The mathematics experts who make insurance and pension products work are trying to help policymakers in Congress and federal agencies understand why many experts believe Social Security is less helpful to women than to men.

Members of the social insurance committee at the American Academy of Actuaries, Washington, have prepared an issue brief on the gender-related differences that can hurt women’s Social Security benefit levels and overall level of retirement security.

Even though Social Security applies the same rules to women that it applies to men, differences in employment histories, earnings, disability, life expectancy and marital status all can contribute to differences in Social Security benefits, the actuaries write in the AAA brief.

Women tend to earn less than men, they are more likely than men to have breaks in employment, and they are more likely to leave the workforce entirely, the actuaries write.

Women who become disabled are less likely than men to have disability coverage, and they are more likely than men to be single, widowed or divorced in retirement, the actuaries write.

In addition, the actuaries write, women tend to live longer than men and therefore need more assets in retirement.

Perhaps, because Social Security was set up when men were the primary wage earners, “situations frequently arise where Social Security provides lower benefits for the same contributions,” the actuaries write. “The system provides the highest benefits relative to contributions to married couples with a primary wage earner, generally the husband, and their children.”

The actuaries discuss how various proposals for strengthening the solvency of the Social Security system would affect women. Options analyzed include moves to change the number of career years that would go into computations of an individual’s benefits; across-the-board reductions in benefits; changes in the benefits formula; efforts to index the Social Security retirement age to life expectancy; changes in spousal benefits rules; and enhancements in benefits for low earners with long careers.

The actuaries also discuss the risks, including disability risk, inflation risk and longevity risk, that would face women if the United States went ahead with proposals to put some Social Security assets in individual accounts.

Insurance industry executives agreed with the authors of the AAA brief that U.S. society has experienced major changes since Social Security was started.

“Women followed a pretty common path when Social Security was first set up,” says Diana Goshert, manager of financial planning at Securian Financial Services Inc., St. Paul, Minn.

Today, “more people are getting it than paying into it,” Goshert says.

For financial services clients who are still in the workforce, the best solution is to plan ahead, Goshert says.

Mark Doherty, a second vice president at Lincoln National Corp., Philadelphia, agrees that clients have to take charge of their own future.

“Social Security in general has a challenge in front of it,” Doherty says. “The 80 million baby boomers put a tremendous stress on it.”

The message to the client should be, “Understand the challenges that you face, Doherty says.

A copy of the paper is on the Web