Harnessing the Talents of Older Women Workers

With increasing life expectancies and a financial imperative to continue working longer to ensure financial security, older women represent a growing segment of the Australian workforce. However, Australia lags behind similar countries when it comes to fully take advantage of the skills and experience offered by this demographic and business may be suffering as a result.

The DCA recently released research which revealed the extent to which older female workers are underutilised in Australia.

The research showed that:

  • Older women now constitute 17 per cent of Australia’s workforce with 45 per cent of women aged 45 and over now in the labour force compared to less than a quarter (24 per cent) in 1978.
  • Older women’s participation in the labour market is substantially lower than men’s in all age groups − as much as 17 points lower for women aged 55-64.
  • The underemployment rate for women aged 45 and over is 6.5 per cent compared to 4.7 per cent for men of the same age.
  • The most recent comparable data shows participation rates for Australian women aged 55-64 of 54.9 per cent compared to 72 per cent in Sweden, 69.8 per cent in New Zealand, 59.5 per cent in the US and 57.4 per cent Canada. Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Finland also all have greater participation of this group of women.
  • If Australia had the same participation of people aged 55+ as New Zealand, GDP in 2012 would have been 4 per cent higher.
  • Employers can reap significant benefits if they review their attraction, retention, transition and flexible working strategies with older women in mind.

In response to the findings DCA CEO Nareen Young said organisations which focus on older women’s employment are future proofing their workforce and positioning their organisation for success.

“Despite growing government and private sector attention on the employment challenges and opportunities presented by ‘older workers’ or ‘women’, we have yet to see concerted attention directed to both. The benefits that could accrue to organisations that do this – such as improved retention, performance, innovation and market share as well as lowered legal and reputational risks – represent a huge opportunity. In addition, the benefits for the wider economy and to older women themselves makes this a very compelling case,” said Ms Young.

In response to the findings the DCA has developed a seven point framework for organisational action designed to help companies better leverage the experience and talents of older women. The strategy suggests companies should:

1. Source and tap into older female talent.

  • Monitor the present and plan for the future, by monitoring workforce statistics by age and gender, and factoring older women into your workforce planning strategy.
  • Look to your existing older female talent as a first port of call when filling roles.
  • Find specialist recruiters who include older women in their candidate offerings.
  • Diversify your recruitment messages and advertise in diverse mediums to attract older female workers.
  • Educate internal and external recruiters on the importance of avoiding gendered ageism and monitor their performance in sourcing older female talent.
  • Look to government support by accessing mature age employment incentive programs.

2. Review career and capabilities to leverage older women’s ambition.

  • Monitor career and capability metrics to ensure older female workers have equivalent access to opportunities as other key employee segments.
  • Review career models for gendered ageism to ensure these respond to different life-stages and so support older women’s continued engagement and longer term retention.
  • Recognise prior learning when appointing, rewarding and/or promoting by taking a ‘life-stage’ view of capabilities, which recognises older women’s non-formal qualifications, skills and experience.
  • Integrate reskilling and on-the-job training (including technology-related training) into onboarding processes to address any potential skill gaps in your older female appointees.
  • Find specialist reskilling providers who target older and culturally diverse female workers.
  • Provide flexible development options (e.g. held at ‘family-friendly’ times and on-the-job, off-site and/or online).
  • Look to government support to assist your organisation invest in retraining older workers.

3. Cultivate a corporate culture which values the contribution of older female employees.

  • Create a specific employee value proposition for older female workers through focussing on flexible work, career opportunities and financial wellbeing.
  • Engage and educate leaders by emphasising the productivity benefits of a sustainable and (age and gender) inclusive workforce.
  • Make older female workers visible by representing older women in organisational communications and encouraging leaders to publicly show their support.
  • Factor gendered ageism into cultural change initiatives.
  • Monitor gendered ageism by reviewing age-bias complaints by gender.
  • Consider multiple discrimination (i.e. gendered ageism) in legal compliance.

4. Develop flexible work practices which focus on flexibility for older women workers.

  • Launch a ‘mainstreaming flexibility’ audit and review flexibility access by gender and age.
  • Feature flexibility in your employee value proposition, ensuring you tailor flexible offerings to older women and different employee segments within this (e.g. younger and older mature age women, divorced older women).
  • Provide external care assistance (e.g. care referral services for elder care/disability care, out of school hours and vacation services for older children, respite care services).
  • Factor elder care into flexible offerings.
  • Aim for leading practice carers leave.
  • Maximise sustainable employment by allowing casual workers to move to permanent part-time roles and consider work redesign to minimise work injuries.
  • Diversify flexibility communications to target older women and key employee segments within this (e.g. older Indigenous women, older culturally diverse women etc.)

5. Invest in health and wellbeing programs to preserve the wellbeing of older female employees.

  • Tailor health and wellbeing initiatives to ensure these address health and wellbeing initiatives pertinent to older women (e.g. mental health, cardiac health, menopause, cancer).
  • Challenge age and health-related stereotypes associated with age, gender and disability.
  • Consider workplace accessibility by developing a disability action plan which addresses the possible needs of your older female and male workforce.
  • Leverage workplace flexibility to support the wellbeing of older female and male workers managing health problems (e.g. temporary reduced hours, keeping in touch programs).
  • Factor older female workers into safety initiatives, particularly those initiatives likely to be pertinent (e.g. ergonomic assessments, shift work review).

6. Support older women’s financial independence.

  • Feature financial wellbeing in your employee value proposition.
  • Allow for age when conducting pay equity audits.
  • Review performance appraisal processes and outcomes to ensure older women’s skills and abilities are being appropriately rewarded.
  • Consider a paid carers policy to help address the significant negative impact breaks in service have on women’s lifetime earnings.
  • Tailor financial literacy and planning information to ensure this responds to the financial circumstances of older female women, including divorced older women.

7. Enable creative futures for older female employees.

  • Monitor the present and plan for the future by analysing employee attrition rates (including for redundancy) and retirement transition expectations by age and gender.
  • Identify opportunities to minimise attrition by reviewing exit interview and employee survey data by gender and age. Use the findings to develop a retention strategy for your older female workforce.
  • Focus on health and wellbeing (e.g. physical and mental wellbeing programs, flexible work) and financial wellbeing (e.g. competitive remuneration, financial planning information) to encourage your older female workers to remain in employment.
  • Develop a retirement transitions policy and ensure this is responsive to issues relevant to older women’s employment (e.g. financial wellbeing, caring responsibilities, flexible work).

Making a proactive organisational commitment to recruiting and retaining older women makes great business sense, maybe it’s time to review your operating procedures.

For more information on the DCA’s research Older Women Matter which was conducted in conjunction with the Australian Human Rights Commission and Sageco please visit the DCA website.

Diversity Council Australia¹

This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in September 2013

Harnessing the talents of older women workers