Older women at work: doubly disadvantaged?

Blog posts

8 Mar 2017

Rosa MarvellRosa Marvell, Research Fellow

Researchers, policymakers, practitioners and employers have agreed for some time that with our ageing workforce, UK workplaces need to be more age-friendly. However, many look at age in isolation. They do not think about what work might be like when age intersects with other characteristics.

Personal characteristics do not influence peoples’ lives in mutually exclusive ways. Individuals who are marginalised in the labour market by their gender, ethnicity, social class or disability experience the intersection of multiple forms of disadvantage. In other words, each person’s lived experience is multi-layered and complex.[i]

IES’ recent evidence review for the Centre for Ageing Better, Fulfilling work: What do older workers value about work and why?, reveals why we must think about other factors alongside age. The labour market experience of older women is often characteristically different to that of older men. As my colleagues have also highlighted today, their experience of ageing operates in a context of lower pay, more part-time work, a greater likelihood of balancing work and care, or caring for multiple generations, sexism, and other barriers to career progression.

Career progression and personal development

Our review found that older women can experience high and persistent levels of sexism at work which older men do not face. Some report inappropriate behaviour from colleagues, line managers or customers, whilst women in leadership roles can struggle to get the respect they deserve. Others feel overlooked for promotions, development or training. This leads to stress, anxiety and can ultimately force women out of work.

Commentators suggest this is down to pervasive and negative public attitudes towards older women. Their skills, experience and judgement are persistently under-valued; careers are stalled by a reduced tolerance and acceptance of women ageing at work. This may be particularly acute for women looking for work, as evidence suggests that ageism and sexism is rife in recruitment and selection.

The gender pay gap

Our review also discussed how women often find themselves paid less for the same work or in lower-paying occupations or sectors compared to men of the same age. This is often because they have taken on responsibility for bringing up children, caring for others, or other unpaid work in the home. For younger generations, the gender pay gap is shrinking. However, UK Government data shows that for those aged 40 and over the gap is substantial. It is most severe for women aged between 50 and 59. Not only does this mean less take-home pay each month, but also that older women in their 50s and 60s have had far less opportunity to build up their savings or pension(s) because of lower pay and time out of the labour market.

Caring responsibilities

IES’ report noted how, although anyone can have caring responsibilities at any age, older women are significantly more likely to be caring for family or loved ones. This may often be ‘sandwich’ caring: caring for both older and younger generations. However, our current generation of older women in work – part of the first generation who expect to be able to work alongside their caring responsibilities – have found that many workplaces have not caught up. Comprehensive support, flexible working arrangements and caring-friendly attitudes can be hard to find. As a result, caring can be one of the major drivers which pushes women out of work.

What next?

A handful of the issues facing older women have been discussed. It is by no means comprehensive, and there are other issues which were not discussed in IES’ Fulfilling Work review. For example, women going through the menopause may have young and/or male line managers who do not understand and are ill-equipped to provide the right support.

Older women are an essential part of productive, successful and diverse teams at work. They have skills which are highly prized, valuable work histories, and insightful personal experiences. Not only do they bring significant benefits for UK employers, they also make a major contribution to the national economy. Employers, HR practitioners, researchers and policymakers should consider how the experience of age is different ‘on the ground’ if we are to retain some of our most valuable employees.

[i] Whilst this blog considers only age and gender, these intersect with aspects such as ethnicity, disability or social class.

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More blogs for International Women's Day 2017

Women, work and caring: unspoken expectations and stifled careers

Sally Wilson reflects on IES research into working carers and considers cultural expectations around caring roles and gender.

An opportunity to be bold for gender pay equality

Catherine Rickard urges organisations to view gender pay reporting as an opportunity to tackle inequality and promote change.

Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.