You’ve probably already heard of the gender pay gap. But did you know that women face an unfair playing field when it comes to student loan debt, too?

It’s not just that two-thirds of the nation’s student loan balance is owed by women. Women also take years longer to pay off their student debt and face higher monthly payments than their male peers — burdens that perpetuate gender inequities in financial wellbeing, wealth creation, and retirement security. 

So why are women strapped with so much college debt? Here’s a closer look:

Women are more educated.

One of the simplest reasons for the gender student debt gap is higher rates of education among women: about 58 percent of today’s undergraduate students are women. Among adults under 35, women also outpace men in earning master’s and doctoral degrees. 

However, the fact remains that the average female student borrows more than her male peers to earn the same degree — pointing to more systemic issues behind the gender gap in student debt.

Women are less likely to get financial support from their families.

The vast majority of parents — 87 percent — help cover the cost of college for their children, but daughters receive significantly less support than sons.

A 2017 study found that 17 percent of parents of only boys plan to pay for the entire cost of their sons’ college, compared to just 8 percent of parents with only girls. In addition, parents of only boys were almost twice as likely as parents of only girls to say they’d be willing to take out more than $75,000 in student loans to help pay for their child’s college tuition.

Without financial backing from their parents, female students are more likely to borrow more — starting a decades-long domino effect of the impacts of student debt.

The gender pay gap doesn’t help.

The average woman earns 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. But higher education does little to bridge this divide: women with bachelor’s degrees earn 26 percent less than their male peers, and recent surveys show that men from the class of 2020 are out-earning their female classmates by almost $12,000. 

Without a fair shot at equal pay, student debt is an especially heavy burden for women that compounds with other inequities — including the so-called “pink tax”, which adds more than half a million dollars in extra spending throughout a woman’s lifetime — to perpetuate the long-lasting impacts of the gender gap in financial stability and creation. Case in point: the rate of homeownership among single women is at its lowest in six years, fewer than half of women are financially prepared for an emergency,  and today’s women have 30 percent less retirement income than men.

So what can employers do? 

Workers who are worried about money are less productive and more likely to quit — and that has major consequences for workplace inclusivity, since women are more likely to experience financial stress than men. 

So how can employers improve these critical outcomes? 

Offering specific support for student loan borrowers is essential to an effective financial wellness strategy. By addressing one of the leading causes of financial stress among women, college debt, HR leaders will transform engagement and retention — across every employee population.