Not retiring: when sex and age combine

It’s International Women’s Day and a good opportunity to shine the spotlight on older women…

middle aged woman staring thoughtfully out of a window


It’s International Women’s Day and when better to consider the crossover between age and sex? A recent session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard different suggestions on how to tackle the problem caused by the accumulation of different factors in women’s working lives – a greater likelihood of career breaks and part-time work for caring reasons, lower paid jobs and the gender pay gap.

There is at least a growing focus on the problems of old age – due to concerns about the state pension and having to raise the retirement age and worries about economic inactivity. Those problems are doubly bad for women who may have taken career breaks or worked on reduced hours for some time.

Then there’s the WASPI campaign – the women who say they were not fully informed that the pension age was being equalised for women and men.

Some might argue that it’s a move towards greater equality, but it’s one based on an unequal starting point. Women retired with a much smaller retirement income than men because of all the unpaid caring work they do over the course of their lives. If those caring responsibilities were more equally shared and women’s work was paid at the same level as men’s maybe we could start talking about pension equality. The pension issue is being compounded by women opting out of auto-enrolment or reducing their pension payments due to the cost of living crisis.

The APPG meeting heard suggestions for a carers pension credit system or family carer top-up which would operate like tax credits and ensure contributions were topped up if women had to reduce their hours or drop out of work for caring reasons.

The menopause has also been much in the news of late, due to high profile campaigns by the likes of Davina McCall. But there’s still a long way to go to get it taken seriously. The law still requires discrimination due to the menopause to be treated as a disability, even though every woman will go through the menopause. While some menopause symptoms are better known – hot flashes, for instance, and brain fog – there’s also still a long way to go before we have full awareness of the impact of the menopause on things like sleep deprivation and of what it feels like to suffer from regular hot flashes. Draining is a word that springs to mind.

There are, however, lots of things to celebrate about older women, even if, due to internalised and externalised ageism, some people don’t like the term older. But unless we confront that ageism for what it is we won’t move forwards. One of the joys of the menopause for many is not just not having periods, but moving to a stage in life where appearance is not so important. Yet plastic surgery and the like mean the appearance tyranny can carry on for many more years than it used to. You would hope that, after years of experience at work and at home that women would feel more confident about themselves, but the world often doesn’t seem inclined to give women a break.

I was talking to someone this week about diversity and inclusion in relation to Black Lives Matter. He said that he didn’t want to harp on about the cuts, although these are bad and affect so many people. He wanted to celebrate the excellence of people who have achieved despite all the challenges. That is true of older women too. They are doing amazing things every day, often against the odds. Let’s recognise that, and not just on IWD.

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