This post is from staff writer April Dykman.

There’s a lot of bad news during a recession: High levels of unemployment, foreclosures, and huge dents in the average Joe’s net worth.

But one good thing to come out of the financial crisis is that more people, women especially, are making an effort to better understand and contribute to retirement plans.

Participation increases in employer-sponsored plans
The Hartford Financial Services Group, an insurance and wealth management company, recently released new research findings which found that consumers have become more dedicated to understanding and saving within their employer-sponsored retirement plans. The study consisted of an online survey conducted by Zeldis Research and polled 1,000 people ranging from 18 to 65 years of age. Findings included the following:

  • 43% of survey respondents indicated that they consider retirement savings more important today that they did before the financial crisis.
  • 49% view it as just as important as they did before the crisis.
  • 84% are participating in a 401k or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, up from 80% in 2009.
  • 76% responded that they understood their retirement plans “completely” or “mostly,” up from 65% who were confident of their understanding last year.

Another key finding is that women are making noteworthy gains in participation rate and comprehension. Plan participation among women increased 9 points to 70% (men increased 5 points to 71%.). Also, of the women polled, 69% said they completely or mostly understood their retirement plan benefits, up from just 56% in 2009. (Men also saw a jump from 75% in 2009 to 83% in 2010.)

Struggling to save
Unfortunately, the study also found that 22% of those polled reduced contributions to their retirement, or stopped contributing altogether, due to economic conditions. This was the case for 22% of women, up from 11% last year, and 21% of men, up from 15% in 2009.

In addition, one in five surveyed indicated that their employer-match contributions had been lowered or eliminated.

Women and retirement obstacles
What struck me the most about the research report was the following statement by Sharon Ritchey, executive vice president and director of The Hartford’s Retirement Plans Group:

The greater rate of participation in retirement plans, especially on behalf of women, is a real encouraging sign. Compared to men, women have higher hurdles to reach a comfortable retirement. Women tend to earn less, be away from their jobs more often because of disabilities, pregnancies and family issues, and often invest less aggressively. On top of that, women tend to live longer than men and therefore need to rely on their retirement savings for more years.

When you put all of those factors together, it’s alarming that women still lag behind men in retirement planning, when clearly we need to be saving more. Ritchey points out that many women spend 20–40 years in retirement, and that sometimes sacrifices are necessary to save continuously throughout your working years, but it’s critical that we make those sacrifices. (If you’re a woman who is trying to figure out how to manage your retirement savings, check out these 8 questions from the US Department of Labor to help you get started.)

As a female I find this quite disconcerting. I’m not entirely sure how I’d describe my level of retirement comprehension, and I write about personal finance every day! For one thing, I haven’t made an effort to better understand my retirement options now that I’m self-employed, which is a mistake I need to rectify. Considering the statistics on women and retirement, it’s clearly time to stop procrastinating.

What do you think about the retirement hurdles women face? How do you feel about your level of understanding when it comes to your own retirement?

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