Women across the country are risking their families' future security by failing to take out insurance to protect their dependants if they were to become ill and be unable to work.
More and more women are finding themselves as their household's main wage earner as the recession claims thousands of jobs, the number of single parent families continue to rise and the gender pay gap gradually closes. And yet, according to a study by Axa Life, only 36 per cent of women have any life insurance, and just 18 per cent have critical illness cover. The minority that do protect themselves also considerably underestimate their worth, with the average cover being just £90,000 for life insurance and £80,000 for critical illness, enough to cover only two years of the average working woman's life.
It is not only women who work outside the home whose long-term illness could leave their families financially vulnerable: the cost of childcare and housework if a stay-at-home mum were to fall ill would cost an average of £23,000 a year to buy in, according to Axa. But only 13 per cent have any critical illness cover.
"The research shows women are becoming increasingly important to the family economy yet leaving themselves and their dependants desperately vulnerable. And the future is likely to see the situation getting worse," says Jamie McIver at Axa.
This vulnerability is highlighted by figures, gleaned from a mix of Axa's new business and a projection of future claims, which show that that one in 10 women who take out a combined life and critical illness policy will either die or suffer from a condition enabling them to claim before the end of their policy; and one in 257 who take out life cover only will die before the end of their policy; while statistics from The Lancet journal show that nearly 6 per cent of deaths among women will occur during key working years.
But why do so few women protect themselves? Again the Axa research suggests that nearly a quarter have just not thought about it, and more than a third think they don't need it. Others assume that their partner's insurance was enough, or that it was just too expensive.
"It is also true to say that, historically, women were less likely to have such an important role in the family finances and so were less likely to need or think about cover. Unfortunately, while women may have caught up in other areas, financial planning has somehow got left behind," says an Mr McIver.
Caroline Anstee, director of Towergate Financial for Women, has her own theory. "I suspect many women have had bad experiences from financial advisers in the past. Many will have bad memories of divorce and feel too intimidated to ask for advice.
"There's also the issue of women having so much to do that they just don't get round to sorting it out. When they've got a to-do list that covers home and work, they rarely get down to the 'sort out life insurance' at the bottom of that list."
Ms Anstee adds that she has advised many women who have realised they need to take out cover and have tried to go it alone on the internet, but have given up because it is so complicated. The combination of age, medical history, and level of cover needed, all have a bearing on the premium and it can be difficult to get the right balance on your own, she says. "A financial adviser can guide you through all of it, and take your budget into account to find the best fit for you, without costing any more money. Ask around your friends to see if they've used an adviser and get a recommendation. And don't be afraid to try a few to find one you feel comfortable with," says Ms Anstee.
"It's noticeable that when men call through to our helpline service, they are much more confident about their worth to their families," says Emma Walker, head of protection with Moneysupermarket.com, "whereas women tend to really underestimate their own value. Even those who have thought about cover will not calculate their full worth properly. A working mum will forget to calculate the cost of the role in the home and think only of protecting her salary.
"It is very easy to sort out critical illness cover. It can take only as long as sorting out car insurance. But with many vicious diseases, such as breast or ovarian cancer, claiming young women, it really does need to be done."
The fear of how expensive insurance cover is likely to be is also cited as a reason many women are slow to take out personal insurance, but even a small amount of cover can make a huge difference if the worst was to happen, say the experts. "The younger you sort out life insurance or critical illness cover the better," says Ms Anstee. "The premiums will be much lower not only because of your age, but because you won't have fallen foul of the conditions that can afflict women as they get older, such as back problems and depression."
According to Axa, the premiums for a 35-year-old, non-smoking woman wanting £100,000 worth of life cover, could be as little £7.33 a month. And for the same woman wanting £100,000 worth of critical illness cover, the monthly premium would be £33.02.
"It's not a great deal to have to pay," says Ms Walker, "but be sure you don't just go for the cheapest, but for the one that's right for you."
And as Mr McIver says: "I would encourage women to start focusing on their financial well-being, so that they avoid the potential financial meltdown they could find themselves in if they aren't protected."
Uncovered: 'I know I must protect my child'
Michelle Greaney, 39, is an office manager and lives in Clapham, south London, with her daughter Caitlin, seven. The pressures of daily life and choosing to rent rather than buy a property means that until now Michelle has put insurance on the backburner:
"Getting myself properly covered has been on my mind for a while, but there always seems to be something else that I need the money for, or I put off sorting it out because there is something else that needs doing first and it gets put on the backburner. But I know I need to do it.
"Making sure my daughter is looked after if anything happens to me is the most important thing I can do, so I will just have to afford preferably both life and critical illness cover.
"I will definitely have to budget and plan as all my money is accounted for, but I will do it – and soon."
Covered: 'We listened to our adviser'
Lisa Church, 29, is a PR consultant. She lives in Reading with her husband, Ian, 32, who is an architect.
"When we bought our house four years ago, our mortgage adviser said that life assurance and critical illness cover would be a good thing to do to ensure that if anything happened to either of us, we could continue to pay the mortgage.
"It's nice to have that bit of security, and because we sorted it out at the same time as the mortgage, we have not really noticed the premium as an extra outgoing. We will review it if any children arrive; at the moment it's just enough to cover the mortgage.
"If it wasn't for our financial adviser, I'm not sure if we would have considered the need for insurance.
"It's not something you think about until you have a scare or someone puts it forward to you."