In her controversial book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving up Too Much? Leslie Bennetts challenges women to take fiscal responsibility for themselves. In an interview with the AARP Bulletin, the author, who is married with two children, zeroes in on the pitfalls that can snare women on the road to retirement.
Q: In your book you say that women put their retirement security in jeopardy when they give up their careers to care for their children. Can you explain?
A: Because of their more erratic labor force participation, women have less savings, less in pensions, less in 401(k)s, lower Social Security benefits, and are often left to face growing poverty in their later years. At the moment, twice as many women end up poor in their later years than men. You could be widowed at 55 and live until 95—very few people have enough to sustain them for 40 years.
Q: What about returning to work after raising children? How did that turn out for the women you interviewed for your book?
A: Women were catastrophically unprepared for the difficulty of reentering the labor force. They were blindsided by the barriers—ageism, sexism and overt discrimination against mothers and also a strong prejudice against returning workers. Those four factors add up to a very high barrier. Many never find full-time jobs with benefits—which means health insurance—at a level commensurate with their abilities, let alone their expectations.
Q: You say that for a woman to be financially dependent on her husband could be the biggest mistake of her life. Why?
A: Women can't count on men to support them. It's an obsolete model. Nobody is going to be able to count on anybody to support him or her throughout an adult lifetime.
Q: What do older women need to know now?
A: They have to think seriously about the possibility of living to be 90 or 100 and make serious financial plans for how they're going to support themselves. They can't assume they'll have a husband to support them the whole time, or that if they lose one husband they'll get another. I don't intend to stop working, because I'm terrified by the prospects.