Back to Listing

40 and female: is it over and out for you?

08 August 2013

Do you only pick-up the gender lens when you think about diversity, because there are other issues. Age is one. (Ageism has especially frightening financial and economic consequences for women. Women on the whole are under resourced financially, especially when it comes to their superannuation. If they’re passed over for jobs because of age as well as gender it leaves them way, way back.)

I am not the sort of person who thinks about my age all that often. I love work, have a lot of energy and drive and fun being alive and just don’t see myself as old. But a few things in the past fortnight have conspired to put the concept firmly on my radar.

In Melbourne, off to meet my daughters for lunch and wielding my new Myki, I jumped on a tram up Collins Street. I wasn’t sure how to use the card and I was muttering to myself about where I needed to wave it to register when I noticed three women watching me. Immediately one stood up and offered me her seat. I was mortified and said so in the same breath as thanking her for her kind and courteous action. Wobbling in my heels as the tram moved off, she must have thought I needed the seat because of my age - when it was more about unfamiliarity. It’s a long time since I’ve been on a tram.

Whatever - it seems the world was telling me something and, unsurprisingly, the media is confirming it.

Our attitudes around age, whether you’re male or female aren’t the most positive. In fact, those attitudes often have very negative effects, something that’s perpetuated by media generated stereotypes: the batty old witch or crone jumps into mind.

Earlier this year the Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan, released research showing a massive 67 per cent of Australians over the age of 55 have been turned down for a position based on their age. My guess is a lot of that 67 per cent are women who are often painted as ‘past it’.

(Just the other day I also found out that a mature staff member is anyone over 45. It’s something I bet surprises a lot of very vibrant male and female staff members who’ve reached that age.)

In the UK, figures from the Office for National Statistics, reported in The Daily Mail, show that “unemployment among women aged 50-64 has increased 31 per cent to 142,000, compared with an overall increase of unemployment of 4.2 per cent to 2.6million.”

Australian Labour Market statistics released in July by the ABS flesh out unemployment rates to provide a more detailed picture of our available labour resources by measuring underutilisation and underemployment in the labour market.

The results make fascinating reading.

There is a higher rate of underemployment among females than males and a larger number of females than males marginally attached to the labour force, making the extended labour force underutilisation rate higher for women than men.

It doesn’t surprise me. Women are underemployed and underutilised for many reasons, including because of their role as primary carers, and it seems because of our poor attitude toward them.

One of the two groups of people with marginal attachment to the labour force is ‘discouraged job seekers’, a great many of them are female. Discouraged job seekers are defined as people, who want to work and could start within four weeks and their main reasons for not actively looking for work include – and this is the cracker topping the list – ‘being considered too young or too old by employers’.

There are other disincentives. Not surprisingly, low earning capacity has also been found to be a significant one for women over 40. In a future where we must meet the challenges of an ageing population, develop a sustainable work force and grow the country’s productivity, we need to identify and tap into people and skills. Women 40+ are a significant pool of talent.

We are already developing sustainable workplace strategies and within that we’re looking at women 40+ entering, re-entering and remaining in the workforce. Reducing the impact of the factors that reduce workplace participation by these women - caring responsibilities, health status, previous workplace experience, ageism, technological advancement, wage-levels - is a significant part of the plan.

Travelling around the country, bedding down our 100 Women of Influence awards in regional and remote communities has made me more passionate about our need to hear the stories of the women of Australia, no matter where they live or what their age.

Women in the country have this wonderful sense of mischief and fantastic energy about them, yet when it comes to standing up and trumpeting their worth they go ‘all shy’.

On my recent travels I had many women tell me they were looking at their last career and thinking of doing something very different with the opportunity. Apparently, listening to what I have to say about women of influence inspired them to be bold and believe; to take the plunge and either find that job, apply for a new job or even start a business.

I asked many of the women why they weren’t nominating themselves or women they knew for the 100 Women of Influence awards, and their reaction was to downgrade their influence in their communities, believing it couldn’t be as substantial or as noteworthy or as relevant or as noticeable as the influence of women living in our major capitals who were probably younger and more dynamic.

That’s just not true.

Modesty and humility are great traits in a leader but when they get in the way of really knowing what women are doing in Australia, I see that as a problem. It’s why I’ve told the women I met they’re the hidden gems we need to unearth this year if we are to pave the way for even greater inclusion. It’s all about increasing the diversity of the group and changing perceptions about gender, age and anything else that holds people back from achieving their full potential.

(Which reminds me, we have a wonderful Ruby Learning Series coming up in Melbourne and Sydney dealing with the reality of how to start your own business, and, if you are already in the thick of it, how to make sure you and your business remain sustainable. I’d encourage anyone interested to come along, get involved and network.)



  • Judy West

    Judy West 6 years ago

    Great article, thank you Larke for shining a light on the topic close to my heart. As a self-employed female on the 'wrong' side of 65, I could not agree more. I have operated my two businesses for 12 years and 5 years - and also find time for voluntary work - but there are days when I feel like a change. I wake up and over a cup of tea, check out the jobs in my field. Knowing that I meet the criteria, have the energy and capacity to obtain an interview, I then stop. Why? Because I know the inevitable question, asked or assumed, will be my age! So, what is next for me? Is the excitement of learning, achieving and over-reaching over for good? I do hope not!