Women and Retirement: The Gender Gap Persists
Why Women Face a Gender Gap in Retirement Savings
Americans today are increasingly concerned that they will not have saved enough money to provide for a reasonable standard of living in retirement. When people were asked in a recent survey which they fear most – death or outliving their money in retirement – nearly two-thirds chose running out of money. Only 17 percent of American workers say they are “very” confident in their ability to live comfortably throughout retirement, and another 47 percent are “somewhat” confident in their ability to retire comfortably. 
The actual savings rates confirm Americans’ insecurity. For American families who have savings accounts, the median savings account balance was $4,500 in 2016, with the median value of any financial assets owned totaling $23,500. For those with retirement accounts, the median account balance totaled about $60,000.
Few companies today offer their workers traditional pensions, which leaves most Americans relying on Social Security along with any personal savings they manage to accumulate for their retirement. This can be especially difficult for widows who may lose the spousal protections inherent in traditional pensions and must rely more on their own resources to fund their retirements. Stagnant wage growth over the past decade, combined with the lingering effects of the recession, have made it very difficult for most American workers to put aside savings for retirement, and instead have led many to dip into what retirement savings they have accumulated to cover daily expenses. And while it is good news that we are living longer than our parents and grandparents, our longer life expectancy means we need to have saved more during our earning years so we don’t outlive our nest eggs after retirement. Our longer lifetimes also lead to significant increases in out-of-pocket medical costs, even with the benefits provided by Medicare and Medicaid.
These trends inordinately impact women who tend to spend more time out of the workforce as a consequence of their caregiving responsibilities. Women earn less than men even when doing the same jobs and they more often work part-time or in jobs that do not offer retirement savings plans. As a result women tend to accumulate fewer savings for retirement. At the same time, their longer average lifespan means that they will have higher retirement costs, both for everyday expenses and for necessary medical care. Consequently, women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women age 75 to 79 are three times more likely to fall below the poverty level as compared to their male counterparts. 
Factors Driving the Gender Gap in Retirement Savings
Throughout history, working women have earned less than men at every level of education and across occupational categories. Although the gap has narrowed over time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau the median earnings of year-round, full-time female workers in 2016 were about 81 percent of those of their male counterparts: $41,554 compared with $51,640 respectively.  A 20-year old woman just starting full-time, year-round work today stands to lose $418,800 over a 40-year career compared to her male counterpart. And when her male counterpart retires at age 60 after 40 years of work, she would have to work 10 more years – until age 70, which is past Social Security’s full retirement age – in order to close this lifetime wage gap. As most older women today worked a significant portion of their careers when the pay gap was more pronounced, the cumulative impact during their working years has significantly impacted their ability to save for retirement.
Not only are higher-wage workers more likely to save because they have more income available for savings, companies with higher-wage employees are more likely to offer retirement savings plans, and the benefits workers earn are likely to be higher at better-paying jobs. Traditional defined benefit plans are based on salary levels and years of service, allowing higher-paid workers to accrue higher benefit amounts, and for workers in defined contribution plans (such as 401(k) plans), the more income a worker earns, the more he has available to invest. Because of this, a disparity in earnings inevitably leads to a disparity in retirement savings.
Part-time workers (those working fewer than 35 hours per week) remain much less likely to participate in an employer sponsored retirement plan. Only one-third of employers nationwide offer retirement plans to their part-time workers, and participation in those plans averaged 18 percent. Even when they are eligible to participate in a retirement plan, workers in part-time jobs earn less per hour than workers in full-time jobs and therefore accumulate less in retirement assets.
Women are more than twice as likely as men to work part-time, either for their entire work lives or for a part of their careers. In 2017, about 32 percent of women in the labor force aged 16 and older worked part-time compared to only 14 percent of men.  Looking at it another way, in 2014 women represented two-thirds of the part-time workforce. In addition, employed women generally work fewer hours per week than men. On average, women worked 35.9 hours per week in 2014, compared with 41.0 hours for men. While part-time work may make it easier for women to participate in the labor force, its lower wages and lack of access to retirement plans results in lower asset accumulation over a career.
