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The crisis facing older South Australian women

Opinion

Older women are being put on the employment scrapheap because of the double-whammy of age and gender discrimination, argues Susan Mitchell.

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International Women’s Day can be seen as our gender Oscars. We celebrate our successes, we ask the winners to speak to us and we clarify our goals for the future. All events must reinvent themselves and this year the Oscars showed us a new direction.

For those who didn’t see the clip (you can watch it below), Frances McDormand, the winner of the best actress Oscar, not only celebrated her fellow nominees by asking them to stand up (“Come on Meryl, you do it and everyone else will follow”) but she pointed the way forward by addressing the film industry directly. She told them to add an “inclusion rider” to their thinking.

It has been a pretty tumultuous year for the entertainment industry, beginning with the toppling of Harvey Weinstein and the public naming and shaming of those who behaved like him toward women. The corporates followed suit. Down they came, big names and small names, smashing to pieces and “all the Kings Horse and all the Kings Men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

A huge global response, enabled by social media, swept the world, smashing on the shores of east and west. Intelligent and enlightened women and men embraced and enacted these causes.

The #MeToo movement was formed and was followed up by Oprah Winfrey’s “The Time is up” speech at the Golden Globes.

Now we have McDormand’s call to action. “Inclusion rider” is a previously very inside term which means a mandate in contracts that guarantees at least 50% gender and race diversity on a project.

If, for example, the government or corporate CEOs included this inclusion rider in every contract they signed we would change the entire system in which we work and live.

Feeling ‘included’, especially in terms of employment, is everything. On this International Women’s Day I want to shine a spotlight on the discrimination both in terms of age and gender of mature women and what that now means for any woman over 50.

Let us begin with a fact: in Australia in the past five years, the number of women facing homelessness has increased by 40%. This is a crisis in our nation that has slipped under the public and media radar. These women and their crisis have been invisible. You will not see these women sleeping on park benches. They are couch surfing in the homes of their relatives or friends. They are living in their cars or caravan parks or any cheap accommodation they can find. Why?  They cannot get jobs. Many of them cannot even get an interview for a job. They are qualified for a wide range of jobs, some even have doctorates, but they are been excluded from the workforce because of their age and their gender. It is a double whammy.

How do I know this? As the South Australian Ambassador for Mature Women, I wanted to meet these women and hear their stories for myself. Despite their differences in background, education, and race they had all experienced the same sense of rejection. If for whatever reason they had lost their job, it was almost impossible for them to get another one, particularly full-time. They were all forced to face up to the same conclusion: employers simply did not want mature age women. Even though they knew it was cultural and endemic discrimination, they took it personally. They all thought: “I must be hopeless.”

To feel excluded and constantly rejected leads to depression and mental illness. But they kept trying. They lived off their savings, then their superannuation, then the vicissitudes of Centrelink and finally many of them could not pay their mortgage. Their reasons for finding themselves in this situation were varied. Some had husbands forced to give up work due to illness, some were faced with divorce, some were made redundant, some had taken time out to look after children or elderly parents. For all these reasons they had less savings than men of their age seeking employment and less superannuation.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is intending to put up the barrier for the age pension and wants them to work longer.

Mature women job-seekers are being openly or surreptitiously rejected through recruitment processes on the basis of age and gender. Education, training and a steady working history did not help them in their search for employment.

This is a growing crisis that is not going to go away. Women live longer than men and South Australia has the largest percentage of women over 60 of any Australian state.

These are mature women – and I use the word “mature” in the hope that, like wine and cheese, they will be valued more highly as they age. At the moment, they are not valued for their accrued skills and their wide experience – they are rejected and excluded for them.

The truth is that everyone has something to gain from employing mature women. Statistics and research show that as employees they are loyal, dependable, hardworking, multiskilled and unflappable.

The facts are that no-one wants to employ them. In this land of the “fair go”, no-one is giving them a chance to demonstrate how valuable they are. They can’t even get an interview.

These women are your mothers, your sisters, your aunts, your friends. They need our help. They need the help of local, state and federal governments. They need the help of private industry.

Perhaps Frances McDormand has nailed the call to action. Perhaps all government and private contracts should include a mandate that generates age and gender diversity.  Let’s start at 50%.

On this International Women’s Day spare a thought for all those women who fought so hard for equality and inclusion and are now being thrown on the employment scrapheap for being past their ‘use-by date’.

#InclusionRider.

Susan Mitchell is an Adelaide writer.

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