After many years of seemingly being invisible to the media and policy makers, it’s good to see the recent flurry of interest in the issues facing older women in society. Just in the last few months we’ve seen the TUC’s Age Immaterial campaign, the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women, labour market analysis from IPPR and the Resolution Foundation, and a range of reports and initiatives from voluntary sector organisations with an interest in older women.

As Camilla Palmer explains in her blog post, Miriam O’Reilly’s landmark tribunal victory against the BBC highlighted the way in which ageism and sexism combine to create a double whammy of discrimination against older women at work and in public life.

These clearly aren’t new issues. Discrimination against older women at work has been around for… well, for as long as women have been at work. While the issues aren’t new, the fact that policy makers, activists, and the media are talking about them is new and is very welcome.

The challenges facing young women who are unable to get a job at all or who are steered away from the well paid “jobs for the boys” and advised to pursue a more feminine – and lower paid – career path in hairdressing or childcare, are well known to anyone with more than a passing interest in gender equality.

Similarly, unions and others have long fought to remove the barriers to women returning to the workforce after a period of maternity leave and trying to meet the demands of their job and the demands of parenthood at a time of dwindling state support and exorbitant childcare costs. But the needs of older women have often been overlooked or have tended to focus solely on pensions.

So if we need to start talking about older women at work, what exactly should we be talking about?

As a starting point, we need to talk about the kinds of work older women are doing and what they’re getting paid for it. Research carried out as part of the TUC’s Age Immaterial campaign has found that women in their 50s earn nearly a fifth less than men of the same age – the widest gender pay gap of any age group.

We also need to talk about how rising childcare costs and dwindling state support for adult social care have affected older women’s caring responsibilities and how this in turn has affected their working lives. Part-time work is the only option available for many older women who also have to look after loved ones, either their grandchildren or their own parents, or who may no longer be able to work long hours. Most of these women earn less than £10,000 a year, barely enough to live on, let alone save for their retirement.

We also need to talk openly about some of the taboos around women’s health that actually matter a lot to women’s working lives. Many union reps report that they regularly have to represent women who are facing absence related disciplinary proceedings when in fact the reason for the absence was due to ill health related to the menopause  - a fact that the woman was either to ashamed to disclose or the employer refused to recognise as a legitimate health problem.

By shining a spotlight on older women’s pay, unemployment, caring responsibilities, and health issues, it becomes apparent very quickly that this generation of women is not winding down as they wait for retirement. Rather this is a generation of women working harder and longer than ever before, for very little reward.

Posted on March 27th, 2013 by Scarlet Harris filed under: Blog

2 Responses to We need to talk about older women

  1. Comment made by Lynne Davis on Mar 27th 2013 at 2:33 pm:

    There is increasing awareness of how older women are affected by lower pay, illness through the aging process and perhaps having to take time off to act as carers for parents or older partners.

    What also needs to be addressed/ made aware of (from a personal perspective) are working environments where older women and men are regarded with possible resentment, considered irrelevant or deliberately ignored,cut off from being part of a team/department etc because they are working beyond current traditional retirement ages.

    It is likely though but of course can never be proved, that generally older men and women, particular if past age 60 if going for anything other than minimum wage jobs are unsuccessful in securing a job.

    Possibly as an example, I applied for a job at a local authority, which would have been similar to my current job. It went to a person in their mid twenties who had no experience or anything related to the post. The person was employed because they were “energetic and full of enthusiasm”. My counterpart of this local authority (not involved with the interview) was not impressed what so ever and will have to spend considerable time and effort training up the person. Not “sour grapes” from me but I wonder what other candidates’ level of experience or otherwise was.

  2. Comment made by Scarlet Harris on Mar 27th 2013 at 2:57 pm:

    Hi Lynne,
    Thanks for your comments. You’re right, it’s not always easy to prove age discrimination but there is interesting work out there. There has been academic research on how employers take age into consideration when looking at job applications. There’s good anecdotal evidence in the recent TAEN report on jobseekers over 50 (see Chris Ball’s blog here http://ageimmaterial.org/2013/more-work-is-needed-to-end-age-discrimination-against-older-job-seekers/). It seems to be a bit of a double edged sword because on the one hand young job seekers are often overlooked because they don’t have sufficient experience while older job seekers are often passed over in favour of younger applicants who – as your example puts it – are “energetic and full of enthusiasm”. It’s a lose-lose situation! Clearly more needs to be done to tackle age discrimination.