This is sponsored content submitted by Sun Life Financial.

A real transformation of the job market has occurred in the last 33 years. Between 1976 and 2009, the gap between women’s and men’s labour force participation did not stop shrinking. I call this the “lady boom,” a time where women flooded university campuses and the job market. The “lady boom” has been particularly significant in job categories that call for high levels of education. As a result, women have increasingly moved into good jobs with good pay.

Even with their progress in the professional world, women still lag behind in personal finances. They have become masters of the art of family budgeting and increasingly they are the main breadwinner in the household. But when faced with the task of financial planning and investment, they shy away. Too often, they see themselves as ill-equipped to deal with personal finances and rate their knowledge as rudimentary or limited.

Their lack of interest in investment can put women’s retirement savings at risk. Their retirement savings could even be at a higher risk due some extra challenges they face, relative to men.

Women average 10 fewer years in the workforce than men do. There are two main reasons for this. First, they tend to take more parental leave and time off work for family reasons during their prime earning years. Second, their average career pay is lower. As I had mentioned in this article, their salary may be 65%-81% of men’s—(fortunately the gap is narrowing, but there’s no denying it still exists!). Lower pay and fewer years of contributions mean that women’s QPP or CPP benefits are lower too.

I find that too often women don’t do what it takes to catch up. In other words, they don’t make their money work hard enough for them. Fewer women than men contribute to their RRSPs, and the investment products they choose tend to be lower risk—and therefore generally yield lower returns.

Often women put their family first and relegate financial management to the back burner. But there’s certainly no need to feel guilty about paying special attention to what your money’s doing. What’s so selfish about making sure your family doesn’t have to support you later on? And remember, women still live longer than men do. According to the latest actuarial data from the Régie des rentes du Québec, a 65-year-old woman today can expect to live to about age 87. That’s three years longer than the average man.

The upshot of all these differences is serious—women have to put away more money than men if they want a retirement that measures up to their hopes and dreams. But how can this happen?

It can’t be said often enough: start retirement planning early—all the more important if you happen to be a woman. If you start saving today, time is your friend. The earlier you save, the more time your money has to grow.

This means that women who plan to take maternity leave or stretch it out while their kids are young would be well advised to put away some money in advance so they can keep contributing to their retirement savings. If you can rely on your partner for financial support, great—but you should always leave yourself some manoeuvring room in case of unforeseen difficulties.

Women often take a less adventurous approach to insurance and investment—and they get hung up more on risk. I’m inclined to see this in part as a lack of understanding of personal finance issues. By learning more, women can make smarter investment choices, get their assets working for them, and get the best returns. Drawing up a financial plan with an advisor they trust is a great way to get started, and you can help.

The most hopeful sign of change may well be women’s increasing prominence within financial institutions. At Sun Life Financial, for example, the board of directors is now at parity. Women are also a growing force in our network of financial security advisors. Integrating women’s perspectives into the core of our decisions is the best approach for meeting the financial needs of our female clients—much better than using female stereotypes to explain away the financial sector’s problems building solid relationships with women.

Isabelle Hudon has been Sun Life Financial’s Quebec president since August 2010. In this role she oversees activities supporting the company’s growth and commitment to the community.

Ms. Hudon is well known on the Quebec business scene for her outstanding leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Her strong business experience, boundless energy and community involvement help her forge connections among many diverse organizations.

From 2004 to 2008, Ms. Hudon was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, where she contributed significantly to the revitalization of the Board’s activities. She then served as President of Marketel until joining Sun Life Financial.

Ms. Hudon was named one of the 40 most successful Canadians under the age of 40 (Canada’s Top 40 under 40) in 2005 and was recognized in 2006 and 2012 as one of the 100 most influential women in Canada (Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100). She is also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for raising awareness of the importance of culture in Canada. In 2011, she was named “Business Woman of the Year” by Consumer Choice Award and was recognized as Francophone Business Woman of the Year by the Réseau des femmes d’affaires francophones du Canada (RFAFC).

Ms. Hudon is very active in the business community and sits on the boards of many organizations. She is currently a board member of Hydro-Québec, Aéroports de Montréal, Holt Renfrew Canada and Turquoise Hill Resources (TSX: TRQ). She was also honorary chair of the 2013 Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal Gala.

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