women end up with a benefit that is below poverty for a single individual," says Schulz. "That is the single biggest explanation for why there is so much poverty among older women in the United States."
Schulz also sees the need for another reform - earnings sharing. This would combine a husband and wife's earnings and divide the benefits between them if they divorced or if one of them died or became disabled.
"It's a way of looking at marriage as a partnership," says Schulz. "If the woman is home, raising the children, and the husband is working, the Social Security credits that accumulate are seen as the joint product of the two, instead of the way it's calculated now. It's much fairer in that regard." Yet changing the existing system would cause some women to lose benefits.
Other obstacles also exist. "The mood in Washington is hostility to Social Security," Schulz says. "That hostility is working very much against the interests of women. Rather than attacking Social Security and arguing that we should privatize it and substitute something else for it, we should be trying to improve it and restructure it to be more equitable and more adequate to women as they get old."