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Innovator Winner

Wisconsin women bridge pension gender gap with EMPOWER-ing program

Shelly Schueller, left, and Tarna Hunter organized a grass-roots campaign to get women to save more.

At the heart of the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds' EMPOWER campaign is sheer determination.

2015 Innovator Award winners Shelly Schueller, the state's deferred compensation director, and Tarna Hunter, legislative liaison, set out to rewrite the rules on how to tackle gender differences in retirement. But without a designated staff or budget, they had to come up with more innovative ways of achieving their goal.

Their solution centers on a grass-roots campaign that kicked off earlier this year, using volunteers and shared resources from more than a dozen different agencies statewide.

“They have a passion that is contagious,” one judge said.

Despite having a similar participation rate as men, women in Wisconsin's 457(b) deferred compensation program had an average account balance averaging about 70% of their male counterparts. Women account for 51% of the membership but 42% of the assets, which totaled about $4 billion at the end of 2014.

The solution was clear: The pair simply needed to encourage more women to save more for their retirement. But Ms. Schueller and Ms. Hunter needed to approach the problem with a fresh perspective, going beyond the existing piecemeal financial education programs. They needed critical mass.

Coordinating with multiple agencies including affirmative action committees statewide, EMPOWER organizers established a series of local benefit fairs, webinars and other events to encourage specific actions such as an increase in contribution rates. Peer-to-peer communication was central to the campaign aimed at reaching the broadest number of women from all walks of life.

“Behavioral change is best accomplished when advocated by someone you know or can relate to,” said Ms. Hunter.

In the first month after the program's April launch, officials logged seven new plan participants. Separately, the initiative helped convince nine other women to increase their contributions while dozens made appointments to learn how they can better prepare for retirement.

The first review of the program will be conducted at the end of the year. After that, it will be reviewed every six months to look for ways of improving the message and the delivery mechanisms, Ms. Hunter said.

Next, the state wants to retool its existing campaign to target teachers — a large percentage of whom are women — in all school districts statewide.

Mirroring trends worldwide, lower earnings and contributions are among the culprits resulting in a persistent retirement income gap between women and men in the state's workforce. But a lack of financial awareness also led to “making it harder for women to retire when they want and how they want,” Ms. Schueller said.

“When we started, we had to go to other (government agencies) for help,” Ms. Hunter said. “In the past few months, we've been getting a lot of organizations coming to us and wanting to help.”

Joining forces with other organizations to strengthen the impact of the program is “simply amazing,” said another judge, who added: “It shows that people who truly are focused on addressing issues for their population will innovate ways to succeed, even in the face of adversity.”

In their own words

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2015 print issue as, "Wisconsin women bridge pension gender gap with EMPOWER-ing program".