Women still face significant barriers that men don’t when it comes to retiring with enough money, and the older they are, the more true this is. In the New York Times article “For Many Women, Adequate Pensions Are Still a Far Reach,” journalist Elizabeth Olson discusses how the majority of women over 70 depend on an average of just $1,300 in Social Security benefits for most of their monthly income due to not qualifying for retirement benefits, such as employer pensions. Furthermore, while 28% of unmarried women 65 or older are poor or near poor, just 19% of unmarried men 65 or older are in those categories, according to the Social Security Administration.   

The retirement system has evolved to make it easier in some ways for working  women to save for retirement today. Rather than having to qualify for a pension based on years of service to a single company, they can save through a 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA), for example. Nevertheless, there are still many reasons why women might have more trouble than men amassing enough money for a comfortable retirement.

Echoes of the Past

Although some women of the Baby Boomer generation broke barriers moving into managerial and professional jobs starting in the 1970s and 1980s, that wasn't true for the generation as a whole. The old societal norms that prevailed as Boomers grew up are now showing up in a gender gap as this group enters retirement, says certified financial planner Ben Offit, a partner at Clear Path Advisory, a wealth management and retirement planning firm in Pikesville, Md. Boomer women lived through an era where the man was still the dominant breadwinner and the woman took care of the family. (For more, see Overcome the Retirement “Gender Gap.”)

“Men worked longer and made more money, and therefore had more exposure to retirement plans and savings opportunities, and thus have more money in their retirement accounts,” Offit says. As a result, men were more of a target for financial advisors to work with, and women were often left out – or barely included – in retirement planning conversations. (For more, see Do Advisors Give Worse Advice to Women?)

Still Playing Catch-up

More women today equal or exceed their husband’s financial contribution to the household. In 1987, 17.8% of wives outearned their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number has steadily increased over the subsequent decades, and in 2014, 28.2% of wives outearned their husbands. Additionally, more men now stay home to care for the kids: while only 4% of men with children did not work outside the home in 1989, the percentage of stay-at-home dads was 7% in 2012, according to an analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center.

Yet, overall, men do tend to earn more and women as a whole are still at a disadvantage. Because women generally make less money than men, they therefore have less money to save, says Maria L. Sciuto, a certified financial planner and vice president of client services with Forte Capital Group,  a New York-based wealth management firm. In addition, women tend to invest their money more conservatively than men, which may be due to a lack of confidence in investing.

Women also take more time out of the workforce than men to be caregivers for children or older relatives. All those years spent not working decimate women’s retirement savings and Social Security benefits, Sciuto says. Furthermore, when women come back to the workforce, they tend to have part-time jobs and may have to accept lower paying positions. (For more, see Retirement Saving: Women 1, Men 0.)

No Job Income, No Retirement Account

In 2013, 69.9% of women and 92.8% of men with children younger than 18 participated in the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor (DOL). That means 30% of women with minor children were not working, while only 7% of men with minor children were not working. The percentage of working women with children has risen substantially over the years, though; in 1975, it was just 47.4%, according to the DOL. (For more, see One Big Factor Driving the Gender Pay Gap.)

A big problem with not working is that you aren’t eligible to contribute to most retirement accounts without employment income. If you don’t have an employer, you can’t have a 401(k) – and even if you do have a job, your employer’s 401(k) may only be available to you if you work full time. A 2014 survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that only 49% of part-time workers are eligible to contribute to their employer’s 401(k).

IRAs are an option whether you have access to a 401(k) or not, but they require you to have earned income from work in order to contribute. A woman who doesn’t work and has a working spouse can accumulate retirement savings in her own name through a spousal IRA, but otherwise she’s cut off from contributing to her own tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts. That being said, many women are planning for retirement with a spouse and will be able to rely on their partner’s retirement contributions and Social Security benefits. Even if a woman’s spouse predeceases her – or if they get divorced – she may still receive her share of her partner’s benefits. (For more, see Do I Qualify for Social Security Benefits From My Ex-Husband Who Is Now Deceased?)

Lacking the financial benefits of having a partner can  make retirement planning more difficult for women. According to the Social Security Administration, the median income of married couples where at least one partner was 65 or older was $50,772 in 2013, while it was significantly less than half of that – $18,643 – for single individuals 65 or older.  (For more, see Why Marriage Makes Financial Sense.)

The Gender Income Gap

Linda P. Jones, host of the “Be Wealthy & Smart” podcast, says there are more men at the top of corporations who earn more, so that will skew the averages in favor of men: Their average compensation, perks and benefits will be greater than those of the average woman. Also, because women tend to be in service positions – such as salespeople, nurses or assistants – more often than men, women’s average salaries tend to be lower than men’s. “Although this trend is changing, if you are looking at past statistics, it will be skewed because in the past, there were more women in supporting roles,” Jones says.

According to the DOL, in 2014, the three most common jobs held by women were secretary and administrative assistant, elementary and middle school teacher, and registered nurse. Even in traditionally female jobs, men did better: The DOL  found that for full-time workers, on average, female nurses earn 90.4% of what their male counterparts earn; female elementary and middle school teachers, 87.2% of what their male counterparts earn; and female secretaries and administrative assistants, 84.5% of what their male counterparts earn. (For more, see Top 5 Occupations with the Widest Gender Income Gaps.)

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research analyzed the DOL’s data on the most common occupations held by women and men along with data on their respective wages. The study found that women earn less than men in all of the most common occupations for women, as well as in all but one of the most common occupations for men. Women who worked in the most common occupations for men – driver/sales workers and truck drivers, managers (all other), and first-line supervisors of retail sales workers – earned 73.7%, 81.7% and 75.0% of what their male counterparts earned, respectively, in those fields. In addition, a key takeaway from the Institute’s report is that “female-dominated occupations tend to have lower median earnings than male-dominated occupations.”

Even women who do start out in jobs with salaries equivalent to what men earn can fall behind as time passes. See The Gender Wage Gap: Beware Age 32!

If women earn less than men, they must be extra aggressive in cutting their expenses, maximizing their savings and making smart investment choices to end up with enough money to retire comfortably. (For more, see Retirement Planning for Singles: Top Tips for Advisors.)

The Bottom Line

“Today's society is changing and I believe the future retirement gap will change as well,” Offit says.  Maybe n ot overnight, he adds, but the gap will get smaller as societal norms continue to evolve, and more and more women work in the same capacities as me  n.

Women still in the job market should do what they can to earn wages equivalent to those of men and to set themselves up for the best possible retirement down the road. Even during periods of part-time wages or staying home for children, women with partners should make sure that money is put aside to build retirement accounts in their own name, not just in their partner's.