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Older Women's Network International Women's Day Conference

Discrimination Age Discrimination

I start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

To all of you here today at the OWN conference, happy International Women’s Day for 2016.

It has always been my approach to International Women's Day to mark the things we as women have to celebrate.

As older women in Australia at this time, we do have lot, and many of those causes for celebration are things that women in this room have worked on over many decades to achieve.

Do I dare echo the Prime Minister and assert:
“There has never been a better time to be an older Australian woman?”

Well for some, that probably is the case. But not for all older women I hasten to add, hence the work program for today and the ongoing lobbying of OWN.

I do however note some positive facts-

  • As an age cohort we have had more education than previous generations of women
  • We have access to a public health system of high standard and to universal health insurance.
  • Those who need it, and that is more that 80% of retired women have access to a publicly funded age pension and associated health and other concessions.
  • The full age pension is paid at its highest level yet.
  • Anti-discrimination laws are in place to protect us from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability and age.
  • Many of us have achieved home ownership.


  • Commonwealth funding supports 80% of the costs of aged care services
  • As older women we can look with some satisfaction at a landscape where women have achieved leadership positions, such as Prime Minister, Governor General, Governors, Premiers, Federal and State Cabinet Ministers, judges, including several on the high court.
  • When we watch local and international news, female reporters bring us cutting edge accounts of what is happening in the world’s worst troubled spots, as well as in global centres of political and financial power.
  • Increasingly women run government departments, corporations, and universities, and hold senior positions in the professions, in industry bodies and trade unions.

This is a very different picture of women and their inclusion than we would have been able to see when we were young women.

So a lot has happened, a lot of victories have been won.

But there is no time to sit back and relax. The status quo is not acceptable.

The theme of your conference today is 'A Fairer Future', and we have a lot to do to create that fairer future for all women as they get older.

The National Inquiry on Employment Discrimination Against Older People and People with Disability , which I have been conducting for several months has produced mountains of evidence about what remains unfair for older people and those with disability.

I am pleased to say also that through our 1200 consultations around Australia, from the several hundred submissions we have received, and from new research we have been able to commission to inform the inquiry findings, I have developed many strong and positive possible solutions, now under consideration.

These will appear when I submit the completed report to the Attorney General Senator George Brandis in early May.

I am sure you will give my report, and especially the recommendations for change, a lot of your active attention.

But here is a brief summary of the main themes and points:

  • Age discrimination in the workplace is still rife. It affects over a quarter of our older workers.
  • It affects women and men, but in somewhat different ways.
  • The worst effect for both is that about one third of those who lose their job because of age prejudice, never work again.
  • The effects are devastating- poverty, ill health, loss of social contact, and increasingly, homelessness.
  • As women live longer, are paid less and have less super than men, this growing poverty is of even greater consequence for older women.

The causes: fundamentally, our society remains ageist, so negative stereotypes continue to pervade the decisions of those who hire and fire.

As well, workplaces are not adapting fast enough to the need by many workers, not only older workers but certainly them, for flexibility.

By that I mean the capacity for the employee to negotiate different hours of work, days of work and sometimes place of work.

Caring, usually for frail older parents is the main but not the only reason why workers need flexibility if they are to continue in paying jobs.

Poor health has emerged as another major impediment to a longer working life.

Our workplaces must become healthier, that is, safer and more accessible. Jobs can be redesigned so that the person with a back or musculoskeletal problem, or a mental illness, can continue to be productive, or a person who is a wheel chair user for example, can make a valuable contribution.

Skills training looms large as an issue for older workers.

It is clear that all of us by the time we get to midlife will need some skills retraining. This will be either because the worker needs to leave a dying sector, say manufacturing, and move to areas say aged care, where jobs are available.

Or it can be that after 30 or so years at work, it is time to refresh, and get up to date with the digital world.

Our employers can be much more creative with shared jobs, particularly intergenerational sharing, and with utilising the experienced worker to train and mentor new workers and those returning after a long break from the workplace. 

I hope that at the end of my term, this July, I will have made an impact on employment discrimination, and that more and more older women and men who are willing and able to work, will find work.

This is the way they can strengthen their independence, economic security and social connectedness, all essential to support a satisfying old age.

Looking to the future, and how we can make it fairer:
I will note for you that there are two major areas that require massive change if fairness is to be available to all as we get older. These are areas I have become acutely aware of, but have not had the opportunity to advance very much in my term as commissioner.

The first is housing. There is not enough affordable housing, particularly in our cities, where most Australians live and want to live.

And, there is not enough accessible housing.

Although we are witnessing a housing boom here in Sydney, with new housing, mainly apartments appearing all around the perimeters of the city and the inner suburbs, those new dwellings by and large exclude older women.

This is first because of cost.

Have a look at the prices of new apartments around Green Square, or Pyrmont…both areas very convenient for transport, city amenities and health services.

Hardly any dwelling goes for under $2million. They are snapped up. There is no market failure here as far as the developers are concerned. They build, and cashed up, or mortgaged up people buy. No problem. For them.

But older women, after what may have been a long working life interspersed with years of caring, cannot buy them, or anything equivalent.

Policies to ensure that all new housing developments include a number of affordable dwellings have been tried but not flourished. It is time to revisit state and local government planning decisions here.

And, older women who do not own a home, will not be able to afford city rentals, once they are fully reliant on the age pension. Again, this trend of increasing numbers of older women without secure housing has not come upon us overnight. Decision makers have seen it coming. But, little has been done.

Governments, state, federal and local need to address the massive need for affordable housing as a matter of urgency, and starting  looking purposefully at planning and other changes to stimulate supply.

Closely related to the affordable housing supply shortage, is the absence of accessibility.

If older people, including those who do own assets and can buy at market price, are to be safely and happily housed in well located apartments, those buildings need to be constructed in ways that makes them accessible.

This is not a new or revolutionary concept. Universal design has been discussed for years. But it is not happening in our housing stock in Sydney and again the result is the exclusion of older people.

What are the levers that governments and policy makers can put in place to require building standards to include accessibility? Old people don’t want to, and often can’t live in buildings that have lots of awkward stairs, unsafe bathrooms and kitchens, that are badly lit and lack clear signage.

All this could be rectified, but where is the leadership? This is a big one for future fairness.

And finally for a fairer future we have to act on the worst violation of the rights of older people I have come across in my time as Commissioner, elder abuse.

You will be aware of the dimensions and the terrible effects of the phenomenon of elder abuse.

It is more than time for action.

I can report that we at last have seen a lot of promising movement, here at state government level, and with strong messages signalling reform coming for the Commonwealth with the statements and actions of AG George Brandis.

There is much to be done.

Unless we can tackle, and tackle effectively the scourge of elder abuse, in our homes and in our institutions, we cannot look to a fairer future for older women.

Progress is possible, and has started.

So happy International Women’s Day to all older women. You deserve it. Celebrate our gains but throw all your efforts into the unfinished business. I am sure you will do that during today’s meeting and beyond, and I wish the conference every success.

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

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