Susan Ryan on her new role as Age
Discrimination Commissioner

The Hon Susan Ryan AO was recently appointed as Australia′s first ever full-time Age Discrimination Commissioner. Ms Ryan pioneered extensive anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, including the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action Act 1986 when she served in senior portfolios in the Hawke Government, including Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. In this exclusive interview with Diversity Matters, Commissioner Ryan talks about how she expects to tackle age discrimination.

The Human Rights Commission′s 2010 report, Age discrimination – exposing the hidden barrier for mature age workers, found that unlawful age discrimination is a major disincentive to mature-age workers continuing in paid work. Why is it such a problem and what can be done about it?

Well it is a huge problem. The Australian Human Rights Commission's report certainly produced a lot of evidence to that effect and I think there have been other research projects which have also revealed age discrimination. Anecdotally, people who've been made redundant in their early 50s say, time and time again, they can't get back to work again because of age discrimination.

There's no doubt in my mind that it's a very widespread problem. First of all it's a problem for the individuals who are willing and able to continue their working life and who are denied this chance simply because of age prejudice. It's a problem for the companies that could otherwise have the benefit of their experience and knowledge. The economy cannot afford to throw out talent and experience in the way that age discrimination causes.

We know that all major employers, and I'm sure all [Diversity Council Australia] members, are well aware of the shortage of skilled labour at various levels across various sectors. It makes no economic sense from a company's point of view to throw out capable people who might have 10, 20 or more years to contribute. Of course, for our society as a whole it's a problem. Because we have people who should be usefully engaged in the workplace, with all of the benefits that brings, left stranded and then often falling prey to mental illness such as depression and so on. It's a lose/lose situation to throw out capable workers simply because of a prejudice based on age. It'll be win/win when we can create opportunities for them to get back into the workforce.

The ageing of Australia's workforce is a significant challenge for employers but some have yet to formulate policies and programs in this area. Why do you think employers are slow to tackle this?

Well it's disappointing but it is the case often when you have major social changes that employers, not all but some employers, take a long time, sometimes even a generation, to catch up. If we look back at what happened with gender discrimination, we really started the push for equal opportunity in the workforce for women in the 1970s but it actually got going in the 1980s with my legislation and so forth.

It didn't happen overnight, even with the goodwill of many employers. It still took quite a long time.

How will your extensive experience in the area of anti-discrimination and affirmative action for women help you in your new role as Age Discrimination Commissioner?

I think there'll be a lot of transference of the experience because, in the end, discrimination – whether it be gender, race, age – has a common element and that's prejudice.

Once you've gone through tackling one form of prejudice which has no rational basis but is deeply rooted in society, then I think you've got some clues as to how to move on and tackle the next area of prejudice, in this case – age discrimination.

DCA – previously called the Council for Equal Opportunity in Employment Ltd – was started as a result of my affirmative action legislation and the pilot program we had with the major employers. That was very constructive and a lot of those major employers started to look carefully at their workforce and started to remove unfair barriers against recruiting and progressing women.

But of course, as we all know, that story's not over. However, we've seen a massive change but it's taken some employers a generation to do it. I fear that's happening with age discrimination, although it's been around for a long time.

What's been happening in recent times, as we get more and more of an ageing population, we've also had some huge shocks to the national and global economies which have led to this fashion for retrenchments and downsizing, and so more and more people are getting caught up in it.

I'm sure the more thoughtful and advanced employers understand this and have strategies in place. But I think we're going to have to do a lot of talking and persuading across the economy to get all employers understanding that they're serving their own purposes best by hiring the person who is best for the job regardless of age, gender and so on.

Do you think it's time to introduce affirmative action legislation for mature-age workers?

Well I wouldn't have that at the top of my priority list at this stage after two weeks in the job! I certainly have at the top of my list setting up discussions with employers, through councils such as your own and through individual meetings, to see what kind of pilot program, if you like, we can get going. This would be in the absence of any legislative push.

Maybe we don't need a legislative push now, maybe because employers are used to dealing with diversity and some have done it very successfully and because of the pressures on businesses to find capable employees. Maybe the time is right for companies to say, “Yes we are willing to address this issue and this is how we're going to try and address it.”

Then we could have expos of how different companies are doing it or conferences around pilot programs – what works, what doesn't work. Just get a lot of very positive attention – not critical attention, but positive attention – to what is working and what's happening. As employers are out there competing for talented productive employees, it may happen in that way. Let's see how that goes.

I think [DCA′s] foundation members would say that having been prodded by government to properly consider female talent and female opportunity within their own companies, they would never go back to saying, “We just don't hire women,” or, “No we never promote women because we don't want to send them on training.”

Those attitudes that were so standard around the place in 1983, you wouldn't hear them now. I think they've learnt the lesson that you can move towards diversity to the benefit of the individuals, but also to the benefit of the companies and the economy.

To what extent will the Commission be able to address what DCA and a lot of diversity practitioners call these days, ‘intersectionality’ in age discrimination? For example, addressing barriers for older female workers, culturally diverse older workers.

I'm happy to say that the Human Rights Commission is very well set up to work in this way and they do already. As you'd be aware, the Age Discrimination Act was the responsibility of Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. She is very, very alert to the crossover and the particular issues that arise for older women in the workplace. Similarly my colleague, Graeme Innes, the Commissioner for Disability is very well aware of the issues that arise for the person who is not only older but also with a disability.

We work as a team in a lot of ways and there are a lot of crossovers, certainly in the area of gender and age. We know, because we live in this society, there will be crossover. We also know that it's of even greater importance to our older female workers to retain paid work because, generally speaking, women have half the amount of superannuation men have on retirement because of their different work patterns. They have a financial need to work longer to build up superannuation.

Also we know that they live longer than men. At the moment if they're forced out early they've got half or less of superannuation, but it has to last them a lot longer. There are still gender specific aspects to the whole problem. Having said that, at the same time, for the 52-53 year old man who gets a forced redundancy and can't get back to work, this is a terrible situation for him to be in, heartbreaking really.

Do mature-age women experience a double whammy of discrimination?

I'm sure that in many cases this does happen. Again I'll be looking for the research, the evidence base, to support us before we start getting specific strategies. But we're very well aware that sexism, despite our best efforts, has not disappeared entirely.

We're also aware that the cult of youthfulness, which is quite a burden to a lot of people as they get into their 50s and 60s, probably impacts more on women. Because the stereotype of what is an attractive woman you want to have around the workplace is related to younger women. Again, that impacts on women more.

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan launched the Australian Human Rights Commission's new Age Positive website. Its aim is to share positive stories on ageing to confront negative stereotypes and remind the public about how much older people continue to contribute to our communities. Visit http://www.humanrights.gov.au/age-positive/index.html