Labour Research April 2014


Equality must come of age for older women

The needs of older women workers are being overlooked, despite their increased numbers in the workforce.

Customer services worker “Lorraine” (not her real name) has worked since she was 17 years old. But she says that “in the last five years I have never felt so undermined and bullied simply because I am a woman of a certain age”.

Lorraine is one of over 5,500 women who took part in a major new survey of women members of the UNISON public services union aged 50 and over. The survey, carried out for the union by the Labour Research Department, forms part of a body of emerging evidence that, despite accounting for a rapidly expanding portion of the workforce, women in this age group are having their needs overlooked by both employers and government.

Similar conclusions have emerged from the TUC’s Age immaterial project on women over 50 and from evidence collated by the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women. The commission, chaired by shadow deputy prime minister Harriet Harman, is formulating policy ideas to improve the situation of older women workers for a future Labour government.

Lorraine’s experience is similar to that of many older women who need to work — and will have to work for a lot longer than they expected to, thanks to the rising state pension age for women — but who are vulnerable to extra-exploitation because of that reality.

Despite the post-2008 austerity, the majority of women aged 50-64 are now working. In fact, by the spring of 2013, 62% of women in this age group were in employment. The total proportion who were either in work or looking for work was 64%. Women in the next age group up — those aged 65+ — are also increasingly either in work or looking for it.

The increase in employment rates for women aged 50+ has accelerated in the last few years, not surprisingly given the changing state pension age, which began to rise from 60 in April 2010. According to a 2012 study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS): “This has already led to the majority of 60-year-old women being in paid work for the first time ever.”

But while older women are more likely to be in paid jobs then ever before, this does not mean they have satisfactory employment. A TUC report launched last month, Age immaterial: women over 50 in the workplace, shows the gender pay gap is twice as large for women in their 50s as it is for women overall. Full-time women workers earn 18% less than men per hour — the widest gap of any age group. But on top of that, nearly half of women over 50 work part time, mostly on less than £10,000 a year.

Older women workers are heavily concentrated in public services, even more so than women in other age groups. They are therefore a key group of workers for UNISON — the country’s largest public sector union — who last year embarked on a project to find out about their work and how it fits in with the rest of their lives. Its major survey of women members aged 50+ shows that they are not only working, but they are working a considerable number of hours each week and many would work more if the hours were available.

Part-time workers need more hours

Sixty per cent of the more than 5,500 in the survey are working full time (35 or more hours a week). And, altogether, 80% of them are working at least 25 hours a week. Moreover, many of those working part time — one in three — say they would increase their paid hours if they had the option. Among part timers in the lowest grade jobs, almost half would work longer hours if the choice were there.

Some who can’t increase their hours deal with the shortfall in income by taking on second or even third or fourth jobs — one in 12 women in the UNISON survey had more than one paid job. So the days when this cohort would expect to be winding down to retirement — perhaps working a few hours a week — are gone. In the main the money they are earning, the paltry pensions many are anticipating and the raising of the age when they can receive the state pension means they can’t afford to gently wind down.

This makes life very difficult for many, as the majority of women in this age group are struggling to balance their working lives with a range of other factors which would otherwise push them towards spending less of their time at work.

Some of these, of course, apply to all older workers of both sexes, such as a desire to phase out their working life as they approach retirement or to cope with health issues that make long hours difficult. But many women have additional issues which conflict with the need to work long hours, in particular, in their continuing role as carers of dependents — both children and adults.

Caring responsibilities

These are issues such as those faced by another UNISON member in the survey, who works in the care sector, who told the union she has “too many balls in the air”. She said: “Financially I cannot give up my wage but I need to find a way of looking after my disabled granddaughter and elderly mother and still pay the mortgage.”

Women in their 50s and 60s have a complex variety of caring responsibilities. For example, although only 1% of those in the UNISON survey have young children (under the age of 11), 13% of them have children aged 11-18. On top of this, 2% care for young grandchildren living with them — quite apart from the one in six who provide part-time care to grandchildren to allow the children’s parents to go to work.

Topping all these figures, however, is the very large proportion of women in this age group who have the primary responsibility for caring for dependent adults — either at home or at a distance.More than one in 10 in the survey has an adult dependent needing care who lives with them, while almost one in four have main care responsibility for an adult dependent living elsewhere. Altogether, one third of all women in the UNISON survey have the primary responsibility for caring for an adult dependent.

This combination of needing to work many hours to pay the bills, but needing the time to care for dependents and run the household, puts many older women in a state of conflict in their lives which is at least as difficult as that of younger working mothers.

The problem is that the family-friendly agenda which has been pursued (to a greater or lesser degree according to government) for the last two or three decades has not so far extended to older women. The TUC says: “A rigid workplace culture is making it difficult for older women to balance their careers with caring responsibilities, leading to decades of low pay at the end of their working lives and poverty in retirement.”

Flexible working requests denied

Certainly the women in the UNISON survey indicated that they do not have the work flexibility they need to accommodate their outside-work roles. This is particularly true for those caring for adult dependents.

Asked if it was easy in their workplace to get flexible working if you care for young children, views were mixed: 30% thought it was easy and 23% thought it wasn’t (the rest were not sure).

While not overwhelming, this view was more positive than for older dependents: asked if it was easy to get flexible working to care for an adult, just 18% thought it was, while almost half (47%) thought it was not.

And these views appeared to be borne out in practice. Among those who had actually asked their employer for flexible working, the success rate in achieving it was lower for those wanting it to care for grandchildren than for those needing to care for their own children. And it was lowest of all for those needing to care for dependent adults.

The TUC says that “the complex and often multiple caring responsibilities faced by women over 50 — and a failure by many employers to help them balance work with their other responsibilities — makes it particularly difficult for them to continue their careers whilst caring for loved ones”.

Dwindling opportunities

A further problem facing women who need or wish to upgrade their employment is that, when they hit 50, the opportunities to do that dwindle rapidly. More than one in three respondents in the UNISON survey said they are still interested in promotion or moving into a higher-grade job.

Hardly any of them, however, were optimistic about achieving that. Fewer than 6% feel they currently have good opportunities for promotion or moving to a higher-grade job compared with a massive 69% who feel they do not. The gap is particularly acute for those in the lowest-grade jobs.

So the options for older women in the workforce do not look particularly bright at the moment — and look even bleaker in the current climate of public sector cuts, attacks on pensions and increased exploitation in the form of zero-hours contracts and the like.

It is timely, therefore, that unions and prominent women in the Labour Party are looking to set an agenda for improvements in this area, both through collective bargaining and public policy.

Calls for improved rights

The TUC has made a number of recommendations designed to improve the lot of older working women.

These include rights to five to 10 days’ paid carers’ leave and paid “adjustment leave” for sudden changes to caring responsibilities; and for all jobs to be advertised on a flexible basis, with the public sector taking the lead.

Meanwhile, the UNISON public services union is also campaigning on the issue, calling for implementation of the Equality Act provisions on pay transparency and on “dual discrimination” — which would allow discrimination to be alleged on grounds of being an older woman — both provisions having been abandoned by the coalition government.

The union is also pushing for action to close the gender pay gap and for better training and promotion opportunities for older women, as well as an end to zero hours contracts.

Unison report: Women deserve better

TUC report: Age Immaterial

Labour Party report: Commission on Older Women - interim report