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Addressing Women's Retirement Needs

January 5, 2005
Related Topics: Retirement/Pensions, Diversity, Featured Article, Compensation
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At 56, Alice Waterhouse had been confident that retirement beckoned only six years away. She believed she and her husband had adequate 401(k) plans, mutual funds and savings. But in the course of a single hour, as a cascade of facts swept over her, Waterhouse realized the inevitable: She’ll be working until she’s 65.

    Her epiphany arrived during a program on financial planning for women offered by her employer, Weyerhaeuser Co., at its international headquarters in Federal Way, Washington. "It got me inspired about the importance of saving and planning for retirement," says Waterhouse, an employee service center representative. "All of a sudden my eyes opened up."

    Weyerhaeuser--a giant forest product company with annual sales of $19.9 billion and 55,000 employees worldwide--has offered financial literacy programs for more than 20 years. "Special Considerations for Women in Planning for Their Financial Future" was the latest. Sally Hass, benefits education manager, designed and leads it. She has reached as many as 1,000 women annually for the past five years, spreading her message to foresters, office managers, production workers and others in 40 locations in North America.

    "Benefits are a key differentiator in becoming an employer of choice, but we know that employees of all levels really don’t understand the value of those benefits--not until you couple that with appropriate education," Hass says.

    Women especially need financial information for a host of cultural and economic reasons, including today’s complexity of choices, she says. "And if you get to them with information they can digest and take action on, that affects their attitude about the company. We spend a lot of money in corporate America on benefits communications. If we would take some of that money and put together an effective program that puts those benefits in the context of people’s lives, it just could be we could get our employees to maximize what those benefits could do for them."

    Overall financial education helps retain employees and builds loyalty, Hass says. It gives a company a competitive edge and increases productivity. In research reported in 1996, E. Thomas Garman, a textbook author, adviser and professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, found that 15 percent of American workers experienced financial distress to the extent that it diminished their productivity. New research he’s done for a report to be issued this month shows that "one-fifth of American adult workers are overly indebted and financially distressed," Garman says.

    They lose work time talking to creditors on the phone, taking days off to deal with money problems and making court appearances. Garman has calculated that if employers increased financial education even slightly--one point on a 10-point scale--they would realize a $450 annual return per employee from reductions in absenteeism and time wasted.

    They also might reduce the risk of litigation, he says, citing scores of worker lawsuits filed in 2004 alleging employer negligence in teaching them how to invest.

Pervasive poverty
    Hass and other experts make the case for human resources’ tailoring financial education for women because of special challenges they face. She created Weyerhaeuser’s program for them after attending a think tank sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education and the AARP. The impetus was learning the number of women heading into retirement barely above the poverty line, she says.

    In her hourlong talks, she tells women they need to take financial education more seriously. Her first PowerPoint illustration shows a busload of older women--"little old ladies," she says. Then she asks, "Ever wonder why you don’t see a bus full of little old men? It’s a life-span issue." Women outlive men by almost seven years and must stretch their income further.

    One result is that substantial pockets of poverty remain among older single women, according to a report by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "Of all the factors associated with poverty in old age, the most critical is to be a woman without a husband," the report says, citing the vulnerability of 28 percent of single older women who are impoverished or nearly so.

    When they’re widowed, women’s Social Security benefits decline, and few have pensions--27 percent, compared with 47 percent of men, according to a study by the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

    More dismaying truths about women at work:

  • They earn median weekly wages of $552 versus men’s $695, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last year. That reduces Social Security benefits.

  • They’re more likely to work part time--26 percent do, compared with 11 percent of men, reducing wages and retirement benefits even more. Waterhouse worked part time for years, she says. "I was raising children, but even after the kids were gone, I was happy working part time. Time off was more important than money. I wasted all those years!"

  • They put in less time on the job--often leaving to rear children or care for aging parents. They typically work 32 years, compared with men’s 44, according to the Boston College study.

    "Women have gaps in their careers, and they have longer life expectancies than money," says Barbara O’Neill, a professor and specialist in financial resource management at Rutgers Cooperative Extension in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "They’re disadvantaged at both ends, and a lot of women are in a major catch-up mode.

    "The reality is you can’t count on job security," she says. "You can’t count on government (with impending changes to Social Security). You can’t count on family--look at the divorce rate."

    Garman is equally pessimistic about women’s prospects for financial security: "It’s not a pretty picture; it’s red alert."

Taking action
    In her presentations, Hass offers specific steps for women to take charge of their financial future, the central message being "Stop procrastinating." While she hasn’t tracked the program’s impact on 401(k) contributions and savings, Hass asks participants to write letters committing to two or three of the steps within 90 days. She collects the letters and sends them back to the women by that deadline.

    Among the steps they can choose: determine financial goals and review them quarterly; get organized with files and folders; develop a financial education plan, including books, magazines and classes; do estate planning and review insurance protection; or use a financial service’s Web site, such as Vanguard’s, to calculate how long your savings will last.

    The calculation can be a wake-up call for many women, as it was for Waterhouse. She considered retirement planning important. "But I really didn’t want to think about it," she says.

    Results of a national survey mirror her experience. While more than 90 percent of women polled believe a comfortable financial retirement is important, and a majority are more involved in household financial decisions, 40 percent to 50 percent aren’t confident they’ve sufficiently prepared to meet their goals, and 80 percent want help with financial decisions.

    Prudential Financial’s 2004-05 Study on the Financial Experience and Behaviors Among Women also found that only 12 percent of women are very confident they won’t outlive their savings. But, curiously, only 10 percent said they would definitely take action leading to more financial security.

    The "confidence gap" revealed in the Prudential poll--the difference between the importance of a financial goal and confidence in achieving it--underscores the need for employers to target financial education to women.

    The goal in that effort should be empowering them and increasing their financial confidence, says Rutgers’ O’Neill. "I don’t think it’s all about dollar bills and numbers. Women can understand that if they’re behind the eight ball now, they can still do something to get started, even if it’s putting 1 percent in a 401(k). That’s giving them confidence to feel they can believe in the future."

Workforce Management, January 2005, pp. 54-55 -- Subscribe Now!

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