Another key to retirement asset accumulation is the number of years in the workforce and tenure at each job. Because retirement income depends on benefits that accrue throughout one’s working life, more years in the workforce translates to more pension income. This is true of both traditional defined benefit (DB) pensions and defined contribution (DC) plans. An additional factor for defined benefit plans is the length of employment with the same company or within the same industry. All defined benefit plans require a specified number of years of service (typically at least five years) before a worker begins to earn benefits (vesting requirements). Employees with longer service can earn significant benefits, but those who leave the employer before the end of the vesting period earn nothing. Although defined contribution plans do not require lengthy employment before benefits vest, they often provide waiting periods of up to a year before workers are permitted to participate.
These factors can negatively affect women. A majority (56.4%) of caregivers are women. As a result of caregiving, it is estimated that women spend 12 fewer years in the paid workforce over their lifetimes. At younger ages they are primarily responsible for caring for children, and at older ages women generally have the responsibility of caring for elderly parents or older relatives. The flexible work that allows women to be caregivers is usually low-waged, with few benefits, especially pensions.
Taking care of a parent significantly reduces the chances that women in their early 50s to early 60s are working at all.  One-in-three baby boomer women cared for an elderly parent in 2016, devoting eight to 30 hours per week to caregiving.  Overall, 11 percent of caregivers end up having to quit their job to care for someone at home round-the-clock.  Caregivers lost an average of 33 percent of their income as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. And the lost wages, pensions and Social Security benefits a woman who leaves her job due to caregiving loses over her lifetime totals more than $300,000.
Female caregivers who continue to work may suffer a particularly high level of economic hardship due to caregiving. They are more likely than males to make alternate work arrangements such as taking a less demanding job (16% females vs. 6% males), giving up work entirely (12% females vs. 3% males), and losing job-related benefits (7% females vs. 3% males). Single females caring for their elderly parents are 2.5 times more likely than non-caregivers to live in poverty in old age.
Women’s labor force participation rates have increased over the years and are approaching those of men, averaging 47% of the workforce in 2017. As a result, women’s pension participation rates have also increased. In 2013, participation rates between male and female workers were essentially equal (40.9% vs 40.8%), while women edged out men when only full-time, full-year, wage and salary workers were considered (58.4% for females vs. 53.0% for males).  However, these advances do not make up for a lifetime of being behind.
LONGER LIFE EXPECTANCY
According to the Center for Disease Control a woman who reached age 65 in 2015 can expect to live two-and- one-half years longer than men, (20.6 additional years vs 18 years), meaning that their retirement savings must be stretched over a longer period. This extra life-span also results in additional medical costs. The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates that in 2016, a 65-year-old man would need $72,000 in savings and a 65-year-old woman would need $93,000 if each had a goal of having a 50 percent chance of having enough savings to cover health care expenses in retirement (a 23 percent gap for women). If they wanted a 90 percent chance of having enough savings, the man would need $127,000 and the woman $143,000. Nearly twice as many nursing home residents were women compared with men in 2014, and 62 percent of all nursing home residents were poor enough to qualify for Medicaid in 2015.
This combination of factors leaves older women more likely to be poor than men, more likely to outlive their spouses, and more likely to become nursing home residents. And a 2016 study by the National Institute for Retirement Security found that women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, with a poverty gap that widens over time, as women age 75 to 79 are three times more likely to fall below the poverty level as compared to their male counterparts. 
IMPLICATIONS FOR WOMEN OF A CHANGING PENSION SYSTEM
There are generally two types of retirement plans offered through employers: traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans and defined contribution (DC) plans such as 401(k) plans. Defined benefit plans are funded by employers and benefits are based on some combination of a worker’s wages and years of service. Defined contribution plans are retirement savings plans. They are typically funded by the worker’s contributions, though some employers provide a matching contribution for some portion of the worker’s savings.
There is a well-established and consistent trend away from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. According to an analysis of Fortune 500 companies by Towers Watson in 1998 some 59% of these employers offered a defined benefit plan to newly hired salaried workers. By 2015, only 20% offered any defined benefit plan — traditional or hybrid — to new hires. Traditional ‘final average pay’ defined benefit plans have fared the worst. The number of Fortune 500 companies sponsoring an open traditional defined benefit plan fell from 50% in 1998 to 5% in 2015. Smaller firms are even less likely to offer such plans due to their cost and complexity.
