The effects of the financial market meltdown are still unfolding, as companies cut benefits and unemployment stagnates. Many women are responding by shouldering more financial responsibility in their families, which explain why they are so driven to learn more about retirement.

In a study released Friday, Hartford found that 69% of women respondents boosted their understanding of retirement benefits, up from 56% last year. That is the biggest increase in retirement savings knowledge that The Hartford has seen from any segmented group in the study since it began doing the survey three years ago. Men’s understanding improved to 83%, from 75% a year ago, and overall, 76% of respondents said they either “completely” or “mostly” understood their retirement benefits in 2010, compared with 65% in 2009. The Hartford conducted “Retirement and Recession Study” in March, surveying 1,000 consumers online.

The findings correlate with what Debbie Whitlock, founder of Seattle-based Sound Financial Partners, is seeing in her practice. Not only are women eagerly absorbing information, but the industry is also learning to change its message to them. “Our industry is getting it wrong a little bit,” Whitlock said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The way information has always been shared was to scare the crap out of them. That does not work so well for women. Fear is not a good motivator for us.” Instead, education is the big motivator for women, Whitlock said.

Consumers value their retirement plans more now than at the start of the Great Recession, according to the study. Nearly half of respondents, 43%, said they view their retirement plan as more important, while 49% said they believe it is just as important as before the economic crisis.  Also, 84% of respondents said they were saving in a 401(k) retirement plan or other defined contribution plan, when offered by their employer, up from 80% in 2009. Women also showed the greatest increase here, with 70% participating in 2010, compared with 61% in 2009. Men’s participation rate jumped to 71%, up five percentage points from last year. 

“Compared to men, women have higher hurdles to reach a comfortable retirement,” according to a statement from Sharon Ritchey, executive vice president and director of The Hartford’s Retirement Plans Group. “Women tend to earn less, be away from their jobs more often because of disabilities, pregnancies and family issues, and often invest less aggressively. On top of that, women tend to live longer than men and therefore need to rely on their retirement savings for more years.” 

A good start toward saving for retirement is one thing, but respondents also showed signs of recession weariness. About 22% of respondents said poor economic conditions forced them to reduce or to eliminate contributions to their retirement plan. Women felt this impact twice as much as they did in the previous study, as 22% of them fell into this category, compared with 11% in 2009. Whitlock said she sees that trend in her practice, too. As women see their spouses and partners laid off from jobs, it falls on them to continue bringing money into the household. They can only cut back so much, unfortunately, so they are taking money out of retirement savings plans to make up the difference. 

Matching contributions were eliminated for 20% of respondents this year, up from 16% in 2009. Again, women took a harder hit, with contributions being altered for 19% of them, compared with 14% in 2009. The impact on men was relatively stable, at 21% in 2010, compared with 19% in 2009. “When I talk to medium-sized companies … the choices they are making are between layoffs and or reductions of benefits,” Whitlock said. Although the U.S. is two years out from the onset of the market meltdown, it is still in the wake of the Great Recession. “This rolling effect, we’re going to feel it for a while.”

The one bright spot to all of this is that consumers, and women in particular, are becoming much more engaged in their finances. “It is kind of like a kid and the Boogey Man. Opening up the closet door makes it not so scary anymore.”