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There’s no doubting the value of a company 401(k) plan. Used correctly, assets can add up, especially if you invest early and often, and take advantage of employer perks, such as company matching. So why are fewer women than men using 401(k) plans?

That’s what banking giant Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE:WFC) found in a new study of data from 2,036 companies. The plan-participation gap – 4 % – isn’t exactly the Grand Canyon, but it could cost women savers real money. Some details from the report:

Where gender was indicated, about half of all men (49%) and four out of 10 women (43%) are enrolled in their workplace retirement plan. When compared to Wells Fargo’s recommended contribution index, which measures how many people are saving a minimum target of 10% in their 401(k) plan, including employer match, 43% of men contribute at this rate versus 39% of women.

Wells Fargo runs 401(k) programs for four million U.S. workers, giving it insight into trends and habits among its army of would-be 401(k) millionaires. Over the past two years, for example, plan participants who contributed to their 401(k) plans saw their average balances rise 19% and 35%, largely due to stock market gains.

“In general, all men and women need to take full advantage of their workplace retirement plan and embrace the 401(k) as the primary retirement benefit,” explains Joe Ready, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust. “In our view, if people have access to a 401(k) they should try to save at least 10%. The power of saving regularly, coupled with the compounding effect of time, can create a financial foundation for people that results in much greater retirement security.”

Compounding, often dubbed the “miracle of compounded interest," allows 401(k) plan money to grow steadily over time, especially if savers keep plowing money into their plan and don’t take any of it out before retirement.

Men More Aggressive with Investments

One takeaway from the Wells Fargo study is that not only are men more likely to participate in a 401(k) plan, they’re also more aggressive with their investment choices. In contrast, women are more likely to diversify their investments and spread their risk among different asset categories – say, a minimum of two equities and a fixed fund and less than 20% in employer stock – in their 401(k) account.

That tendency for absorbing more stock market risk is no aberration, experts say. “In general, men have a higher tolerance for stock market risk and are more comfortable with investing,” says Kelly Campbell, CEO at Campbell Wealth Management, based in Alexandria, Va.”Generally, they are more willing to put money in a 401(k} plan, which may have a riskier allocation, and hope that their initial investments will continue to increase. Women are more cautious when it comes to investing their money, and are more likely to take the time to learn about a specific 401(k) program and the investments it contains, he adds.

A culture change – a giant one – is also in play, Campbell says. “A generational shift may also be a factor,” he notes. “Until the mid-1980s, women were typically the secondary earners in a family, and their income was often used for discretionary spending, where the focus was not on saving for retirement.”

That’s not the case today. According to a survey by Prudential Financial, a majority of American women are the primary breadwinner in their household.

Amanda Steinberg, founder of DailyWorth.com, a financial and career advice women for women. thinks some women are emotionally stuck in the ‘80s. "Women lag on investment activity because they still subscribe to some form of rescue fantasy and don't believe money management is their job," she says. "We create excuses like, 'I don't understand investing,' or, 'The markets are too risky,' but really what we're saying is, 'I'm not in charge of my future.' This entire mentality needs to change. In 2014, women are in charge of their futures."

The Bottom Line

The Wells Fargo study is a good reminder to get on top of company-sponsored retirement savings. “The first step to take advantage of your 401(k) is to develop a plan,” advises Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner at LexION Capital Management, one of the few 100% women-owned asset management firms in the U.S. “Just like you wouldn't jump in your car for a long trip without mapping out how you will get to your destination, you must create a detailed 'retirement road map' for navigating retirement smoothly and safely. This will guide your saving targets and your investing strategy, and will show you how many more years you will likely need to work to meet your goals.

There is no "one size fits all" strategy, she emphasizes. “Your plan must be a good fit for your personal situation and retirement goals.” The most important first step, if you haven't already done so: Get started. Now.

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