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Barriers facing older women’s workforce participation (2011)

Discrimination Age Discrimination

International Association for Feminist Economics Symposium on Valuing Care Work

5 December 2011

Barriers facing older women’s workforce participation

The Hon. Susan Ryan AO
Age Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Coogee Crowne Plaza Hotel, Coogee, Sydney


I start by acknowledging that we meet here today on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today on barriers to older women’s workforce participation with particular reference to Carers.

My comments reflect my experience in my current role, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I was appointed to this role just over four months ago.

The position was created by an amendment made earlier this year to the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

It created for the first time the full-time office of the Age Discrimination Commissioner. The creation of this office represents an important structural step forward in guaranteeing on-going and specialist policy development in this area and a focus on the damaging effects of age discrimination across our society and our economy.

This legislative reform reflected the government’s and the parliament’s awareness of the growing negative impact of age discrimination.

Since the 1970’s in Australia various forms of discrimination have been illegal: race, sex, disability and now age.

Despite these laws, the elimination of discrimination Australia remains unfinished business. This unfinished business represents the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

We tackle discrimination through education about human rights and the need to protect those rights,

Through the implementation of the four specific anti-discrimination laws,

Through our monitoring of Australia’s responsibilities as signatory to the major UN rights conventions,

Through our complaints process which give the individual access to redress,

and in our advocacy for better protections of human rights through reform of policy and law.

In the short time that I have been in the role I have come across a wide range of human rights issues facing older people in this country.

Age discrimination is deeply entrenched across all areas of public life – and like sex discrimination, or any other discrimination, it damages individuals and it damages our economy.

It can deny people access to healthcare, to accommodation and to some of life’s most basic choices. In denying dignity and respect, it can destroy lives and hopes. The worst effect of age discrimination, and this claim is supported by many data sources including the AHRC’s complaints statistics, is the destruction of older people’s opportunities to participate in the workforce.

Over the last two years, most age discrimination complaints received by the AHRC have been in the area of employment. Most of these complaints are on the basis rejection for being considered ‘too old’.

What you see with women entering older or ‘mature-age’ – which is defined by the abs as 45 years of age – is the effects of life-long gender discrimination compounded by age discrimination.

For some women in later life – when the impacts of this disadvantage accumulate - it reaches a crisis point. This is why we see a growth in the numbers of homeless women, of women living in poverty. And without effective policy and attitudinal change these distressing trends will grow.

While most sex discriminatory laws and policies have long since been wiped out by historic measures like the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the effects of past discrimination are still with us.

We have come a long way from the practices that impeded women at the time when I was entering the workforce, in the early 1960’s.Then, banks refused loans to single women regardless of their earnings and assets unless they could produce a male guarantor.

Government policy Federal and State effectively forced women to leave the public service once they got married.[1] Once married, women could only be employed as temporary staff, which in turn restricted their promotion opportunities[2] and their ability to accumulate superannuation.[3] This bar was only lifted in the late sixties.[4]

Similar or even more discriminatory practices abounded in private sector employment.

These negative past practices, although long since abandoned, continue to have damaging effects. Their legacy is still with us.

Many women in my own age group, and older, have little or no superannuation, and many do not own a home. Yet demographers constantly remind us that most of us will live into our 80’s, and a lot beyond that. On what?

In contemporary Australia, property is the most common household asset followed by superannuation. In 2002 the average household net worth for single retired women over 65 was $160 000 compared to $238 000 for single retired men.[5]

Although compulsory superannuation was introduced by the Keating Labor Government in 1992 without any direct gender discrimination[6], because of the basis for super contributions, a percentage, now 9% of earnings, the continuing gender gap in pay is reflected in a gender gap in superannuation savings.

