Despite advances in equitable pay, most men are still better off when they reach retirement age. Women face a number of hurdles if they want to grow a strong superannuation fund independently.

According to ASIC, Australian women about to leave the workforce in 2007 had, on average, $35,300 less super than men. ASIC also reports that 56% of fully and semi-retired women aged 55 and over plan to rely on the pension to fund their retirement. For men the figure is 38%.

Why women are behind in super

Women earn less over the course of their career

An April 2012 Australian government report on workforce participation found 46.1% of men work full-time, compared to 25% of women. Women's careers are more often disrupted by pregnancy and child care. They're also more likely to re-enter the workforce in a part-time capacity. So in the long run, women generally earn less, and therefore accrue less super. 

Planning too late

Women, in general, live longer than men, and may need more super set aside. But many women wait until they're older to seek financial advice. By then, says AMP technical manager Chris Kirby, the path to financial security has become more difficult.

Even for women in stable relationships, super may start out as a joint proposition but problems can arise in the event of a separation or divorce.

Sensible planning

Sarah Riegelhuth, co-founder and director of private wealth management firm Wealth Enhancers, believes women who generate super independently and follow sensible financial advice can set aside enough for retirement.

Riegelhuth offers this simple advice that applies equally to both men and women: "The earlier you can start planning your future, the better off you'll be. If you can sacrifice a little bit of your salary to superannuation from a young age, you'll find a little bit equals a lot over a long period."

Delia Rickard, a former ASIC consumer protection expert, says accumulating enough super to last through retirement is essential for women, especially given their longer life expectancy. "It's really important that we [women] start to think early on about saving for our retirement and doing some of that long-term planning ourselves."

Rickard recommends women:

  • set aside enough money to cover basics
  • ensure there are funds available in case of an emergency
  • make sure insurance is in place where needed
  • make voluntary super contributions where possible.

The future of super for women

Susan Jackson of the Women's Financial Network says the financial services sector has to change its ways if women are to reach their financial potential.

"There's an enormous amount of evidence to show there will be the biggest transference of money to women in the next 20 years because they're independently wealthy, and inheriting more wealth. There also isn't the same salary imbalance [as there used to be]."

Part of the problem is that the financial services industry has traditionally been dominated by men. Jackson thinks the industry needs to work at understanding women's needs better. Finding a financial adviser who understands the challenges women face is one important step.

"There needs to be more financial commentators creating what I call a more modern dialogue," she says. "It's not about offering women different financial products. It's about changing the way the financial services industry speaks to them."

Tips for managing your super

For general super advice, check out our buying guide.

  • Take advantage of the spouse contribution scheme. It offers a tax offset on contributions made by a working spouse to their non-working or low income-earning partner.
  • Check out the super co-contribution scheme. It's a government initiative designed to help low- and middle-income earners boost their savings. The scheme offers to match any personal super contributions at 50c to the dollar up to $500 (in 2013–14).
  • Consolidate your super funds. If you've changed jobs a few times, you probably have several super funds. Take the time to find lost superannuation and consolidate it into one manageable plan so you don't pay multiple management fees.
  • Salary sacrifice. Ask your employer to pay part of your pre-tax salary into your super fund.
  • Consider life insurance and income protection insurance – the earlier the better. Both can be difficult and expensive to acquire if you develop a serious illness.
  • Get legal advice in the event of a marriage breakdown. Changes to the law mean super entitlements may now be shared between you and an ex-spouse. Get the lowdown from a family law practitioner.
  • If you're planning a family, read up on family assistance benefits. If you're a primary carer who earned less than $150,000 in taxable income in the previous financial year, you could be eligible for paid parental leave. Alternatively, you could be eligible for the baby bonus if your family income in the six months after you have your child is less than $75,000.