Women who fought to overcome gender discrimination at work are now being sidelined because of their age
They were the first generation to “do it all”. Now they are in danger of disappearing from public life altogether. Women in their 50s and 60s, the people who fought for better rights at work, for childcare, maternity leave and equal pay, are the hardest hit by today’s tough economic climate. According to Labour party figures, unemployment among women aged 50-64 has gone up by a shocking 41% in the last two and half years – compared with 1% overall.
Women who managed to combine working with bringing up a family are finding different pressures as they age. Often they will be caring for grandchildren as well as elderly parents. And while we are always being told we should be working longer, many of these women find the workplace is stuck in the past and can’t adapt to their changing circumstances. At the same time, older women are almost invisible on TV and in films. A recent study by Age UK found that 80% thought that television favours younger over older women.
Hopefully, some of this is likely to change. I’m a member of Labour’s Commission on Older Women, which has been developing policy proposals to help this underused and discriminated-against section of society. We have a raft of ideas about how to support and help women stay in the workforce or return to it, and to make older women more visible in society. We want the BBC and other public bodies to have a specific duty to ensure equality for older women. Norway, Sweden, Poland, Austria and Canada, among others, have measures to ensure that older women don’t vanish from public life. It’s time to see them here, too.
We are also, of course, looking at ways to support carers, since so many older women have to juggle looking after relatives with trying to earn enough money to keep going. Carers’ leave needs to become as automatic as maternity leave. Doubtless the battle to introduce it will be every bit as tough as the fight for maternity leave. Other countries, such as Germany, have imaginative schemes to reduce women’s working hours while caring. That’s just one of the ideas we should be looking at here.
Some of our internal arguments have been fascinating. For instance, shouldn’t mothers be able to share their maternity leave with grandparents, in the way that they can with partners? After all, in modern families the only way that a mother can get out of the house and into the workplace is by handing a caring role to her mother.
But there’s a problem. Not enough men do their fair share of caring for children at present, which is bad for children, and bad for men. Would giving grandparents rights to take leave from work – and remember that more and more older people are working longer, because they have to – in some way let fathers off the hook? Will it just become expected that granny will step in? It’s a real dilemma that we have argued back and forth.
Perhaps the best hope for this new agenda lies in the voting statistics. Older women are a key electoral battleground. Among the 50+ group of women Labour has a lead, but only by three points. Statistically, that’s not far off a dead heat. In 2010 the turnout among younger women, where Labour has its biggest lead, was just 39%; for older women it was 67%.
We are still some way from getting a proper focus on the dilemmas of older women, at least in the main halls of political conferences. In Brighton today, the Labour women’s conference helps plug the gap. Turning around public thinking on gender issues is time-consuming and, frankly, wearisome, but it certainly isn’t futile. All the party leaders are beginning to understand its importance: David Cameron has recruited an adviser to help him on the women’s vote. So let the bidding war begin. Politicians have votes to win and older women, with the right policies in place, can see their lives transformed.
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