EBRI Issue Brief

Women and Pensions: A Decade of Progress?

Nov 1, 2000 16  pages


  • This Issue Brief compares changes from 1989 to 1998 in pension participation, accumulation, and allocation for employed women, versus employed men, ages 18-62. In addition, it provides an estimate of the gender “pension gap” in defined contribution accumulations, contrasts this with the gender “earnings gap,” and provides explanations for these differences.
  • Between 1989 and 1998, the percentage of employed women with a pension or retirement plan at their current job increased from 43 percent to 45 percent, compared with a decline from 53 percent to 52 percent for employed men. For both women and men, the percentage with defined contribution retirement plans increased dramatically, while the percentage with defined benefit pension plans dropped sharply.
  • Between 1989 and 1998, the ratio of women's to men's defined contribution plan accumulations increased from 40 percent to 44 percent, indicating a narrowing of the gender pension gap. However, the narrowing was concentrated among the cohort ages 45-53 in 1998. The gender pension gap increased for women in other age groups.
  • Gender differences in defined contribution plan accumulations can be attributed to differences in earnings and job characteristics. Between 1989 and 1998, for workers with defined contribution plans, the ratio of women's to men's earnings remained unchanged at 57 percent. Employed women with defined contribution plans are more than twice as likely to earn less than $25,000 per year than employed men with defined contribution plans, but almost five times less likely to earn more than $100,000 per year.
  • From 1989 to 1998, the percentage of employed men with defined contribution balances invested mostly in low-risk, low-return assets declined much more than the percentage of employed women who followed that investment strategy. Whereas the percentages of men and women with retirement plans invested mostly in bonds were nearly equal at 31 percent and 32 percent in 1989, respectively, by 1998, 20 percent of women (compared with 14 percent of men) had their retirement plans invested mostly in bonds.
  • The trend toward defined contribution plans and riskier retirement portfolios has resulted in significant wealth accumulation over the decade. In real terms, both men and women have greater retirement plan wealth, but increases have been larger for men than for women. Since there is no evidence that plan provisions vary by gender, improvements in the gender pension gap will come only with changes in women's labor force experience and investment decision-making.