Diversity in the Aging Workforce: Why Older Women Matter

First published for AARP International’s The Journal – Special Edition on Women: Illuminating Progress in September 2015
http://journal.aarpinternational.org/file%20library/journals/aarpintl-journal-specialeditionwomen.pdf 

Susan Jackson-Wood, 62, was national training manager with the Australian operation of UK cosmetics company Yardley London, where she had worked for 23 years in a variety of management roles, when the company withdrew from Australia in 1998. Adelaide-based Jackson-Wood was 47 at the time and convinced that employers were not interested in employing an older woman, irrespective of her experience.

“I suddenly felt invisible,” she recalls. That’s when she decided to start her own training and professional development business, until 2004 when she joined business association Business South Australia as a sponsorship and partnership executive. Her interpersonal and relationship skills, as well as her ability to connect people were essential attributes of the role. And it’s what she loved to do.

As the oldest person on her team she quickly decided not to fall into the trap of thinking the old ways are the best ways. “Those days [of being in charge] are over, but there’s still a lot I can contribute,” she says. “I had to tell myself that it’s a different time and that the people I was working with have incredibly strong skills and qualifications that I never had. I’m not trying to compete with them.”

 True to her training background, Jackson-Wood believes in the importance of professional development. She self-funded her participation in a 10-month leadership development program run by the Leaders Institute of South Australia. “I really need to be doing something to keep the sparks going,” she explains.1

Susan is a shining example of thousands of older women in Sageco’s circle of colleagues and participants. Each story is different. As a specialist in providing aging workforce solutions to hundreds of organizations in Australia and New Zealand since 2004, we have learned the importance of recognizing that older workers are a diverse group. One size does not fit all—particularly when it comes to older women.

In terms of workforce participation, women ages 55 and over make up the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. We participated in a research project in 2013, Older Women Matter, with the Diversity Council of Australia that applied both an age and gender lens to existing academic and industry research to get to the heart of why older women matter.

Older female workers (defined as ages 45+) are a critical segment of Australia’s workforce. Their employment participation has increased significantly in the last few decades and now makes up 17 percent of Australia’s workforce. This is a global trend, but Australia still lags behind comparable countries.

Governments are interested in increasing the workforce participation of older women because of its effect on gross domestic product. Businesses benefit because of sustained job performance, high motivation levels, high reliability, improved staff retention, and the accumulation of experience, knowledge, and skills over working lives. Gender diversity research indicates businesses can experience a range of benefits from a workforce that is inclusive of women, including reducing attrition; enhancing innovation, group performance, access to target markets and financial performance; and minimizing legal and reputational risks.

But most importantly, older women benefit. For older women, paid work provides access to greater financial security as a consequence of having an independent source of income, as well as enhanced social support, satisfaction, self-esteem, and mental and physical health. With life expectancy in Australia increasing to more than 84 years for women, and close to 70 percent of older female workers rating their health as good or excellent, many older female workers are at their peak.2

A Framework for Action

Sageco’s approach is always about conversations and taking action. This framework was not only borne out of the extensive Older Women Matter research, but out of our niche experience with hundreds of successful organizations in managing the risks, challenges, and opportunities of an aging workforce. This framework is not exclusive to women; many of the strategies are applicable to older men. However, within this framework are tailored actions that organizations can take to increase and enhance the participation of older women in their workforce. Here are some examples of what can be done.

Source talent

• Check your recruitment practices for “gendered ageism.” Is a younger female more likely to win a close to entry level position than an older female? Are you assuming that because a woman is older she is overqualified?

• Value skills and experience that women have gained outside the workforce. Running a household or being a caretaker or a volunteer requires extraordinary skills that are transferrable to a work setting.

• Look past interrupted work histories. Many women have breaks from their career due to parenting and caring responsibilities. Periods of unemployment do not necessarily indicate a disinterest in work or a career failure.

• Look to your existing talent. Provide opportunities and flexible working options for the older women already in your workforce.

• Diversify your recruitment messages. Use descriptors that value experience, life skills, long service, or multiple careers.

Consider careers and capabilities

• Provide training courses at all employee life stages. Research shows that older women are twice as likely to participate in training courses as their male counterparts.

• Review career models for

gendered ageism. An older woman who has had several career breaks may be looking for promotional opportunities when she’s 55. This is often considered quite late in any given career model paradigm.

