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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Shared Concerns, Diverse Circumstances

February 1, 2016

By Catherine McCabe

Helping employees improve their retirement readiness is consistently one of the top priorities for plan sponsors. One way to enhance success is to target messages and approaches differently for the variety of employees who make up your workforce. People of different ages, gender, or lifestyles may face different obstacles, and so distinctive messages will resonate with them. Because women represent such a high percentage of employees at higher education institutions, this may be a population you want to prioritize. 

This article discusses the importance of understanding the needs and concerns of your women employees to help them achieve their financial goals. It also shares the stories of two institutions and the steps they have taken to help improve the financial well-being of their women employees.

Understanding the Need

Women share many common traits and challenges. Yet, as a demographic group they also span a wide range of ages, income levels, and other attributes. By better understanding the needs of the women at your institution, you can provide them with more relevant financial resources and access to advice and guidance that can make a difference.

Let's start with some national data. When it comes to women and financial security, the messages are mixed. Women:

Yet, many women face challenging financial situations that affect their retirement readiness. For example, it's common for women to take time away from their careers to raise children or care for family members. For many, this can result in a significant loss of income and retirement savings as well as Social Security benefits. Since women have longer life expectancies than men, their retirement savings must last longer.

A recent TIAA-CREF survey found that women frequently describe their financial situations negatively. According to the 2015 TIAA-CREF Advice Matters Survey, 44 percent of women say thinking about their finances leads to anxiety or stress, and a majority of women are not confident they are saving enough for retirement. This same study found another behavioral trait common to women: They are more likely to seek financial advice after a negative life event, such as losing a job or a divorce. On the other hand, men are more likely to seek advice after positive life events, such as getting married or landing a promotion. Engaging women as early as possible can help put them on a better financial footing and lessen the impact of a future negative life event.

Institutions can help women alleviate their financial anxiety and promote better outcomes by creating well-designed financial education and advice programs that resonate with women's specific needs and situations. The approaches taken by different institutions may help inspire new strategies and tactics for engaging women at your institution. The insights shared below from the University of Michigan and University of Richmond could serve as that inspiration.

University of Michigan's Commitment to Women's Issues

Understanding and meeting the financial and career needs of women has long been a priority for the University of Michigan. In 1964, the university established the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) in Ann Arbor, which offers a number of services for women:

  • Provides career and educational counseling.
  • Organizes and coordinates financial education workshops.
  • Disseminates research on important women's issues.
  • Co-sponsors conferences on women's issues.
  • Works closely with TIAA-CREF and other benefits providers to better meet women's retirement readiness needs.

Gloria Thomas, director of CEW, is very familiar with the financial challenges women face. CEW addresses the vastly different needs women have based on their circumstances, says Thomas. For example, CEW works with many nontraditional students. They could be single parents who are going to school while working, or single parents running a household on one income. They may be seeking help in advancing to the next level in their careers or making sure they are receiving a fair wage. Often, women seek out the center's services when they need help or extra advocacy in their careers or other areas of their lives. This type of advocacy contributes to their long-term financial well-being.

The CEW team is always looking for new ways to make a difference. Team members listen closely to a wide range of women's issues and find that financial and retirement planning concerns are regularly at the top of the list. The team has found that the sooner women start to address their financial concerns, the better off they'll be. "It's sad to see someone with a long career at the University of Michigan who is not taking advantage of the full match or putting as much into his or her retirement as possible. It may result in them not being able to retire or feeling they can't retire because they're not prepared for it financially," says Thomas.

CEW worked with the university's human resources department and TIAA-CREF to address the financial challenges they were finding. Together, they brought a series of educational workshops to the campus to help women understand their financial planning options and make more informed financial decisions. The focus was on financial literacy and retirement planning for women, although the sessions were open to anyone who wished to attend. "Every session that we offer has always been open to anyone, and while we indicate that it is focused on women's issues, we also say that if any man or transgender man or woman wants to come, he or she would be welcome," says Thomas.

The sessions were an immediate hit. What started as a few gatherings in the 28-person-capacity CEW conference room has grown into a series of sessions throughout the year in various campus facilities. Topics range from updating wills and estate planning documents to providing lifetime income in retirement. Some sessions attract as many as 100 people, both men and women, says Thomas.

CEW partners with the university's human resources department to get the word out about these and other sessions. The partnership gives them access to the university's more than 45,000 employees from which CEW can target specific segments. For example, CEW may use e-mail blasts to let hospital employees know about an on-site workshop or inform North Campus employees and faculty about an upcoming workshop there. Targeted communications are the key to engagement, and sometimes this means trying new approaches, notes Thomas.

Expanding Financial Education at the University of Richmond

National data suggesting that women benefit from targeted financial education resonated with the University of Richmond's human resources department. After further digging and analysis, Carl Sorensen, associate vice president for human resources, and Laura Dietrick, director of compensation and benefits, found that some women at the university had become more concerned about their finances since the Great Recession began in 2008.