Men are around twice as likely to have a superannuation balance of over $100,000 compared to women.[7] significantly in 2007, more than half (58-9%) of women aged 55 years and over had no superannuation at all.[8] only 41% of women over 55 years of age were covered by superannuation compared to 60% of men[9] and the proportion of retired women who had received or were currently receiving a superannuation pension or annuity was half that of men (16% of women compared with 32% of men).[10]

Given the poor state of older women’s superannuation levels it is unsurprising that the majority of age pensioners in Australia are women. Currently women account for 57.4 per cent of age pensioners. Women are 68.8 per cent of those on the Carer Payment. Around 55.7 per cent of women on these pensions are single, compared to 40.3 per cent of men.[11]

Other factors that lead to women’s low levels of superannuation and their high representation as age pension recipients include:

the gender pay gap, gendered patterns in educational choices; lesser access to training; cultural barriers to career progression; pregnancy and access to parental leave; gender-based violence and the impact of divorce and separation. I commend the AHRC’s ‘accumulating poverty’ publication for further detail on these barriers.[12]

One critical factor is the performance of care.

Commission consultations revealed that older workers perform an expansive range of unpaid caring responsibilities be it for adult children; children with disability; or care of spouses and parents, and for grandchildren.

The performance of caring responsibilities in Australia is gendered.

In 2009, of the 2.6 million carers in Australia[13] a higher proportion of women than men were carers[14] with women constituting two-thirds of primary carers.[15] .

The caring role was highest for women in the 55–64 year age group where a quarter were carers, compared to only 19% of men in this age group.[16] Women are more likely to take on caring roles at a younger age and in all care categories, other than spousal care, are more likely to be carers of children with disability and chronic illness and of the frail aged.[17]

The socio-economic characteristics of carers in Australia have been described as: from relatively low income households; lower rates of labour force participation; of an older age and predominantly women.[18]

This profile explains the high number of women in receipt of the age pension and the high number of women in receipt of a Carer Payment.

It also contributes to women’s low superannuation levels because superannuation contributions are not payable on caring work, and the performance of caring usually necessitates low or broken workforce participation.
In analysing the labour market aspects of women’s life-long accumulation of gender disadvantage, the concept of the ‘ideal worker’ has been a useful analytical tool.
This concept shows how the labour market is structured around the ‘ideal worker’: a worker with few domestic responsibilities, performing full-time work with little or no time off to care for family.[19]

The concept of the ideal worker provides a useful lens through which to analyse women’s cumulative disadvantage as it relates to the workplace.

By adding ‘retirement at 65’ to the concept of the ‘ideal worker’ we can see the barrier of age discrimination that older workers, men and women, face.

Despite the removal, in most part, of the mandatory retirement age in Australia and the introduction of the federal age discrimination act, many laws and policies still contain age bars that act as a kind of ‘de facto’ retirement age.

We still have a labour market designed not only around the ‘ideal worker’ but an ideal worker who retires and disappears at around 65 years of age.

This disappearing at 65, often years earlier, is relevant to the issue of the poor treatment of carers.

For example, improving workplace flexibility is an important aim and can assist workers with carer responsibilities. But if workplaces are squeezing older workers out at 65 years of age – or younger-without taking into account their choices and their need to work - then increased flexibility is not the only answer. You need to be in the workforce to benefit from it.

Despite individual wishes and needs about retirement, despite our legislative prohibitions, deeply entrenched age discrimination inflicts a ‘use-by date ’on workers who are well and capable, who are in no financial position, and have no desire to retire.

The persistence of age discrimination forcing otherwise productive workers out of the labour market makes no sense in terms of the needs of the economy and our collective aim of increased productivity.

Skills shortages across the economy are the constant topic of discussion between employers and governments and well covered in the media.

Yet, a number of current labour market laws and policies impose in practice a retirement age at 65:

  • Workers compensation - most workers compensation schemes contain an age bar, usually 65, where income replacement payments cease or are limited.[20]

  • While workers are covered for medical expenses and costs under the workers compensation system, if injured at work after the age of 65, most workers lacking independent income would be forced to retire;

  • Income protection insurance - income protection insurance can provide payment of up to 75 precent of income during a period of illness or incapacity. This insurance can cover those who are not covered under workers compensation schemes, such as self-employed, including tradespeople.

  • However, most income protection insurance ceases at 65 years.[21]

  • Superannuation guarantee age limit –the payment of the superannuation guarantee is currently subject to an age limit for workers over the age of 70 years. In September 2011, the Australian government delivereds a long overdue equity measure by introducing a bill into parliament that will abolish this age limit. This measure will come into effect on 1st July 2013.[22]

These age bars apply to older men and women alike and the consequences of being prematurely forced out of the workforce affects both men and women. But, given the cumulative effect of gender disadvantage, the impact of these forms of age discrimination are even greater on women.

