McLean, VA (written by Christine Dugas/USA Today) -- When Jeanne Majors, 63, took an early retirement in December 2005, she assumed that she would pick up a part-time job and be in good financial shape. She didn't know that her future would quickly fall apart.
Majors, who is single and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., learned the hard way about the retirement obstacles that most women face today. When the economy slid into the recession, she lost her part-time job and could not find another.
"They wanted somebody young," Majors says. "Or if I was a man, somebody would have hired me at my age. I'm not sorry that I retired, but things didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. Everything went bust."
Majors is an extreme example of how women continue to face financial hardships that could have a devastating impact on their retirement. Financial experts and studies say that the gender pay gap is not disappearing -- women continue to earn less than men and are less likely to save for retirement.
In addition, the Great Recession has forced many women back into the job market at a time they thought they would be enjoying retirement.
"Many older women are frightened," says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "They just never thought that they could be in their 50s or early 60s and not have a job. They have seen their savings, their home value and their retirement all decline because they've had to use it to live. And they don't know how to rebuild it."
Women face a host of obstacles that are tarnishing their golden years. Among them:
* Income gap. More women now enter the workforce, move into higher-level positions and take less time off to raise their families. But they still make less money than men. "The wage gap between men and women has been stagnant for the past decade," says Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security, National Women's Law Center. "We're not making much progress."
On average, the typical woman working full time is paid only 77 cents for every $1 paid to her male counterpart, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. They are off to a financial disadvantage from the start because they live longer than men and, thus, need to save more for retirement. But they earn less.
* Unemployment. Although men were hardest hit by job losses during the recession, since the start of the economic recovery in June 2009, men have recovered faster than women.
Like Majors, many women have been left out in the cold. From June 2009 to July 2012, women regained only 26.7% of the jobs they lost during the recession, while men regained 40.6% of the jobs they lost, according to the National Women's Law Center.
The heavy job losses in public-sector jobs, which includes teachers, nurses and social workers, has primarily affected women. And many older women have been hit hard by long-term unemployment. That affects their retirement future as they save less and their Social Security benefits are reduced.
* Retirement saving plans. Women tend to work in industries that offer pension plans, but they are not necessarily eligible because they do not work enough hours, or work part time, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in July.
Also, in recent years, many employers have shifted from pension plans to 401(k) and 403(b) plans. But women are less likely than men to participate in them. Among the reasons: Women earn less, and those who are single moms often say they can't afford to put money toward their retirement. Those who do participate in a 401(k) plan contribute about 30% less than men do, the GAO says.
* Health insurance. When planning for retirement, it's important for women to take into account rising health costs. Because they live longer than men, they may end up living alone and eventually need expensive long-term care services.
But few may be able to plan for long-term care when many are unable to pay for health insurance before retirement. Nearly one in five women ages 18 to 64 were uninsured in 2010, according to NWLC September data. And that totaled 19 million women.
By the time working women retire, many face bleak futures. For many, Social Security is their retirement lynchpin. But Social Security benefits are based on a person's work and earnings history, so women receive lower benefits than men. The average Social Security benefit for women 65 and older is about $12,100 per year, compared with about $16,000 for men 65 and older, according to the NWLC's report in April.
Those who have been able to hold onto a job as they have grown older often don't know when they can afford to retire. Judy Fraizer, the human resources coordinator for a securities system company, turned 66 in August and has no plan to stop working. "At this point in time, retirement is financially impossible," she says.
Fraizer, who lives in Dallas, cares for three grandchildren and her mother, who has Alzheimer's. "I cannot save one penny," she says. "At the end of the month there is nothing left." And although she has been putting money into a 401(k) plan for the past six years, her retirement savings are used every December to buy Christmas gifts.
More women than men are single parents, and the financial responsibility makes it hard to save. And they are more likely to take time off of work for family care-giving. When they are older, they may be on their own because often they are divorced, widowed or single.
The poverty rate of women 65 and older in 2010 was nearly two times higher than men's rate, Barbara Bovbjerg, managing director for Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues at the GAO, said in July before the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Many older workers fear they will be alone and without a safety net during their golden years, financial advisers say. Social Security needs to be modernized, Entmacher said during a recent Senate hearing about older women remaining at risk. For example, she said that Social Security should provide credit to women when they leave the workforce to care for their families.
Younger women have a better chance to address retirement risk. Education is a big part of the solution to the problem, says the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. They need to understand that the decisions they make, even at a young age, can have a major impact on their retirement futures.
For now, Fraizer is doing her best to keep up with her bills and to stave off poverty.
"But every month you're sort of in the hole," she says. "I just have faith that it's going to be OK."