"Hearing from people as they get ready to retire, I noticed that we had a lot of women who had become single, whether their spouse had passed away or whether they divorced," says Dietrick. "They really had not saved a lot for retirement because they were married at one point or somebody else was doing it for them. Then, all of a sudden, they found out this is something they need to be concerned about. In some cases, it was a little too late."

Sorensen and Dietrick turned to their benefits providers for solutions and looked into TIAA-CREF's Woman2Woman initiative, a comprehensive collection of financial education resources and interactive workshops designed by women and supported by an online community. The Woman2Woman sessions are highly engaging, but more importantly, they inspire women to take financial action. In fact, according to TIAA-CREF analysis of employee engagement more than two-thirds of workshop attendees have increased their contributions to their retirement plans.

Dietrick had attended one of the Woman2Woman sessions at another event and thought it would be an excellent resource to bring to the campus. In August 2013, the university held its first TIAA-CREF Woman2Woman workshop, and the session was very well-attended. As a result of the program's success, Dietrick and her team held four more sessions, and they are planning another one for 2016.

As they offered more programs, Sorensen and Dietrick saw the need for different formats to serve all employees. For example, some women who worked on the facilities team didn't feel comfortable attending sessions with administrators and faculty. Some of those workers felt intimidated and believed they wouldn't know the right questions to ask. So, Dietrick helped create a small, informal session for people in the facilities department.

"We actually went over and sat around a table. We all dressed casually. Nobody stood up. We chatted about what their goals were for retirement," Dietrick says. "We've done that for the dining hall personnel as well."

The University of Richmond also holds monthly financial wellness sessions, and its retirement provider's representative is on campus twice each month meeting with eight employees on average each day. The goal is to create a culture of financial wellness where people actively work on their retirement planning and overall financial security. Sorensen believes the content in the Woman2Woman sessions is impactful, but getting people to attend any financial workshop is a challenge. Targeted e-mail messages are effective, but the team has tried other approaches to drive participation. It even tried giving away a $25 gas gift card to entice people to attend a retirement and financial planning workshop.

To engage with a more diverse audience, the University of Richmond team also created a variety of session formats. These included lunch-and-learns and breakout sessions at staff development events. They also hosted a Valentine's Day-themed cocktail hour for faculty and their spouses. Such varied sessions help reach more people by adapting to their preferences and schedules, says Sorensen. Each event included a retirement provider representative who shared information and offered opportunities to follow up with an individual session for personalized advice.

The recent formation of a women's faculty and staff book club on campus has given Sorensen additional insight into what's working. "I do think it's the expression of a need for women to come together around a topic. I could see the book club as turning into something more like an affinity group. It may be a connection point for us in the future."

Measuring Success

Understanding the effectiveness of existing programs helps make them better. Both universities primarily measure success through a combination of attendance numbers and employee feedback. New sessions are planned based on positive responses, with the goal of reaching more people on campus. The number of employees planning one-on-one sessions after each interactive workshop is another measure. Individual sessions with an adviser are the goal, because they can help make an even bigger difference in an individual's financial picture, says Sorensen. "We're trying to do everything that we can because once we get people in the door, we find they like it, enjoy themselves, and feel like they've learned something." Sorensen is also exploring how his institution can look more closely at retirement readiness to measure the impact of its programs.

According to Thomas, CEW wants women to speak openly about their challenges and concerns. She has found that programs such as TIAA-CREF's Woman2Woman sessions help women open up by creating a safe and comfortable environment. In fact, she experienced this firsthand in one of these initial sessions at the University of Michigan. Thomas shared her personal experience with buying a house in Ann Arbor when she hadn't yet sold her previous home in the Washington, D.C. area. Her story immediately led other women to ask how she accomplished this and to begin sharing their own challenges and concerns. "People will reveal and share openly. You walk into the session and the ground rule is that what's said here stays here. You don't take people's business outside of this room," says Thomas.

Retirement Readiness is the Goal

Creating successful financial education programs for women starts with understanding their shared concerns and goals. But, it should also take into account that individual circumstances can vary significantly. By offering customized programs and services, you give your employees the tools they need to help take control of their financial situations and put them on a path to pursue their dreams for retirement.

Catherine McCabe is a senior managing director for the institutional business division at TIAA-CREF. She is head of the field consulting group, which is comprised of more than 400 highly-trained, licensed financial consultants focused on improving individuals' financial well-being and retirement readiness. The group provides advice to individuals about retirement planning, and improves their financial literacy through specialized seminars and workshops serving every life stage. E-mail:

Author's note: This article is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It contains no investment recommendations and should not be construed as specific financial planning or investment advice. Clients should consult their professional advisers before making any investment decisions. All investments carry a certain degree of risk, including possible loss of principal, and there is no assurance that an investment will provide positive performance over any period of time.