Older people are under-employed for longer periods than younger workers and older women are more likely to be under-employed than older men.[23] Women live longer than men[24] yet as we can see from the superannuation and the age pension statistics, they have far less to live on throughout their long retirement.

What strategies should we pursue to fight the effects of age discrimination, on men and women, including on those women who are even more vulnerable because they are carers?

We need a critical review of our laws and policies to eradicate age bars that force older workers out of the labour force and create a barrier to re-entry. To this end I am advocating the removal of age bars in workers compensation and income protection insurance. I have welcomed a recent victory on the announced removal of the superannuation guarantee age limit.

I have, along with other advocates for older Australians, called for an audit of all commonwealth laws and policies for age bars that create disincentives to the continued workforce participation of older workers;

I expect such an audit will soon be announced by the commonwealth Attorney General.

Other changes we need to consider:

  1. Extend the coverage of the national employment standard (div. 4) ‘requests for flexible work arrangements’ contained in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to extend to all forms of caring responsibilities. Currently this right to request is restricted to parents/guardians with children under school age or children under the age of 18 and has a disability.[25]

  2. Provide comprehensive protection from discrimination on the grounds of all forms of family and carer responsibilities to both women and men in all areas of employment. Currently men are not protected to the same extent as women and this obstructs the sharing of caring work between women and men.[26]

  3. An independent inquiry into recognising caring work within Australia’s superannuation and pension schemes. Such a review should recognise the particular situation of compound disadvantage faced by older women workers.[27]

  4. More research that into the particular situation of older women workers and older women generally that draws on analysis from both gender and age academic fields.

  5. More disaggregated gender data by age and gender. The more comprehensive a picture we have, the more likely we are to get evidence-based policies that address the barriers that older women workers face.

  6. Raise awareness of age discrimination and societal ageism as it exists generally and as it impacts particularly on older women. We must address all forms of compound discrimination without which gender-based reforms will fall short for women who face multiple forms of discrimination. To try and tackle the obsession with ‘youth’ and the negativity associated with ‘ageing’ I have launched an ‘age positive’ website on the Commission website. I have invited stories of people over 50 who are contributing to their community and who demonstrate a positive approach to growing older – this includes carers.

 

These are just some of the initiatives that need to be considered to improving fairness for older Australians, and to strengthening the dignity and exercise of human rights by older people, and their chances of financial security in old age.

Many things need to change, but crucial to these aims is the removal of unfair age based discrimination in the workforce, and all those associated measures that constitute barriers to fair access.

In particular I hope to see, within a short space of time, greater workforce participation of older women and the fairer recognition of those with caring responsibilities, including those on the Carer’s allowance.

 

Thank you.


