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Fear of commitment - to investing

Although more are confident in handling their money, women remain challenged in making it grow.

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Every Monday afternoon at 5:30, Stacy Klein and a dozen other young women at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., gather for an unusual meeting. Instead of discussing classwork, they talk about stocks, bonds, dividends, and price-earnings ratios. As members of the Student Investment Fund, a student-run investment club, they manage a $200,000 portfolio originally funded by an alumna's gift.

"Each person in the fund watches two stocks and presents news about those stocks weekly," explains Ms. Klein, vice president of the group.

It is the kind of early financial education that investment experts regard as crucial in helping women overcome a lingering hesitancy about investing. Yet this early training is not happening in any systematic or widespread way, they say.

A new survey of the investment expectations of several hundred students at 10 colleges finds that although women express more confidence than in a 1996 survey, they still lag behind men. That can leave them with diminished financial returns.

"Younger women do not expect to take on as much risk as men do," says Rosemary Cunningham, an economics professor at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta and author of the study. Only 37 percent of women would be willing to take risks, compared to 56 percent of men. "That portends a lower living standard for women in their later years."

At the same time, social and economic shifts are increasing women's need for a strong financial base. A study released last week by Americans for Secure Retirement shows that women face greater economic vulnerability in retirement than men. This is because women spend less time in the workforce accumulating retirement benefits and Social Security. They also live longer than men on average.So it behooves women to map out a long-term financial strategy, and begin saving sooner rather than later.

"One of the biggest mistakes women have made historically is they haven't invested early enough," says Cheryl Rose, managing director of Fifth Third Asset Management in Cincinnati.

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