Spotlight Exclusives

Marching Forward: Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap

Elena Chavez Quezada and Heather McCulloch Elena Chavez Quezada and Heather McCulloch, posted on

Many of us thought it would be the swearing in of the first woman president that would galvanize women to mobilize, organize, and take action to advance women’s rights. Ironically, it is the specter of the impending presidency of Donald Trump that is catalyzing women to come together and speak out.

On January 21st, women from across the country will converge on the nation’s capitol and in cities across the country. This mass mobilization is partially defensive, sparked by looming threats to women’s reproductive, political, and economic rights. But it would be a mistake to view this groundswell as defensive alone.

This Saturday’s women’s marches are laying the groundwork for a new women’s movement with multiple focal points and priorities, both defensive and aspirational. While some observers have criticized the absence of a unified agenda, others understand the importance of engaging in multi-faceted conversations about the issues and barriers to women’s personal, political, and economic security. These conversations mirror the complexity of women’s lives and the intersecting elements of their identities. They’re about race, ethnicity, legal status, sexual identity, discrimination and privilege. They’re often uncomfortable, messy, and complicated—as they should be.

As we consider the many priorities that emerge from this new movement, women’s economic security should play a central role. Women today are more likely to be the sole, primary, or co-breadwinners of their families than ever before. And while advocates have succeeded in recent years in advancing women’s economic security through critical policy wins like lifting the minimum wage, pay equity, and workplace-based family supports, most of us don’t realize that the pay gap pales in comparison to the gender wealth gap. We know that women earn only 79 cents on the dollar compared to men, but most don’t realize that single women own only 32 cents on the dollar; and women of color own pennies on the dollar compared to both white men and white women.

The causes and effects of the women’s wealth gap are different than the income gap, and they demand different solutions. Increasing women’s income is critical to the financial stability of women and their families, but long-term economic security means women need ways to convert earnings into wealth.  Unfortunately, current policies result in a “wealth escalator” that primarily benefits men. For example:

  • Part-time work: Women are twice as likely as men to work part time, yet most part-time workers are ineligible for employer-based retirement benefits.
  • Tax benefits: Women tend to fall into the lower quintiles of wage earners, but the bottom 40 percent of wage earners receive less than 3 percent of federal tax incentives to build wealth.
  • Social Security: Benefits calculations do not account for time spent out of the workforce caring for children and the elderly, disproportionately impacting women.

Women of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ women face unique barriers to building wealth. They are more likely to work in minimum wages jobs without access to employer-based benefits; to be burdened by student debt, which limits their capacity to save and invest; and to be affected by the legacy of de jure and de facto discrimination – slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, racial covenants, and employment discrimination – that prohibited households of color from acquiring wealth that could have been passed on to future generations. All of these factors are reflected in the data on low levels of wealth among women of color today.

The women’s wealth gap can be solved, but it requires a unique set of policy and practical remedies. One good example is recent legislation passed in California, Illinois, and several other states to ensure that all workers have access to employer-based retirement savings accounts. We should also consider the European Union’s requirement that companies provide pro-rata benefits to part-time workers.

On the practical front, many foundations are supporting strategies to build women’s financial security through financial coaching at key points in their lives, matched savings programs, microenterprise, and two-generation strategies that work with parents and their children simultaneously.

The Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap initiative is a growing network of advocates, researchers, practitioners, and funders working together to advance promising solutions to close the women’s wealth gap. In the years ahead, the network will be engaging partners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to raise awareness of the women’s wealth gap and build the public will to address it.

Closing the women’s wealth gap is a long-term endeavor. But given women’s crucial contributions to the economic security of families, communities, and the prosperity of the nation, we can’t wait any longer to tackle it.

Elena Chavez Quezada, a senior program officer with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, is a funder of and advisor to the Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap Initiative. Heather McCulloch is the founder and director of the Initiative.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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