The number of older women in employment in Scotland has been steadily growing for two decades. For many, paid work is a positive choice, reflecting better education, improved health and more freedom to decide how to live their lives. For others, there is no choice: an older state pension age and financial pressures mean they and their families are dependent on their income. And older women often have caring responsibilities for partners, elderly parents and grandchildren.
Public policy and employer practices, however, lag far behind this reality: for example, there is no statutory right to leave for carers; employment practices fail to take account of the changes that take place across the whole life cycle; and older women often report unachievable targets and harassment at work.
The report from the independent Scottish Commission on Older Women (SCOW) highlights some of the experiences of older women in Scotland, with recommendations for governments at all levels, employers and trade unions.
More than 74 per cent of women in Scotland are in paid employment, with a significant number aged over 50. The report, Older Women and Work: Looking to the Future, is based on a review of existing literature and a new statistical analysis undertaken specifically for the SCOW.
Most importantly, the commission drew on two years of consultations, round-table meetings and conferences facilitated by the SCOW, the STUC and individual trade unions, the Scottish Women's Convention and women's organisations during which we listened to the voices and lived experiences of this neglected and often invisible generation. Older women spoke to us about their paid work and unpaid caring, and generously shared their sometimes painful experiences of harassment and discrimination.
While statistics on the growing number of older women in employment are encouraging, they shed no light on the quality of jobs in which older women are engaged. Indeed, the commission found ongoing challenges of pay inequality, job insecurity, underemployment, few opportunities for training and career progression and both implicit and explicit age discrimination.
At a conference in Glasgow last month, we heard that many older women are being told in appraisals that we are no longer capable of carrying out our roles, because we can't cope with change. Many in this sector are applying for voluntary redundancy, choosing to volunteer to leave rather than be "performance managed" or "absence managed" out of the door.
In a personal statement to the commission, a woman over 50, who had been a chief executive in the voluntary sector, told us that the advice she had at Job Centre Plus was to remove some of her qualifications from her CV.
Knowledge and experience are not valued in many recruitment processes. Yet the focus of government work programmes is almost exclusively on supporting young people into employment, meaning that there is almost no tailored training or support for older women.
One woman told us: "Every job I've looked at needs some sort of qualification, and a lot of them don't even say ' or relevant experience' any more."
For some older women, especially in rural areas, self-employment can be a means to flexible working that can fit around families and caring responsibilities. Some 10 per cent of women aged 50 to 64 who are in work are self-employed. At a round table meeting in Blairgowrie in April, one woman told us: "Age is irrelevant in self-employment. I don't need to ask permission if I want to work for as long as I can."
There is almost no openly available data on employment rates for older women by ethnicity. Nevertheless, we heard from older women from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds about their experiences of work. Participants at a conference in March identified concerns for older women from BME backgrounds highlighting specific medical needs, language barriers and the impact of scant formal work experience on pensions because of limited national insurance contributions, particularly for women who had worked in family businesses.
An upside of the commission's work is that some employers have positive and imaginative policies that recognise the important contribution older women make both to the business and to their families, as well as to the Scottish economy.
Morag Alexander co-chairs the Scottish Commission on Older Women. Download the report at http://bit.ly/1JMIQPY
Article from Herald Scotland