Older Women – A lifetime of disadvantage

I have been working and advocating for equality in the workplace and the wider society since 1979, when I was first employed at the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board.  I have a long-held belief that to achieve equity, education is vital, particularly when it is empowered by legislation, and have conducted training programs in equal opportunity and mainstream courses for  over thirty years. 

What first attracted me to OWN was the Theatre Group, which came together 26 years ago, when the group first performed outside Parliament House in Canberra, to draw attention to the invisibility of older women. [1] It has a strong political history of entertaining and educating health workers, community groups, local governments and many other agencies about issues affecting older women.  Key issues of promotion are health, housing, transport, stereotypes and anti-violence.  A DVD, entitled “Don’t Knock Your Granny”, which was devised and performed by the Theatre Group, about elder abuse was released by NSW Health [2].  Financial abuse by partners, children and even grand-children is increasing, as pressure is put on older people to disperse their money and assets to the next generation.

Older Women’s disadvantage is often the result of life-long policies that have mitigated against them for their entire lives.  In their youth they were discriminated against on the grounds of equal pay and entitlements.  It was in 1973, after years of lobbying and putting forward equal pay for equal work cases [ 3] that in 1973 an equal pay amendment was made to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act to provide for a minimum wage to all adults.

Later on inflexible work practices, and the right to permanency, in the public service and industry, made it very difficult for many women to continue to be employed in fulfilling and interesting work, at a salary that allowed them to save for the future.  Many older women had no benefits, or very limited benefits, from superannuation because of caring responsibilities that have occurred throughout their lifetimes.  Research has shown that access to flexibility in the workplace assists carers to remain in and re-enter employment but often the barriers are insurmountable in terms of unrealistic work hours, reasonable workloads and lack of job-sharing and part-time options. In Belgium a system of care breaks is provided, and other countries like Spain, are granting 12 months periods of paid leave. [4]

The introduction of free education under the Whitlam government in the 1970s saw many women accessing higher education to make up for past disadvantage, where girls’ education was often seen as less important than their male peers. Gaining entry to the work force in their thirties, forties and fifties, in jobs they’d only dreamed about, a limited number were able to carve out successful and satisfying working lives.  Insecure work continues to be an issue, as is the re-entry of older women into the workforce after caring responsibilities have ceased.  Work of a casual nature does not accrue the same advantages and many older women going back into the workforce are basically getting “pin money”, in the same way many of them did in their pre-retirement years.

The disadvantages that many older women, now face, are those of institutionalised disadvantaged.  A life-time of caring for parents, in-laws, children and siblings has rendered them poor at the end of their lives, particularly those women who did not marry, who were divorced or widowed, and all women who were not able to secure affordable accommodation.  Many women in their fifties and sixties now are looking at being unable to secure affordable housing and the prospect of homelessness is a very real one as the statistics show that older women are becoming less able to secure affordable housing.  Dr Ludo McFerran (2010) comments that “even if the market responds to excess demand by increasing supply over time, it is unlikely to provide sufficient housing for people whose incomes are towards the bottom of the household income..”[ 5]  Many older women are increasingly relying on relatives and friends to offer them temporary accommodation, in spare rooms, caravans out the back or hostel-type accommodation.  The State Government recognises growing homelessness as a problem that needs to be tackled but permanent housing options are very limited.

As referred to previously, violence against women does not stop in older age.   A major cause of additional abuse centres around money:  children may not see the parent having a need for it, and often seek to secure “loans”, guarantorship or pressure their mum into selling the property to move in with them.  Refuges and emergency accommodation for older women is very limited, and many women do not want to move from their homes, where they have the networks and the support of a life-time.  Accommodation in refuges is often for younger women and children, where it is difficult for older women to feel comfortable.  More accommodation for older women needs to be in the form of clustered accommodation, specifically for older women, where they can feel safe and secure, whilst avoiding social isolation.

Health remains a priority for older women and just recently it was gratifying to see the breast screening notification age extended to 74 years, in recognition of the fact that cancer is most often diagnosed in one’s 70s and beyond.  Access to community transport, health centres and hospitals is vital, as is the participation of older women in wellness and social activities.

The Older Women’s Network is unique in that its target group is solely older women, as it seeks to promote the rights, dignity and wellness of all older women.  In tandem with UN Convention 27 it seeks to protect the human rights of all older women, whilst constantly advocating for better life outcomes in the areas of health, housing, employment and all other areas that provide barriers to attaining good economic and social outcomes for older women.

So, advocacy and education continue to highlight the important issues of health, housing, work, superannuation, poverty, social isolation and the many barriers that women face in receiving their full entitlements to a life lived with dignity and respect.  The Older Women’s Network is very active in liaising with government and other leaders in the field to make sure that these issues are centre stage and remain on government and welfare agendas.

[1] Centre Stage by Dorothy Cora 2009

[2] NSW Health South Eastern Sydney Local Area Health District 2012

[3] Taking Time – A Women’s Historical Data Kit.

[4] Australian Human Rights Commission Report, 2013.

[5] It Could be You:  Female, single, older and homeless by Ludo McFerran

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