Older women are demanding a better deal and Labour must deliver it

The UK has a 43 per cent gap between pensions received by men and women - the third highest level in the EU.

The UK has a 43 per cent gap between pensions received by men and women – the third highest level in the EU

“I am first in the queue for redundancy, and the last in the queue for a job,” said a woman in her 50s at a meeting I held in my constituency of Slough back in 2011.

She and other women who broke glass ceilings and fought for equal pay are getting older, and in my many discussions with older women – from all walks of life – I heard that they feel they are disappearing from the public sphere.

Indeed, women over 50 disappear from our television screens, they are retired early because of caring responsibilities or regarded as too close to retirement to matter in the workplace, and their contribution to family care is taken for granted.

Since the launch of the Commission on Older Women, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, at the end of 2012 there is a real momentum gathering and Labour is in the front, leading the way. At the end of the year the Commission will publish our final report, outlining our vision for a better deal for women over 50 – in the workplace, in their caring responsibilities and in public life.

The government too has focused on older workers, making the case for people to keep working rather than be dependent in older age. But the Department for Work and Pensions Fuller working lives report published this June is entirely gender blind, ignoring the specific needs of women.

For example, two thirds of men who work beyond normal retirement age are paid at the top of the scale for their sector of employment, while in contrast two thirds of women working beyond retirement age are in low paid jobs. Women work longer to help pay the bills and because they have less pension, while men continue because they are enjoying their work. More women than men work beyond retirement age although they are most likely to be carers.

The coalition know they have a woman problem, yet I would be surprised to see any substantial efforts to address these inequalities. For Labour to create a winning coalition we must offer solutions based on what older women really want:

Older women want, and need, to work

Changes to the state pension age mean that women need to work longer than before. The UK has a 43 per cent gap between pensions received by men and women – the third highest level in the EU. Only 40 per cent of women, compared to 49 per cent of men, have adequate retirement incomes and a shocking 37 per cent of women have no pension at all.

However, unemployment amongst women aged 50 to 64 rose by 45 per cent between the general election and its peak in the third quarter of 2013, although improved employment has since reduced the increase to about 36 per cent, but that is still disproportionate to the fall in unemployment in the general population since the election.

Older women are paid less too. The average full-time salary for women over 50 is just over £15,000. The full-time gender pay differential peaks at a £2.62 difference every hour for those aged 50-59.

A Labour government would prioritise closing the pay gap and tackling low pay by increasing the national minimum wage and ending the exploitative use of zero hours contracts.

Older women want, and need, to care for their family.

But as a consequence of caring, many older women have taken a financial hit by giving up work or cutting down their hours. Women make up six in every 10 carers.

A Labour government should help older women to combine work and care, with a right to leave to help them adjust to changes in caring responsibilities and support to return to work when possible.

Older women want, and need, to be visible in public life.

It’s vitally important for older women to be an active and engaged part of society in order to drive the change they wish to see. They need to have their voices heard in the media, in public life and in civil society organisations far more. Rather than see them as objects of pity, there is so much to celebrate and learn from their wisdom and experience.

A Labour government would implement the double discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2010 – which the coalition government failed to do – to prevent older women experiencing combined age and gender discrimination.

Older women are demanding a better deal and Labour must deliver it. It’s clear that the Conservatives don’t have a clue how. If we get this right we will empower older women, who have shown they want to work and to care across the generations, so that,operating from the centre of our families, we can provide the glue to keep communities working well together.

Fiona Mactaggart MP is secretary to the Commission on Older Women and chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Group

This article originally appeared in the Fabian and Compass collection ‘Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party’ edited by Anya Pearson and Rosie Rogers. It is available to read online here.

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