Cole explained that workplace retirement savings plans typically try to incentivize workers to save more, a practice that she said "exacerbates inequality across the economic distribution of income and wealth."
Cole also noted that employer matches are not an effective tool to get people to save, citing research that found that only 10% of non-highly compensated employees save more because of matching.
"People just aren't that sensitive to the match," she said during a panel discussion titled "Employer Match, Recruitment and Compensation Expenses."
Taha Choukhmane, an assistant professor of finance at MIT Sloan School of Management, also proposed moving away from matches to non-elective contributions to help bridge racial disparities in retirement savings.
Studies at MIT showed that moving from matching "where employers give more to those who can save more" to non-elective contributions "where everyone gets the same amount" would reduce racial savings gaps in retirement at 65 by 30%, Choukhmane said.
In addition, the switch to non-elective contributions would also reduce inequality in retirement wealth for low-income white Americans who are not taking advantage of matches, he said.
Both Cole and Choukhmane agreed that auto-enrolling workers at default savings rates would not solve the issue of income and racial disparities.
Defaults are "pretty effective" in the short-run but not so much in the medium- and long-run, Cole said.
Choukhmane noted the limitations of automatic enrollment, citing MIT research that found that Black and Hispanic workers contribute less and "get less of the match" when compared with other workers at the same firm doing the same job and earning the same income.
"White workers, workers with richer parents, workers who are in two-parent households are going to contribute more and get more of the match," he said.
"If you're worried about equity," he said, "these matching contributions go overwhelmingly to those who have more resources," Choukhmane said.