The recession rocked women’s confidence in their investment decisions, according to a survey released on Thursday by MassMutual.

Even though 2010 saw average retirement plan balances return to pre-recession levels, economic uncertainty and market volatility have taken a bite out investor confidence and sent investors running towards more conservative strategies. MassMutual’s online survey of 1,517 defined contribution/401(k) plan participants, which took place between November 15, 2010 and January 15, 2011, revealed that women in particular have less confidence in investment decisions and the stock market compared to men - and the gap is widening. Rather than seeing this as a negative though, this could be an opportunity for retirement plan advisors and providers to work to educate participants regarding their investments.

MassMutual's data shows that men believe the stock market will improve, not decline, in the next 12 months at a ratio twice that of women. Overall, only 37.3% of participants are confident in making their own investment decisions, down from 42.5% last year. Yet women are even less confident in their own investment decisions, with 25.9% saying they are confident compared to 44.1% of the men surveyed. At the same time last year, the percentages were 32.8% for women and 47.8% for men, MassMutual found. Meanwhile, 71.7% of men like learning about investments, compared to 54.4% of women. In addition, 53.1% of women prefer to spend as little time as possible on investment decisions, compared to 35.1% of men.

The survey found that more retirement plan participants are worried about having enough savings to retire compared to last year. In the 2010 survey, the percentage of women concerned increased by 4.4 percentage points to 74.7%, while the percentage of men declined by 1.3 percentage points to 61.9%. Participants have also changed their investing behavior in the last 12 months, with 61.7% saying they became more conservative compared to 38.3% who became more aggressive.

Nearly 75% of participants agree they have more responsibility for achieving retirement income objectives than their employer. For those under 40, managing debt is a huge worry, while being able to retire is by far the greatest concern for people 40 years old or above.

“Being able to retire is the greatest overall concern among defined contribution plan participants by a large margin – almost two and a half times the concern about healthcare costs (15.2%), and much higher than job security (11.7%) and managing debt (14%),” says Elaine Sarsynski, executive vice president of MassMutual's Retirement Services Division and chairman and CEO of MassMutual International LLC, in a statement. “In addition, 57.1% of participants are likely to seek help from a financial planning advisor in the next 12 months, with many preferring the assistance of the retirement plan advisor representing the plan.”

“The good news is that more than half of all men and women in retirement plans administered by MassMutual plan to revisit or update their plan asset allocation in the next 12 months,” said E. Heather Smiley, chief marketing officer for MassMutual's Retirement Services Division. “We have been working diligently to help participants understand the critical role that asset allocation plays in achieving an adequate level of retirement income. There's a lot of work to be done and providers, sponsors and advisors need to work in concert to help every participant increase the likelihood of success.”

MassMutual's Retirement Services Division serves approximately 1.2 million participants.