While the ranks of women in the workforce are rising - the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women now make up just under half the U.S. labor force, and census data reveal more women now graduating college than men - many still are not taking advantage of protecting their income through life insurance. This despite many women saying they are concerned about their family's financial future should they or their spouse die.

In 2010, almost six out of 10 women owned some sort of life insurance, according to a LIMRA study. While that's on par with men's life insurance ownership, women's coverage is only about 69% of men's coverage. Findings from MetLife's 2012 Protecting a Diverse Workforce report further reveal that women are less insured with only twice their income in life insurance coverage compared to men, who are covered for nearly three times their earnings. However, the coverage gap is not borne from lack of awareness about the importance of life insurance; the same MetLife report states half of working women earning $50,000 or more believe they don't have as much coverage as they need, compared to 39% of men.

"The likelihood of a woman being taken out of an income-producing role is just as high as a man's," says Michael Weintraub, president of the retirement plans division at Ascension Benefits & Insurance Services and immediate past chair of the LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes life insurance ownership. "In fact, the mortality tables are changing. It used to be that women lived on average five or six years longer than men and today that gap is narrowing."

 

'It's male turf'

So, why don't more women purchase adequate life insurance? It's perplexing, says Susan Combs, president of Combs & Company, an employee benefits brokerage firm. "It's weird, because if you talk to a lot of women, they will say their primary concern is their family, but they don't take steps to protect them properly," she says.

Stephen Ponteverco, vice president, group life products, with MetLife agrees. "Women are generally more concerned than men with the financial impact of their premature death on their family, which is interesting given that women generally select lesser coverage at comparable salaries than men do," he says.

Despite the strides women have made in the workplace, "there's still that mindset in many parts of the world that husbands are taking care of this," says Combs.

Purchasing life insurance requires a certain level of financial literacy and acquiring those skills is something many women avoid. "A lot of women feel as though it's male turf and there are many ways in which that's communicated to women," says Dr. Mary Gresham, a psychologist with Atlanta Financial Psychology, who counsels people on issues related to money. "The majority of financial advisers are male, and sometimes when women try to seek financial services they're talked down to."

Even television commercials about life insurance have a decidedly male bent. "It's almost always a young man with a wife and children who's being sold the insurance," notes Gresham. "I don't think I've ever seen a commercial for life insurance where it was being sold to a single woman with aging parents, for example, or the wife instead of the husband with the message, 'What you do for your family is really important; make sure you're protected.'"

Moreover, society tends to "think of the male income as the primary income and the female income as the secondary income, and tend to devalue the services that women provide to their families," says Gresham. "I think a lot of women just don't see their income as a family necessity."

 

 

Financial, psychological barriers

Cost is also a factor. "Most people think life insurance costs four to five times more than it really does," says Weintraub, noting that the premium for $1 million of 20-year term life insurance for a 30-year-old could be as little as $30 a month.

"It's not a cup of coffee, but it's relatively inexpensive," says Pontecorvo.

And then there's the invincibility factor. Life insurance may be cheap, but "a lot of people have that grandiose attitude of, 'It can't happen to me,'" says Combs, adding that women are usually the last to take care of themselves. "They'll go without before their kids go without."

Women also believe, more so than men, that selecting the right life insurance product is a complicated process. According to the MetLife report, 67% of women believe choosing the right life insurance product is complicated, compared to 59% of men. When it comes to choosing the right amount of coverage, 59% of women believe this is a complicated process, compared to 50% of men.

Trust also is an issue for women, says Gresham. A lot of women do not trust the financial services industry in general, and "a lot of people don't trust the insurance industry because it's very confusing."

 

Grabbing women's attention

Because life insurance often is offered during the annual enrollment, it can fall to the wayside as women are more focused on their health care benefits decisions. "Even if life insurance is on the menu [during open enrollment] as a buy-up or a voluntary benefit, they're really not paying as much attention to it because they're distracted with medical," says Gene Lanzoni, assistant vice president of market intelligence with Guardian Life Insurance Company. "And in many households it's the woman who is the most involved in making decisions about the medical plan."

Women also are less likely to say they have a personal financial adviser who's providing guidance and advice to them. "That's one of the major reasons there continues to be a gap, because women are not getting the advice from financial professionals," says Lanzoni.

The flip side of that, though, is that women are much more open to receiving information and education about financial products, including life insurance, in the workplace. "Women appreciate workplace benefits more so than men because they're less likely to be getting outside help than men," Lanzoni notes.

Employers, then, are in a perfect position to become women's go-to resource for life insurance. Still, "I think employers have so much on their plates and they're juggling so much that they're thinking, 'I'm doing my job by offering it; it's up to you if you want to take it,'" says Combs.

Nevertheless, there are strategies employers can use to help educate employees about the value of life insurance. One is an off-cycle enrollment; it's a tactic Combs has seen some employers use to their advantage. "Doing it off cycle when you think your entire company is able to focus" on it might be worth considering, she says.

Pontecorvo says that when MetLife does re-enrollment campaigns specifically for life insurance, it sees "as much as 5% to 10% additional employees participating. We often get a lift, also, of people already in the plan electing additional coverage."

Women also value face-to-face meetings more than men and "seem to have a better level of trust with women giving financial advice than men," says Weintraub. "If they hear it from a woman that's a big advantage."

Gresham agrees, noting that "women learn best about money by having discussions with other women."

Guardian is making a concerted effort to increase the ranks of its female financial representatives precisely for that reason, according to Lanzoni. Women at work "want to hear what others like them are doing because they're using this informal network more than professionals in order to get advice," he says. "So, for them, group benefits meetings [are] a comfortable way to do that."

Social media also fosters that peer-to-peer connection women want. It's a valuable tool, Weintraub believes, because "employees listen to one another more than they listen to human resource directors or representatives of the vendors that are providing benefits," he says. "If you can get that sort of thing to mushroom within a company, that tells the story much better than any of us can and encourages people to sign up for the coverage."

Personal stories also resonate with women. Stories like that of Kara Butcher, who was just 37 when she died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. Thanks to a life insurance policy she'd purchased through her employer, her husband John, and six-year-old son Tre, were able to remain in their home, and the money from the policy provided John with a financial cushion, helping him transition to the role of single dad.

John and Kara's story is just one of several videos on the LIFE Foundation's website. All make a compelling case for life insurance coverage. "The best way to do it is with a real life story of what really happens [when someone dies prematurely]," says Weintraub. "We incorporate real life stories into employee presentations and that makes a gigantic difference."

Says Gresham: "The majority of financial literacy material is written in a way that is dull and uninteresting for women. It's not written primarily about relationships and feelings and stories."

Lead by example, advises Combs, who describes one of her clients, a small creative services agency with about 20 employees, that decided to pay for employees to have $50,000 worth of coverage. The cost was about $14 a month for the entire group. "The company said, 'Let's put this in place because this is a drop in the bucket for us,'" she recalls. "It got employees into the mindset that their company thinks this is important for them so maybe they should, too."

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