[1] See Public Service Act 1902 (Cth), Regulation 139 – later amended in 1966 by Public Service Act (No. 2) 1966 (Cth). At http://www.aph.gov.au/library/intguide/law/industriallaw.htm (viewed 29 November 2011). See also Australian Public Service Commission and Australian Office for Women, Lifting and Raising the Bar (2006). At www.apsc.gov.au/publications06/marriage.pdf (viewed 29 November 2011).
[2] Australian Public Service Commission and Australian Office for Women, Lifting and Raising the Bar. At www.apsc.gov.au/publications06/marriage.pdf (viewed 29 November 2011).
[3] Australian Public Service Commission and Australian Office for Women, Lifting and Raising the Bar. At www.apsc.gov.au/publications06/marriage.pdf (viewed 29 November 2011).
[4] Amended in 1966 by Public Service Act (No. 2) 1966 (Cth). At http://www.aph.gov.au/library/intguide/law/industriallaw.htm (viewed 29 November 2011).
[5] Diana Warren, Aspects of Retirement for Older Women (2006), p 42. At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/pubs/economic/aspects_retirement/Documents/Aspect_of _Retirement%20_report_final.pdf (viewed 24 November 2011).
[6]Superannuation Guarantee (Administration) Act 1992 no. 111 (Cth).
[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6361.0 - Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, Australia, Apr to Jul 2007 (Re-issue), p 78. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/6361.0Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)?OpenDocument (viewed 30 November 2011).
[8] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Improving women’s economic wellbeing, July 2011. At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/pubs/general/factsheet_women_issues/Pages/facts3.aspx (viewed 2 December 2011). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6361.0 - Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, Australia, Apr to Jul 2007 (Re-issue). At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/6361.0Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)?OpenDocument (viewed 30 November 2011).
[9]Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6361.0 - Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, Australia, Apr to Jul 2007 (Re-issue), p16. At
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/6361.0Main%20Features2Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6361.0&issue=Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)&num=&view= (viewed 30 November 2011).
[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 6361.0 - Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation, Australia, Apr to Jul 2007 (Re-issue), p18. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/6361.0Main%20Features2Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6361.0&issue=Apr%20to%20Jul%202007%20(Re-issue)&num=&view= (viewed 30 November 2011).
[11] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Budget 2009-10 - Pension Review Report. At: http://www.facs.gov.au/about/publicationsarticles/corp/BudgetPAES/budget09_10/pension/Documents/Pension_Review_Report/part2.htm (Viewed 24 November 2011).
[12] Australian Human Rights Commission, Accumulating Poverty? Women’s experiences of inequality over the lifecycle, September 2009. At http://humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/publication/gender_gap/index.html (viewed 2 December 2011).
[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia 4436.0 (2009), p 3. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4436.02009?OpenDocument#Publications(viewed 30 November 2011).
[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia 4436.0 (2009), p 3. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4436.02009?OpenDocument#Publications(viewed 30 November 2011).
[15] Professor Bettina Cass – ‘The costs of caring for family members with chronic illness: some policy considerations’, Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW, Unpublished paper presented at Roundtable Meeting 2: The Economic Impact of chronic disease on individuals and families, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, ANU, 22 November 2011.
[16] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia 4436.0 (2009), p 3. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4436.02009?OpenDocument#Publications(viewed 30 November 2011).
[17] Professor Bettina Cass – ‘The costs of caring for family members with chronic illness: some policy considerations’, Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW, Unpublished paper presented at Roundtable Meeting 2: The Economic Impact of chronic disease on individuals and families, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, ANU, 22 November 2011.
[18] Professor Bettina Cass – ‘The costs of caring for family members with chronic illness: some policy considerations’, Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW, Unpublished paper presented at Roundtable Meeting 2: The Economic Impact of chronic disease on individuals and families, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, ANU, 22 November 2011.
19] Joan Williams, Unbending Gender – Why Family and Work Conflict and What to do About it (2000), p2 and passim. Sara Charlesworth, ‘Managing Work and Family in the ‘Shadow’ of Anti-discrimination Laws’, Volume 23 No 1 (2005) Work, Family and the Law, p 8.
[20] Safe Work Australia, Key Workers Compensation Information Australia 2011, pp14-15. At http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/AboutSafeWorkAustralia/WhatWeDo/Publications/Documents/579/WC_Information percent20booklet percent202011_web.pdf (viewed 30 November 2011).
[21] See ratesonline.com.au insurance. At http://www.ratesonline.com.au/insurance/income-protection (viewed 1 December 2011).
[22] Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 2 November 2011, pp. 6-10 (The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services & Superannuation).
[23] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, September 2010. At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Sep+2010 (viewed 30 November 2011). Specifically, while older workers are less likely to be under-employed than younger workers, on average older workers tend to remain underemployed for longer. In September 2009, 41 percent of older underemployed workers had been underemployed for more than a year, compared with 30 percent of younger underemployed workers. Among older underemployed workers, women were more likely to have been underemployed for more than a year (50 percent) than men (33 percent).
[24] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Mar 2011. Specifically by 2007-2009, average life expectancy had risen to 79.3 years for newborn males and 83.9 years for newborn females:
At http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Mar+2011. (viewed 30 November 2011).
[25]Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) Division 4, s 65.
[26] Australian Human Rights Commission, Gender Equality Blueprint (2010), p 11.
[27] Australian Human Rights Commission, Gender Equality Blueprint (2010), p 15.

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

See Also