Part of me hates investment advice specifically geared towards women. I’ve looked at enough studies on sex differences—and the studies of the studies on sex differences—to know that making generalizations about human behavior based on sex chromosomes is bad science and that much of what we attribute to hardwired differences is probably culturally determined by the reinforcement of stereotype.
So I’m going to stick to the numbers to try and figure out if, as is usually portrayed, women are actually less prepared for retirement—and why. One helpful metric is the data collected from IRA plan administrators across the country by the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI.) The study found that although men and women contribute almost the same to their IRAs on average—$3,995 for women and $4,023 for men in 2012—men wind up with much larger nest eggs over time. The average IRA balance for men in 2012, the latest year for which data is available, was $136,718 for men and only $75,140 for women.
And when it comes to 401(k)s, women are even more diligent savers than men, despite earning lower incomes on average. Data from Vanguard's 2014 How America Saves study, a report on the 401(k) plans it administers, shows that women are more likely to enroll when sign up is voluntary, and at all salary levels they tend to contribute a higher percentage of their income to their plans. But among women earning higher salaries, their account balances lag those of their male counterparts.
It seems women are often falling short when it comes to the way they invest. At a recent conference on women and wealth, Sue Thompson, a managing director at Black Rock, cited results from their 2013 Global Investor Pulse survey that showed that only 26% of female respondents felt comfortable investing in the stock market compared to 44% of male respondents. Women are less likely to take on risk to increase returns, Thompson suggested. Considering women's increased longevity, this caution can leave them unprepared for retirement.
Women historically have tended to outlive men by several years, and life expectancies are increasing. A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3 while a woman can expect to live until 86.6, according to the Social Security Administration. Better-educated people typically live longer than the averages. For upper-middle-class couples age 65 today, there’s a 43% chance that one or both will survive to at least age 95, according to the Society of Actuaries. And that surviving spouse is usually the woman.
To build the portfolio necessary to last through two or three decades of retirement, women should be putting more into stocks, not less, since equities offer the best shot at delivering inflation-beating growth. The goal is to learn to balance the risks and rewards of equities—and that's something female professional money managers seem to excel at. Some surveys have shown that hedge fund managers who are women outperform their male counterparts because they don’t take on excessive risk. They also tend to trade less often; frequent trading has been shown to drag down performance, in part because of higher costs.
Given that the biggest risk facing women retirees is outliving their savings, they need to grow their investments as much as possible in the first few decades of savings. If it makes women uncomfortable to allocate the vast majority, if not all, of their portfolio to equities in those critical early years, they should remind themselves that even more so than men they have the benefit of a longer time horizon in which to ride out market ups and downs. And we should take inspiration from the female professional money managers in how to take calculated risks in order to reap the full benefits of higher returns.