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The retirement gap

A LIFETIME of hard work should bring economic security -- income sufficient to raise a family, and resources to enjoy a retirement earned over many working years. It is troubling that as far off as this goal seems to millions of American men, it is even further off for America's working women, especially in the area of retirement security.

Even as families become more dependent than ever on second incomes, and the number of women as sole providers grows, women still earn less money than men; women are less likely to have a pension than men; and women are less able to contribute to 401(k)s and similar self-funded plans than men

Women's status today as second-class economic citizens has deep roots. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the doors of opportunity began to open for American women. Pioneers like Mary Lyon, founder of Mt. Holyoke College, blazed pathways for girls in education. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, founders of Hull House, started the settlement house movement and enabled thousands of women to find permanent and fulfilling employment as social workers. Our circles of opportunity grew wider still as working-class women formed unions to protect their coworkers in textile mills and other factories.

As unions fought for more organized work places, as America's men marched to war to fight Hitler and Imperial Japan, and as the postwar economic boom transformed our society, more and more women entered the US labor force. The doors of many more professions, including industrial workplaces, were opened to women. Stories like that of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose Stanford law degree was viewed by the 1950s legal establishment as an expensive ticket to the typing pool, but who earned a place on the nation's highest bench, became common. Today, there is no question that working women are in a stronger position professionally and financially than ever before.

Yet women working in and outside the home still have a considerable distance to march.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 69 million women in the workforce; over 10 million of them are the sole wage earner in their household. According to union statistics, women in the United States were paid 76 cents for every dollar men received for comparable work. For working families who are strapped financially, this form of wage discrimination costs them a bundle: $200 billion each year, according to the AFL-CIO.

Women are not only shortchanged when it comes to wages -- their retirement years look less than golden, as well. Lower wages leave women with less to save or contribute to a employer's retirement plan, and only 30 percent of all older women can count on a pension, compared with 47 percent of men. In addition, more than half of all women 65 or older are widowed, divorced or never married. On average, these older women rely on Social Security for 71 percent of their income, compared with 64 percent for men in similar circumstances. And, less than 10 years ago, women working full time raising their children were prohibited from contributing more than $250 into an Individual Retirement Account.

No wonder a recent survey released by the Heinz Family Philanthropies showed that more than 40 percent of women ages 25-55 fear they will live their retirement years at or near the poverty level. Eighty percent of this group is at least somewhat concerned that they will not have enough money to live on. Nearly 50 percent predict they will have to keep working past retirement age just to make ends meet.

From wages to pension security, this is an age of anxiety for working women and their families. America shouldn't be a nation where a lifetime of work can leave a woman poor. It's time for our leaders in the public and the private sector to get to work correcting these disparities. Let's work to close the wage gap by enforcing and strengthening antidiscrimination laws. Let's start focusing on increasing retirement security for all Americans by increasing private savings, pension stability, and protecting Social Security. And let's make it a national priority to start reducing the inequalities and inequities facing working women in the current system.

Working women have made our nation stronger than ever, together we can ensure that they get the security they have earned.

Teresa Heinz is chairman of the Heinz Family Philanthropies.

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