As a result, in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration, only 22 percent of unmarried women aged 65 or older were receiving their own private pensions (either as a retired worker or survivor), compared to 27.7 percent of unmarried men, and that number will continue to decline. Only seven percent of current women workers expect company funded plans to be their primary source of retirement and almost one-half (47 percent) expect to self-fund their retirement primarily through defined contribution plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).
Relying on defined contribution plans can place women at a considerable disadvantage. Men’s 401(k) balances are more than 50 percent higher than the average for women according to a 2015 Vanguard study. On average, men contributed about 22 percent more to individual accounts of all types in 2014 than women, resulting in end-of-year fair market values for IRAs of nearly $63,000 more for men than women, according to estimates from the Internal Revenue Service. In order to close the gap, the average woman would need to save $1.25 for every $1 a man invests in retirement savings to build an equivalent next egg, according to a recent NerdWallet data analysis.
Traditional pension plans are also especially valuable for married women because they are required by law to offer spousal survivor benefits that can only be waived by consent of both partners, unlike defined contribution plans. Several researchers argue that if spousal consent was extended to these plans as it currently applies to traditional pension plans, those choosing annuity payments over lump sums would increase dramatically to the advantage of widowed women.
The shift to defined contribution plans poses risks for both men and women. In a traditional defined-benefit plan, benefits are based on a worker’s employment history, not the state of the economy or the ups and downs of Wall Street – all the investment risk is borne by employers. In addition, distributions from defined benefit plans typically take the form of gender-neutral lifetime annuities, which provide retirees a monthly check for life. In contrast, 401(k) plan balances are dependent on the assets’ investment performance and benefits typically take the form of lump sum payments, which can result in retirees outliving their savings. In addition, because defined contribution plans are not collectively invested or professionally managed, they tend to have high fees, making them almost twice as costly as traditional plans. 
As women tend to live longer than men, their 401(k) balances must provide an income stream over a longer stretch of time. Unfortunately, only 15 percent of 401(k) plans even offer an annuity option. Women who do desire longevity insurance in the form of an annuity face the disadvantage of having to purchase products priced using gender-distinct mortality tables. Given the longer life expectancies for women at retirement age, this can amount to an appreciable decrease in retirement income.
The practice of allowing lump sum withdrawals from either type of plan has additional negative implications for women. Women are less likely than men to re-invest a lump sum payment of a pension received when leaving a job. When they do re-invest, however, recent research indicates women may be better investors than men as they are more likely to invest in assets that are positioned to weather market volatility. 
On the negative side, it can take many years for participants in traditional pension plans to earn benefits (vesting), which is a disadvantage for women given their more intermittent career patterns. Defined contribution plans, on the other hand, are portable, allowing women who change jobs frequently or temporarily drop out of the workforce the ability to easily transfer their savings to a new employer. However, as these plans were originally designed as supplements to traditional defined benefit pensions, they are unlikely to provide significant resources in retirement. Nearly one-half of all working-age families have nothing saved in retirement accounts, and even those families with retirement savings are not saving adequately. The median for families with savings in 2013 was $60,000, and much of this is concentrated among higher-income families which are ten times as likely to have retirement savings as low-income families.  Even families approaching retirement age have insufficient savings, with a mean account balance for workers age 50-55 of $124,831 and those age 56-61 of $163,577 in 2013.
RETIREMENT INCOME GAP
The cumulative impact of all of the above factors for women is clear. Although Social Security is not designed and was never intended to be the primary source of retirement income for men or women, the shortcomings in the private pension system and unpredictable stock market volatility have left Social Security as the bedrock retirement plan for American workers, and especially for women.
The median total income of unmarried men aged 65 and older in 2014 was $25,260 compared with $18,216 for women. Social Security comprised 47 percent of the total income of unmarried women, including widows. In contrast, Social Security benefits comprised only 34 percent of unmarried elderly men’s income and only 29 percent of elderly couples’ income.  In 2014, 47 percent of elderly unmarried women relied on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their total income. The average Social Security benefit in 2016 for women was only 79 percent of the benefit received by men ($14,424 vs. $18,228).
As a result of their meager retirement savings, many older women must continue to work well past retirement age, but in doing so they remain at a considerable disadvantage to men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 the median weekly earnings of women over age 65 were 77 percent of men’s, at $782 compared with $1016.
