A little more than two weeks ago, on Feb. 3, you might have noticed that women in your office, at your children’s schools and in your neighborhoods spent the day dressed in red.

It wasn’t a premature Valentine’s Day celebration. Nor was it a massive fashion faux pas. It was “Wear Red Day,” part of a national heart disease awareness campaign for women called “The Heart Truth.”

Although geared toward women, the campaign could just as easily have been targeted toward financial services professionals, to call attention to a glaring gap–and opportunity–in the women’s disability and life insurance marketplace.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, killing more than 500,000 each year. Moreover, the disease also is a leading cause of illness and disability in women, resulting in the hospitalization of nearly 2.5 million annually, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Yet, despite the prevalence of cardiovascular conditions, many women are unaware of the potential dangers and their alarming frequency. In a 2003 American Heart Association study, only 13% of women recognized heart disease and stroke as the greatest health threats to them. The end result is that many women are underprepared for the potential financial difficulties they and their loved ones can face when encountering a disability related to heart disease.

That gap creates both a responsibility and an opportunity for financial services providers and professionals to raise awareness among women about the need to prepare for possible disability or death as a result of these and other conditions, and to equip their people and themselves with the understanding and tools they need to help clients address these issues.

Some providers already are acting. For example, our company–MassMutual–has launched a community-based outreach program for financial services professionals that features education for women about how to protect a portion of their income in the event of disability. While these efforts are ongoing, they take on special meaning during American Heart Month and on “Wear Red Day.”

But more needs to be done. Women comprise an ever-growing percentage of the work force and are contributing more to family income. Yet they are at greater risk of disability–permanent or temporary. A 35-year-old woman, for example, is three times as likely as a man of the same age to become disabled for 90 days or more. Women with jobs outside the home are three times more likely to be unable to work because of a disability, including maternity leave, than men, the U.S. Department of Labor reports.

Despite their exposure, women are less likely than men to have insurance coverage for disability-related illnesses or injuries, according to a 2000 survey by the Health Insurance Association of America.

Why? Experience tells us that there is a substantial misunderstanding about who has disability insurance, how much coverage is in place, what it does and how much coverage is needed. Many women assume they are covered by employer plans, when often they are not. Even when they are, they often do not realize that those plans will replace only about 50% to 60% of their income. Additionally, consumers tend to underestimate their expenses and the amount of income they and their families will need replaced in the event of a disability. Website calculators can help women estimate the cost of meeting their personal needs during a disability.

At the same time, women tend to spend the majority of their time and effort caring for the emotional and financial needs of their families and loved ones, leaving little time for planning their own financial futures. Taking care of children and elderly parents often distracts them from the job of taking care of themselves and–ironically–from securing the stability of their loved ones.

Add in a natural aversion to imagining the worst–a disabling accident or illness–and you have a prescription for benign neglect with potentially devastating consequences.

The good news is that financial services professionals can do a great deal to move their clients and prospective clients to action through education and information.

Doing so is not only the right thing to do, but it can lead you to a very rewarding and financially successful practice. Women are a growing and underserved clientele in the financial services industry. Women own or majority-own nearly half (48%) of all privately held firms in the U.S. and are starting businesses at nearly twice the rate of all Americans, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research, Washington. Moreover, for many married couples, wives are the primary breadwinners.

That means financial services professionals have the opportunity to serve many of their women clients on both business and personal matters, for example, by selling a group long-term disability plan to a female CEO for her and her employees and then helping her purchase supplemental disability income insurance privately.

But not all financial services professionals recognize and appreciate the different approaches needed to serve women well. To effectively meet these challenges, financial services providers must help their professionals to develop a greater understanding of women’s individual needs and issues, and to increase their understanding of how women undertake their financial decision-making.