Ageism meets Sexism: Economic Issues Faced by Older Women

It will surprise no one that the double whammy of ageism and sexism is very keenly felt in Hollywood where women are relegated to secondary supporting roles as mothers, grandmothers and witches the instant they turn 40 while leading men continue to be virile and sexy onscreen well into their sixties. In November 2011, it was reported that a young actress of only 40 sued the popular film website IMDB for revealing her age

“In the entertainment industry, youth is king,” said the actress.  Hollywood’s starlets commiserated with her and many reported that once casting agents knew an actress’s real age she would never get the choice roles she would otherwise have been able to play convincingly.

Hollywood’s starlets commiserated with her and many reported that once casting agents knew an actress’s real age she would never get the choice roles she would otherwise have been able to play convincingly.

What may surprise some of you is how much the nefarious combination of discriminatory practices affects a great number of women all over the world and in our own backyard. There is no doubt that older women face a special set of challenges and circumstances in a variety of areas that include media depiction,  healthcare, civic participation and representation, labour force participation and economic parity – to name but a few.  In this article we’ll examine the circumstances that conspire to negatively economically affect older women.

To begin, did you know that older women are returning to the workplace at a higher rate than any other demographic segment of the population?  Whether the recession has taken a toll on their nest egg, their partner is unemployed, because they have no workplace pension or out of sheer economic necessity or just because they want to enrich their lives, women are headed to the office.

Poorest of the Poor

In 2005, before the recession took its toll poverty rates were lower than they had been in 30 years.  Critics often charge that poverty among seniors has drastically improved since the CPP was rolled out.

while it is true that the incidence of poverty among seniors has decreased over the past 30 years,  there is much work yet to do.  In 2005, Statistics Canada placed the poverty rate for seniors at 6.7%.  The rate of poverty among senior women (8.6%), however, was nearly double the rate for senior men (4.4%). And single women, unmarried, widowed, or divorced, have the highest rates of poverty at an astounding 18%.

Women are the poorest of the poor within Canada’s vulnerable populations, which include people with disabilities, aboriginal persons, racialized people, recent immigrants and seniors.  As one report put it: “Gender creates a cleavage of vulnerability that cuts across all other groups”.

There is a host of reasons for this being the case.  Currently, Canadian women working full-time year round are only earning 71% of the income that men are earning. Women have been, and continue to be, more involved than men in low-paying, informal or part-time work:  22% of women are in low-paid jobs compared to 12% of men, while 30% of employed women are working part time compared to 10% of employed men.

In 2003, while almost 70% of men over the age of 65 received income from a private pension plan, only 53% of women in the same age group had private plans.  On average, older women also receive lower CPP/QPP benefits: in 2009, the average monthly payout to women was $391.29 versus $564.23 for retired men.

Female Poverty is a Catch 22 Cycle

For older women, poverty is a symptom of social norms, and once it’s established, it becomes a cycle.  Inequities during working life lead to higher rates of poverty and reliance on retirement income supports as women age. These inequalities need to be addressed.  One of the biggest obstacles older women face is the fact that the labour market has historically been heavily skewed towards traditional work arrangements from which women have been left out.

Individuals involved in non-standard work arrangements lack the collective bargaining power that full-time workers often have.  For these employees, the results are inferior working conditions, benefits and pension plans.  In non-standard arrangements, employers often treat workers as contractors to avoid having to contribute their share of the worker’s CPP contribution. Women’s unbalanced representation in lower-paid and informal fields jeopardizes their financial security.

Women are also more affected by divorce and single parenthood.   The rate of poverty among single senior women (18%) is double the poverty rate among single senior men. Increasing rates of separation and divorce have also contributed to women’s economic insecurity.  According to the Department of Human Resources and Social Development, divorced women may often have difficulties finding work after temporarily leaving the workplace, and women are more likely to become single-parent families.  Single-parent families are five times more likely to be low-income than two-parent families. Women head 80% of single-parent families and they represent 90% of all single parents requiring assistance.

Statistics Canada researchers say that women who are widowed or divorced but not yet old enough to receive pensions experience extremely high poverty rates.  These women are often between the ages of 55 and 64. CARP receives countless stories from women in this age group who say that they cannot find work and that while their married counterparts between the ages of 60 and 64 are eligible for a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) spousal allowance, they are not.

Disabled women find it even more difficult to work. The likelihood of disability increases quickly for women as they age: while only 32% of women 65-74 have at least one disability, 72% of women aged 85 and older have a disability.

Women’s lower income and participation in non-standard arrangements makes it more difficult for them to have access to private pensions and to save for retirement.  This, in turn, ensures that they remain in poverty later in life and most need extra income to cover increased medical expenses.

Women and Aging

Most older adults are women, and the older the age group examined, the truer this is. In 2005, while women made up 52 per cent of those between the ages of 65 and 69, they made up 75 per cent of those aged 90 and older.  Although there is some expectation that the size of this discrepancy will decline as differences in life expectancies between men and women narrow, for now aging is, to a significant degree, a “women’s issue”.

Older men and women differ on a wide range of measurements. Both because of longer life expectancies, and because women tend to marry older men, women are more likely than men to be widowed.   Although this will no longer be the case for future generations, for the time being older women are also likely to have lower levels of educational attainment than their male counterparts. Since education levels have a close relationship with a number of indicators of wellbeing, such as health, social isolation, and income, lack of educational attainment is significant.

Women provide care but it costs them dearly

Aging at home is a major imperative for the formal health care and social services system, which cannot adequately address the needs and expectations of growing numbers of older Canadians who must then rely on family and friends. Family caregivers contribute $25 billion worth of unpaid work to ensure their loved ones get the care and support they need to age at home rather than in an institution.   Providing this care costs them both emotionally and financially.

It is estimated that 2.7 million Canadians provide care to a loved one – 77% of them are women and 51% of them are women over the age of 45.  Of these caregivers, 22% took at least one month off work and 41% used personal savings.  As a result of their work, almost 8 in 10 caregivers report suffering emotional difficulties, 7 out of 10 reported they needed respite, 54% reported financial difficulties and 50% reported weaker physical health.  Employed women are just as likely as unemployed women to fulfill caregiving duties and take time off work.

Every study that examines women’s poverty identifies caregiving responsibilities as a factor that exacerbates the financial insecurity older women face from lower work-life income, dropout periods for child rearing and elder care.

Additionally social patterns among newer immigrant groups in Canada indicate greater barriers to access, as well as the possibility of more traditional gender roles.  It is reasonable to expect that women in these ethnic communities will be even more disproportionately represented in caregiving roles than women in the general population.

The importance of these factors lies in their effect on the financial security of women, particularly immigrant and racialized women. At the lower income levels the impact on women is even greater, especially on newer immigrants and racialized groups.

When considering all of the things we have examined here, it becomes evident we need to provide more support for older women.  We need a National Caregiver Strategy to support and recognize this important work as well as a targeted initiative for older women.  The Government of Canada has funded a targeted initiative for Older Workers to provide retraining to laid-off workers in at risk communities dominated by single industries.  We need an initiative that provides skills training or upgrading for older women that want to continue working but cannot find work and pension reform initiatives that will assist Canadians in saving for retirement.