When money’s tight, putting cash aside for your pension is probably something that goes to the bottom of the pile.

But women in their 20s and 30s are putting themselves at risk of poverty when they retire by sacrificing pension contributions for childcare costs, new research has found.

A study by gender equality charity the Fawcett Society found that many women are cutting their pension contributions to cover the cost of children, or because they've taken time out of work to look after children.

The 1950s male breadwinner model is alive and well in 2016

Sam Smethers, chief executive, Fawcett Society
An atom of type quote lives here

The research, carried out with Dr Liam Foster and Martin Heneghan from the University of Sheffield and supported by Scottish Widows, interviewed women across the UK.

It looked at a range of areas, including their attitudes to pension saving, how much they think they know about it, whether they prioritise a pension over other forms of saving, whether they believe they have different financial roles and responsibilities to men, and who they rely on for advice.

It found that while most women believed they should be financially independent, many were left relying more on their partner for a secure retirement than they realised.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society chief executive, said: “The gender pay gap becomes a pensions gap in retirement.

“In particular women are taking a big hit on their pensions when they have children, but are not aware of the impact this will have on them in the long-term.

“Women are putting everyone else’s needs before their own especially when it comes to who pays for childcare. Their baby becomes her childcare bill.”

Women often rely on men when making decisions about their pension. Image by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

She added: “Worryingly there are some really strong gendered attitudes being displayed here, with many of the women we interviewed not confident when faced with decisions about pensions and often asking men for advice.

“The interviews revealed that many of those in relationships were relying more on their partner for security in retirement than they realised.

“The 1950s male breadwinner model is alive and well in 2016.”

The research found that traditional ideas about male and female responsibilities underpinned many decisions about pensions.

Many of the women interviewed sought pensions advice from men or deferred to them when it came to decision-making about pensions, lacking the confidence to make their own decision.

The Fawcett Society made several recommendations, including: converting student loan repayments and childcare voucher schemes into pensions contributions once they’re no longer needed; and giving targeted information to those going on maternity, paternity or shared parental leave explaining the impact of reducing pension contributions.

The partner who stays in work – usually a man – should top up their partner’s pension contribution if they take time off to care, it said, making sure the true cost of having a family is shared between the couple.

The society also suggested a carer’s credit for private pensions through auto-enrolment to make sure women who take time off to care don’t find themselves in poverty in later life. 

Jackie Leiper, retirement expert at Scottish Widows, said: “The findings of the report echo those of our own, showing a clear shortfall developing when it comes to retirement savings between men and women in their 30s.

“Despite similar levels of engagement between men and women in their 20s, this begins to drop at an alarming rate over the following decade.

“While not all changes in circumstance can be planned for, it shouldn’t mean the end of financial independence.

“Together, the industry, government and employers need to do more to ensure families and women in particular remain engaged with the need to prepare for the future to avoid jeopardising their financial security.”