• Take a life stage view of capabilities. Recognize informal qualifications.

• Provide flexible development options, centering on family-friendly scheduling and locations.

Cultivate culture

• Create a specific employee value proposition for older women that might take flexible work, career opportunities, and financial well-being into account.

• Make older women visible. Represent older women in visual materials that demonstrate leadership in your organization.

Get flexible

• Flexible work is a key enabler for the participation of older women. Many older women care for grandchildren, children, and their own parents. Factor senior care into flexible offerings.

• Provide caregiving leave. Even better, provide paid caregiving leave.

• Use technology to support flexible work.

• Create a flexible work campaign targeted at older women, and ascertain what they want when they consider flexibility (e.g., a later start to the workday, an

earlier finish to the workday, buying extra leave).

Invest in health and well-being

• Each life stage requires a tailored approach for supporting health and well-being. For older women, this might include mental health issues such as anxiety or depression and physical health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, cancer, and menopause.

• At the same time, it’s important to challenge health stereotypes. Women are living longer and aging well, and close to 70 percent rate their health as good or excellent. Older women are less likely to experience work-related injuries and the least likely group to take days off due to illness or caregiving.

• Factor older women into safety initiatives. Review physical load and ergonomic design.

• Consider shift lengths and leverage flexibility to support well-being.

Focus on financial well-being

• Financial circumstances play a key part in encouraging women to exit, remain in, or reenter the workforce. Career breaks, the lack of early access to superannuation schemes, and pay equity contribute to this.

• Include financial well-being in your employee value proposition and tailor financial planning assistance to ensure it recognizes the financial circumstances of older women, particularly those who are divorced, separated, single, or widowed.

• Support industry-wide pay equity. The gap in Australia is 17 percent.

Tailor transitions

• Provide a framework to help older women make decisions about their future. It could be a productive and positive transition to retirement or imagining the next 5-10 years of working life. The framework should include holistic support in the areas of identity, money, career, health, relationships, and planning for the future.

• Develop a specific retention strategy for older women that includes initiatives such as financial well-being and flexibility.

Envisaging a Productive and Positive Future

Since 2004, we have been privileged to work with thousands of older women through our organization-sponsored Envisage seminars. The Envisage framework is a holistic framework that supports decision making for the future—personal identity, money, career, health, and relationships. In our experience, this single half-day intervention has provided life-changing moments for many women whose careers have been shaped by social, economic, and environmental factors not experienced by their male counterparts or the generations of women following them. This baby-boom generation of women was often denied educational opportunities, forced to stop working once married, excluded from superannuation schemes, and took long career breaks to raise children.

We are always buoyed by participant feedback such as the following:

“As a single woman, I really appreciated the fact that this seminar acknowledged that not everyone approaching retirement is the same (i.e., has a partner and children). The course has given me a good perspective about planning for a future where I have to rely on myself to safeguard my future, and where being single means I need about 70 percent of the funds a couple needs. It was a good sanity check. I would definitely recommend this course.”

“I realized that despite talking the talk about retirement, I was quite possibly in denial until I attended the Envisage program. I then realized that the other people in the room were my age, and what we were discussing was something that was soon going to affect us all in some way or other—some sooner than others. I was one of the sooner rather than later mob. I realized it was serious stuff that I had to really think about. What was I going to do with myself when work was not the place I had to go to every day? What would I think of myself and what would my husband want when I retired? Were we even thinking we might want the same things? It was time to talk and sit and think. Thank you—you made me do this. I keep my little book beside my bed to remind me that this plan is something that is ongoing. When I think of something new, I write it in my book, so it’s there for me to refer to.”

Being prepared to examine the challenges of the aging workforce with a diversity lens allows us to tailor solutions that cut through much of the rhetoric. We encourage any organization to take that bit of extra time and pilot a few initiatives. You might be surprised at the difference you can make. As an employer of many older women, we at Sageco can put our hand on our heart and say that they really do matter. •

1 Originally published in “Age Shall Not Weary Them,” Leo D'Angelo Fisher, BRW Online, June 19, 2013, http://www.brw.com.au/.

2 “Older Women Matter: Harnessing the Talents of Australia’s Older Female Workforce,” Diversity Council Australia, last modified 2013, http://www.dca.org.au/dca-research.html.

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