It’s a known fact: Women spend less time in the workforce, but they live lon-ger than men. This means they often enter retirement with fewer assets than men, but they need to make that money last a longer period of time. This paradox has not escaped the attention of the financial services industry, which is looking at the unique challenges faced by women when it comes to retirement planning.

“Women need to pay attention more closely to how to meet those realities and adjust accordingly,” said Michele Melville, senior vice president of Retail Retirement Services with Wells Fargo.

Several new studies underscore just how difficult retirement planning can be for women and their advisors. But there are also glimmers of hope that women are taking matters into their own hands and becoming better educated about saving and investing. At the very least, many are ac-knowledging that they must make changes now in order to be prepared for retirement later.

The confidence gap

Time and time again, advisors find that women lack confidence when it comes to investing. The result is that they often invest much too conservatively to meet such long-term savings goals as retirement, and end up not putting away enough money. By contrast, men are much more likely than women to contribute the maximum amount toward retirement savings.

AXA Equitable Life Insurance Com-pany’s study “Retirement in America: A Survey of Concerns and Expectations” saw a 20-percentage-point gap in confi-dence between men and women, with 62 percent of women saying they lacked confidence, versus 42 percent of men.

This lack of confidence translates into problematic financial behaviors among women. According to the Wells Fargo study “Women’s Retirement Trends and Insights,” 37 percent of pre-retired women couldn’t estimate how much money they would need for retirement, as opposed to 17 percent of men.

“I am concerned about this misunder-standing between how much you need in retirement and how long that’s going to last,” says Melville. “There’s a tendency for people to take out too much too quickly in retirement.”

Despite some of the challenges women face, however, there is progress. Accord-ing to Prudential’s study “The Financial Experience and Behaviors Among Women,” women have more knowledge about financial topics now than they did 10 years ago, when the study was first conducted.

The effect of the downturn

Unfortunately, the economic downturn exacerbated the confidence gap, which upset women’s retirement prepared-ness more so than that of men. Women generally felt shell shocked by the market events; even after the worst of the down-turn subsided, women had difficulty decid-ing what to do next, with 60 percent of women making no changes to their portfolios, as opposed to 49 percent of men, according to the AXA study. What’s more, women were also slow to regain their financial footing after the crash. Among those women who experienced a significant investment loss, just 28 percent felt they had recovered, while 37 percent of men felt the same.

But the news from the bear market was not entirely bad.

“We saw that coming out of crisis, over half of women admitted that the crisis was ‘a wake-up call’ to be more money conscious,” says Joan Cleveland, senior vice president of business development for individual life insurance with Prudential. “That’s great news.”

Next steps

Because of women’s unique circumstances, taking charge of retirement planning now is critical for this group. Saving vigorously and investing for growth as early as possible can help make up for later absences from the workforce.

“We think it’s appropriate for women to have their assets in equities in order to meet their long-term saving goals,” says Barbara Goodstein, executive vice presi-dent and chief innovation officer for AXA Equitable.

To plan prudently for retirement, women need to know exactly how much money they will need and come up with a plan to get there, says Melville. They might need to reduce their lifestyle expectations in retire-ment in order to make their savings last.

Such options as spousal in-dividual retirement accounts can also help women accumulate retirement assets if they do take a break from work. In addition, guar-anteed income could help women create an income stream they cannot outlive.

In fact, New York Life found that women make up 57 percent of their immediate fixed rate annuity buyers.

“Women are making a wise decision to actively ensure their re-tirement income needs are in place,” says Angela Kyle, senior vice president in New York Life’s Retirement Income Secu-rity division.

The advisor factor

Finally, women should make every effort to get informed about retirement and be en-couraged to work with an advisor who can keep their goals on track. Women who work with an advisor fare significantly better than those who go it alone. According to AXA, 41 percent of women with financial advisors re-ported recovering their losses from the mar-ket downturn, compared with 28 percent of those not receiving professional financial advice.

With education and the right advice, women can significantly boost their retirement preparedness.

Catherine J. Weatherford is president and CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute. She can be reached at 202-469-3000.