The gender wealth gap is a persistent issue all over the world. Whereas previous literature mostly focused on demonstrating that it emerges from gender differences in labour and financial income, the results from our recent study suggest that there may exist a third explanation depending on traditional gender norms that prescribe attitudes towards savings accumulation of individuals living in a couple.
“Have you thought of how much money you’d need for retirement?” This distressing question has become more and more crucial in the last decade in many western countries, where a general dismantlement of national pension systems has occurred.
People are more and more on their own, with the responsibility to plan and set long-term savings goals. Previous research suggests that individuals often lack financial literacy to perform this task and that it creates a lot of anxiety. Another issue, that we emphasise here, relates to the difficulty of estimating savings capacities. For instance, how to be sure of how much money you will be able to save until retirement? Unless you have a crystal ball, there is so much uncertainty in many aspects! What if I lose my job? What if big, unexpected expenses come up? What if I divorce? What about inflation? etc. This is a big problem since uncertainty, and the way individuals deal with it, will have an influence on how well people eventually plan their saving behaviour which, in turn, could affect their financial security at retirement.
Uncertainty affects wealth objectives
From a psychological perspective, we are not equal before uncertainty and hence we may not plan the same way. Think of the pessimist who will overestimate the occurrence of financial accidents. They will, as a result, set modest savings goals with the risk that the chosen amount will not be enough. Optimistic people, on the other hand, will choose ambitious goals.
A well-established finding in the behavioural literature, is that when people set goals for themselves, it acts as a commitment that motivates them to achieve the goals. In other words, people with an ambitious savings goal amount will indeed be more likely to accumulate a large amount of wealth in the long run, whereas those with modest savings goals may not strive at saving more than they have planned– because they believe they cannot. Such differences in attitudes towards goals may thus be at the origin of wealth inequality at retirement, including gender wealth inequality, as is suggested by the results of our recent study published in the journal Kyklos
Gender differences in attitudes towards savings goals: empirical evidence
In this study, we have explored long term savings goals data from a large sample of clients at a large UK investment firm.
Our key finding from quantitative analyses is that men and women who live in a couple (i.e. married or living together) strongly diverge in their chosen savings goal amount (in favour of men). The result remains, even if we allow for the expected level of income of clients over their life cycle. This means that the so-called gender pay gap or other drivers of gender differences in labour income, are not at the origin of this result. Furthermore, varying portfolio risk-taking, that generally yields higher financial returns to men since they usually take on more risk, were also studied, and that did not change our conclusion.
We thus concluded that this gender difference emerges from attitudinal differences, in the same way as we described above, about how optimism/pessimism may shape goals. Importantly, such attitudinal gender differences do not occur among men and women who live on their own (e.g. single or divorced).
This led us to interpret that the differential in attitudes is not linked to innate gender differences but that it depends upon the context. In our case, the couple status.
The role of traditional gender norms
A qualitative analysis is then provided to more accurately identify the mechanisms that could originate such attitudinal gender differences in savings goals amounts within couples. 56 semi-directive interviews from 60 middle-to-high income individuals in the UK provide insightful information. Gender differences in attitudes towards savings goals heavily rely on gender-normative roles assigned to members within the household.
Women’s systematic assignment to day-to-day budget management tends to focus on financial security issues in the short-term, leading them to be less optimistic about the course of events in the long run. Therefore, they tend to choose modest savings goals.
Men in couples, on the other hand, appear freed from these daily-basis budget concerns, and hence tend to choose ambitious goals. This is reinforced by the fact that they are also more often assigned to the role of managing long-term investment tasks, that lead them to focus on wealth growth in the long run, optimism, and a greater willingness to achieve challenging goals.
When it comes to single people, role division is evidently impossible. Men and women in this situation are forced to ensure both roles (short and long-term oriented), regardless of their gender. Therefore, it appears logical that we found no gender differences in savings goals amounts among them.
A key feature of our quantitative data is that clients’ savings goals amounts were chosen at the occasion of advisory meetings with a finance professional. This ensured that the analysed savings goals were not unrealistic. Therefore, if one limitation of this paper is that we cannot observe whether clients would behave in accordance with their savings goals, we are however quite confident that the chosen savings goals truly reflected their plans. In addition, finding attitudinal biases in savings goals choices made during advisory meeting implies that increasing financial expertise would not be a valid solution to fight against such biases.
The results of this paper evidently shed an important light on the huge societal issue of women’s financial vulnerability after retirement, which is found to be strikingly higher than that of men, especially for those confronted with late divorce.
A public policy recommendation is that women in couples should be vigorously warned that they should not rely on their male partner when they plan their financial future.
Related to this, the paper’s results also contribute to a better understanding of the gender wealth gap that is a persisting issue all over the world. Previous studies have essentially argued that this gap either comes from labour income gender inequality (i.e. the gender pay gap, the child penalty, and the motherhood penalty) or financial income gender differences (based on varying portfolio risk-taking).
Our paper suggests that there may exist a third explanation, based on traditional gender norms that prescribe attitudes towards savings accumulation of individuals living in a couple.
 Agunsoye, A., Monne, J., Rutterford, J., & Sotiropoulos, D. P. (2022). How gender, marital status, and gender norms affect savings goals. Kyklos, 75(2), 157–183.
 Neelakantan, U., & Chang, Y. (2010). Gender Differences in Wealth at Retirement. The American Economic Review, 100(2), 362–367.