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We need to pay more attention to the risks faced by older women

October 4, 2021 / Our Watch ambassador Lucy Turnbull AO

In this article

As women age, not only are they faced with the fear of diminishing attractiveness, they are also seen as less valuable and are disempowered in many ways, including in the workplace. The economic disadvantage that comes with shouldering most of the homemaking burden in their child-rearing years continues all their lives.

Older women are the fastest-growing group of people facing homelessness. In August 2020, it was estimated more than 400,000 women over 45 were at risk. About 30 per cent of women over 55 living in private rentals were likely to be at risk of homelessness. This risk has only intensified with higher rents and property prices.

On Friday, the International Day of Older Persons, the range of ways in which older women are disadvantaged in society were brought into sharp focus.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on average, women retire with 43 per cent less superannuation than men, creating the circumstances for a much less well-off old age.

This trend is set to continue given Australia’s ageing population and the major gap in the accumulation of wealth between men and women across their lifetimes.

Older women are constantly sent the message by our society that they aren’t worth investing in, that they are not as employable as younger people, that they are washed up and unable to continue to “climb the career ladder”. The economic disadvantage that many have taken on to rear children and assume caring responsibilities is consistently undervalued.

While it is not highly visible in public debate, older women also experience violence. This is often connected with social and economic disempowerment. This includes all the forms of violence that women experience throughout their lifetimes, as well as elder abuse and violence in aged care settings. In 2017-18, calls from older women to elder abuse helplines across Australia exceeded calls from men, with emotional and financial abuse most commonly reported.

Violence against older women is preventable if the underlying causes improve. This means addressing gender inequality and disrespect towards women of all ages – and the particular ways these play out for older women, as well as addressing all forms of ageism – are key to prevention.

National and international evidence shows violence against women is driven by a tacit tolerance of men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence, rigid gender roles and identities, and forms of masculinity that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Women of all ages have also been disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic. The gender gap is widening further still, according to the recent census taken by Bain & Company for Chief Executive Women.

As we rebuild and recover from the health, economic and social crisis of the COVID pandemic, everyone has an important role to play to ensure we do this in ways that increase the safety, wellbeing and economic security of women, and older women in particular.

All levels of government can introduce measures that support older women’s employment, reduce the number of older women living in poverty and ensure they have access to appropriate housing, and increase women’s financial security and independence across their lifetimes.

One critical priority is to close the superannuation and retirement income gaps, as well the gender pay gap, which has recently risen to 14.2 per cent for full-time employees.

Employers can also provide equal work opportunities, tackling sex and age discrimination and creating safe workplaces that promote respect and equality and value diversity. Our Watch’s Workplace Equality and Respect program has resources that workplaces can use to get started in this area.

As individuals, we can also reject sexism and ageism and challenge disrespect towards women. The Australian Human Rights Commission‘s report What’s age got to do with it? found that over half the survey respondents agreed that making jokes about age is more socially acceptable than making jokes about things like race and gender.

It is concerning that so many are quick to make ageist jokes, trivialise the issues faced by older people, and devalue the significant contributions that older women have made and continue to make in our society.

Together we must do more to create a society in which older women are safe, valued, respected, and treated equally.

Not only on the International Day of Older Persons, but every day.

Lucy Turnbull AO is the former chief commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission and a proud Our Watch ambassador.

This was first published across Australian Community Media publications on 1 October, 2021, including The Canberra Times. 

Media contact

Saraya Musovic, Senior Media and Communications Advisor 
saraya.musovic@ourwatch.org.au or 0407 091 383

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline: 

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.  If you are worried about your behaviour, call Mensline on 1300 789 978 or visit mensline.org.au.” 

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Changemedia.ourwatch.org.au 

About Our Watch

Our Watch is a national leader in Australia’s work to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. The organisation was created to drive nation-wide change in the practices, norms and structures that lead to violence against women and children. 

Find out more about our work to end violence against women in Australia.

The evidence
Woman holding baby.