This week International Women’s Day has re-ignited the issue of a lack of women on corporate boards. At the same time the return of Bob Carr to the political sphere has been much heralded, as he will bring ‘wisdom’ and ‘gravitas’ due to his age and experience. Despite our woman Prime Minister and Governor General, the same qualities are not recognised in most older women in this country. Even those who hold extensive formal qualifications, skills, and life and professional experience are discarded by the spectre of ageism. Indeed, instead of being valued for what they can offer as productive members of the workforce, as mentors, coaches and dare I say it, Board Members, women over 55 are at serious risk of finding themselves homeless. Women over the age of 45 are now outnumbering older men at government-funded homeless shelters according to official data, even though there are more homeless older men than women.
A report released yesterday by the Sydney Women’s Fund paints a very bleak picture, one which the majority of women over the age of 55 in this country would attest to with no reservation. Although this report documents the issues and challenges facing more than two million women and girls in greater Sydney and has found that in Australia’s biggest city, the gap between rich and poor is widening, the findings are relevant across the country.
According to UN Women Australia 27% of women in Australia have zero superannuation. They also experience extremely limited professional opportunities and are twice as likely to be poor in pre-retirement, putting them at greater risk of homelessness. Older women are silently falling victim to age discrimination in such a way that they feel increasingly devalued and deskilled. The only jobs available to them are as checkout chicks and shelf stackers. Any previous professional experience and qualifications render them either under-experienced (?) or over-qualified! Either way they are constantly told they are ‘not a good fit’ in interviews once their age becomes apparent.
Women, who have previously found themselves perfectly capable of standing on their own two feet financially, emotionally and in every other way, are now finding themselves one step away from homelessness for a variety of reasons.
e.g. ‘Mary’ has a PhD in medical research, but became unemployable at 53 when she wanted to go part-time to care for her son who has schizophrenia. Fay’s (teacher of the deaf with no superannuation) husband, a respected vet, committed suicide when she was 57 and he was 60, after he had gambled all family assets away, unbeknown to her. Joan married an American and lived there for a thirty years. She was 56 when he died, bankrupt, and she moved back to Australia. She was a ‘corporate wife’ for many years and was put on a Newstart allowance which required her to apply for a certain number of jobs each week- no matter how menial they are or whether she is physically up to them.
Finally there is Jenny. She also has a PhD and has applied for hundreds of jobs ranging from Head of a Government Department in one state (for which she was interviewed but clearly considered too old at 55), to a census collector (overqualified). Thirty years ago she loaned money to a family company which was spent on bad investments and cannot be repaid. As a result, Jenny is ‘deemed’ to be receiving an income which limits her ‘benefit’ to $125 per week. She never has, and will never receive the actual income. A year ago Jenny sent a carefully considered email to the direct attention of the Federal Treasurer outlining her circumstances and why $125 a week was impossible to live on. It was not that she didn’t want to work, she just couldn’t find anyone to employ her. The response, in direct contrast to the sympathetic hearing she expected, was to have police brandishing handguns, then people from mental health services, arrive on her doorstep, ten days later, and threaten incarceration in front of her bemused family and neighbours for her ‘suicide note’. Each of these women is addressing their own circumstances as creatively as they can, and these issues can all be addressed with more flexibility on the part of government, but it is the women themselves who need to be consulted in how to achieve this. They are intelligent enough to know, and they have advised their daughters accordingly.
So next time you see a group of well-groomed 50 something women enjoying a coffee, they may not be ‘ladies who lunch’ but rather out of work ‘wise women with gravitas’ discussing quantum physics and the experience they had of ‘positive discrimination’ back in the 1980s, and sharing the one treat of the week they can now afford.