It’s an interesting time to be a woman.
For the first time, a woman secured the backing of a major political party as a presidential nominee in 2016. There are more women serving in the U.S. Senate than ever before. Young women have outpaced young men in postsecondary enrollment and educational attainment. And as more women pursue higher education, they are likely to earn more than past generations, with many able to potentially achieve greater financial independence.
It feels like there is great momentum and, yet, it’s important to put it all in perspective.
Today, the gender wage gap receives significant attention, with women earning 77 cents or less on the dollar as compared to men. But even more disconcerting is the gender wealth gap defined as the discrepancies in net worth between men and women. And the statistics are staggering. White women own only 32 cents for every dollar owned by their male counterparts, while women of colour own even less, averaging only pennies on the dollar compared to white men. The median net worth for African-American women in 2013 was $US200 and half that — a staggering $US100 — for Latina women in the United States.
By definition, wealth is the difference between an individual’s assets and liabilities. But the concept of wealth is so much more. Wealth is the ability to pay for an emergency or other unexpected expense, the freedom to buy a home or pursue higher education, the security of saving for retirement. In short, wealth is stability and opportunity.
Women suffer direct, negative consequences of lower net worth. They have less of a safety net, and are more financially vulnerable. It’s not surprising, then, that women are 80 per cent more likely than men to live in poverty after retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.
To help shine a spotlight on the gender wealth gap, and better understand some of its drivers, the JPMorgan Chase Institute examined the impact of extraordinary medical payments on the long-term financial well being of more than 210,000 de-identified Chase checking account holders. According to our findings, women are in a worse financial position than men prior to paying an extraordinary medical bill, and have a harder time regaining their financial footing after they pay it.
Every year roughly 16 per cent of American families make an unusually large medical payment, one that represents more than 1 per cent of annual income and is at least $US400. We found that women are more likely than men to postpone paying these larger medical bills until they experience a spike in liquid assets, which has concerning implications. Either women are postponing medical care until they can afford it, which could harm their physical health, or they are receiving the care as required but delaying payment, falling behind on their bills and potentially wreaking havoc on their finances.
After paying these medical bills, women struggle more even more than men do to regain their financial footing. Our data indicate that both men and women struggle to recover from unusually large medical payments; twelve months later families experience lower incomes, decreasing liquid assets and increasing revolving credit card debt. However, the financial fallout is far worse for women. One year after an extraordinary medical payment women experience a 14 per cent increase in the balance on their revolving credit card debt as compared to a 3 per cent increase for men, further widening the gender wealth gap.
The impact of medical payments on the financial health of women is but one example of the disparities that exist. And while the gender wealth gap is significant, it is solvable, and we can address it by increasing women’s access to the types of critical opportunities that create economic stability and mobility.
For example, we can help women gain the skills to compete for the millions of “middle-skill” jobs that are currently unfilled, like cardiovascular technologists and dental hygienists – good jobs that pay good wages and do not require a college education but are accessible with a high school degree and some post-secondary training.
Further, we can assist female entrepreneurs to secure capital, technical assistance, and the professional networks necessary to launch and grow a small business. Women-owned small businesses are some of the fastest growing in the country, but only 16 per cent of conventional small-business loans go to women entrepreneurs.
Additionally, we can work to improve women’s financial health boosting the security of both women and their families. We can increase women’s access to the relevant financial information, products and services that can empower them to better manage daily finances, weather emergencies and other unexpected expenses like medical payments, and meet long-term financial goals such as homeownership or retirement.
Finally, we can also help to ensure that women and their families have access to economic opportunities in their communities. By investing in safe housing, supermarkets with healthy food options and affordable childcare centres, we can help to break down some of the biggest barriers to economic mobility facing women.
These are important areas where JPMorgan Chase is focusing our efforts. As part of our commitment to cultivating inclusive economic growth, last year we invested $US17 million in organisations that are empowering women. But the persistence of the gender wealth gap speaks to the need for more. Please join us in working to level the playing field for women both here and abroad.
Diana Farrell is the founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the JPMorgan Chase Institute. Previously, Diana was the Global Head of the McKinsey Center for Government and the McKinsey Global Institute. She served in the White House as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council and Deputy Assistant to the President on Economic Policy
Karen Persichilli Keogh is the Head of Global Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase & Co., responsible for directing the firm’s overall Corporate Responsibility strategy and philanthropic investments. She has an extensive background in government and politics with experience on the national, state and local levels.