Despite gains over the past two decades, a gender gap in pension plan participation and coverage remains. Gender differences in pension wealth arise because men and women have different personal and job characteristics. Women spend fewer years in the workforce, are more likely to work in part-time employment, earn less than their male counterparts, and have longer life expectancies. They generally have accumulated fewer assets and face higher retirement costs when compared with men. Women closer to retirement age have a larger portion of their work careers spent in a period when the pay gap was wider, and they were subject to other gender factors such as time out of the workforce to help raise young children. The result is significantly lower savings for women in retirement. Near-term changes to current pension law can narrow this gap considerably, helping women adequately save for their retirement years. And in the long-term, eliminating the wage gap that limits women’s earnings is essential to helping our daughters and granddaughters save for their own retirement.
POLICY INITIATIVES TO ADDRESS GENDER RETIREMENT INCOME ISSUES
What can be done to reduce the gender gap in pensions? Public policies and the extension of economic trends that promote pay equity between genders would relieve much of the fundamental income disparity that impedes women’s ability to accumulate adequate retirement savings. While some progress is being made in this area it remains a long-term goal. Increased educational achievement by women will also help.
Over the long term, women would benefit from the restoration of the traditional “three legged-stool” of retirement: a robust Social Security program, a reformed employer-based retirement system that borrows the best from traditional pensions, and a strengthened defined contribution system with adequate protections for women. Providing financial incentives to employers to offer at least some elements of traditional defined benefit plans to employees could facilitate expanded coverage for all workers. Broader reforms to the employer-based system should encourage plans that are universal, secure and adequate; which provide for professional asset management and collective investment; and in which investment risk is not borne entirely by workers.
In the meantime, there a number of more targeted, near-term steps that can help address the gender gap in pensions.
To address women’s work history, federal policies should encourage the extension of pension coverage to part-time work. Under current law, employers can generally exclude part-time employees who work less than 1,000 hours per year from coverage under a defined contribution plan. This rule can exclude long-term, part-time employees from adequately preparing for retirement, disproportionately penalizing women who far more likely than men to work part time, either for their entire work lives or for a part of their careers. One option would require employers sponsoring 401(k) plans to allow part-time employees to participate in the plan if they work at least 500 hours of service per year for three years. In addition, allowing workers who take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act to count that time toward meeting vesting and service requirements would better suit caregiving needs, as would allowing workers to purchase benefit accruals lost during the time away from employment.
To make saving more affordable, the existing Saver’s Credit providing tax credits for low income workers saving for retirement should be increased. The current Saver’s Credit is not “refundable”, that is, it is not available for workers without a federal income tax liability, and it begins to phase-out at incomes as low as $18,000 per year. These limits can reduce the Saver’s Credit’s effectiveness in encouraging lower-wage women to save for their retirement.
Because of historically lower labor force participation rates and lower pension participation rates, women are more likely to receive pension income through their husbands, as spouses or survivors, than through their own savings or employment. In addition, women’s longer life expectancy leaves them more reliant on survivor benefits. Therefore, expanding the options available under the survivor protections of certain retirement plans to allow larger payments for widows and widowers would likely benefit women.
Steps to require or encourage gender-neutral annuity options, including requirements for spousal consent in defined contribution plans similar to those that are required for traditional pension plans, would be of considerable benefit to women.
Congress should require straightforward disclosure of all fees paid by 401(k) plan participants and make improvements to the division of pension payments upon divorce and to the annuity rules for survivor benefits in civil service plans.
Finally, a number of states are in the process of considering using their own employees’ pension systems to administer retirement savings plans for private-sector workers who do not have access to retirement plans through the workplace. These plans are designed to provide simple, low-cost investment options to workers, with retirement savings pooled and professionally managed. Most participants are expected to work for small businesses, which disproportionately employ women, and often do not offer retirement plans to their workers. Although a uniform, national plan would be better for workers, having access to employer plans on a state-by-state basis is a good first step toward expanding retirement savings among women. A number of states have adopted such plans or are in the process of considering them. 
Within Social Security, a number of steps can be taken to strengthen the program to protect women. These include improving survivor benefits, providing credits for caregivers, enhancing the formula used to calculate the special minimum benefit amount, equalizing treatment of disabled and working widows, and restoring student benefits. Finally, providing a bump-up in benefits at age 85 would help older women better keep up with increases in the cost of living.
Government Relations & Policy, July 2018
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 In traditional defined benefit plans, benefits are typically determined by a formula that takes into account years of service and salaries.
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