THEY LEFT the kitchen, headed into the work force and brought home the bacon. But decades later, many American women are still struggling to invest and save that hard-earned income.
Among female baby boomers, 58 percent have saved less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan, according to the National Center for Women and Retirement Research at Southampton College of Long Island University. Their male counterparts have saved three times more.
What's going on here? Isn't this 1999, when a raging bull market has made portfolios fat and financial information abounds? Why aren't women doing as well as men with their retirement money?
Many experts blame it on society and its strong grip on women's psyches. A combination of factors has held most women back, says Victoria Collins, a certified financial planner in Irvine, Calif.: Women earn less than men.
Women have a lower tolerance for risk and tend to be financially conservative when they need to be aggressive.
Women tend to take care of others first -- paying for a child's college tuition or helping with a down payment, for example -- before saving for their retirement.
"I tell them, 'It's time to take care of yourself,'" Ms. Collins says. "It's a very different message from what women have heard throughout the years."
Christopher Hayes, founder and executive director of National Center for Women and Retirement Research, agrees. Men have been socialized to be risk takers and decision makers when it comes to money -- women haven't, he says.
"During childhood, subliminal messages constantly reinforce the idea that girls aren't supposed to worry about money," he writes in his book, "Money Makeovers: How Women Can Control Their Financial Destiny." "Is it any wonder, then, that as adults, women tend to adhere to the role that has been set for them?"
Financial experts say it is important for women to understand the psychology behind their attitudes toward money. Being overly cautious and hesitating to the point of indecisiveness will prove costly.
For example, a woman who is 20 years away from retiring might invest in bonds or put her money into CDs because she doesn't want to risk losing everything, Ms. Collins notes. "But when you hold onto money too tightly, it doesn't grow."
Women tend to view money as a pool -- "once it is gone, it is difficult to replace," says Ms. Collins. That viewpoint is based on the fact that women earn less than men, so they have less discretionary income to invest.
But men view money as a stream. "They know money flows. ... If they lose some, they can make more," she says. "Women don't have that confidence level yet."
It's important that they do understand, though. Hayes' research on baby boomers shows the average female born between 1946 and 1964 might have to remain in the work force until at least age 74 because of inadequate financial savings and pension coverage.
Still, women have made important strides.
"Women today are very much into their careers and are acting on their own behalf," observes Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner in San Francisco and board member of the International Association for Financial Planning. "That wasn't the case years ago."
When Ms. Steinmetz says "years ago," she isn't simply referring to the 1950s or '60s or '70s, when the husband usually handled the checkbook and planned the retirement. She's talking about the time before the past three to four years, when the financial industry finally realized that women not only had money to invest -- but wanted to.
At the same time, women realized they didn't want to be left behind in this bull market. They saw men making money with their 401(k) plans and didn't want to be left out.
Younger women, the Gen X'ers, tend to be more in control of their financial destinies because they've lived through divorce. "They have clearly seen the precarious financial situation their mothers have been in because of divorce, and have learned," Mr. Hayes said.
Diana McCabe writes for the Orange County (Calif.) Register.