Undervalued, underemployed, discouraged and departed: the story of mature-age women in the workplace

Media releases

Mature-age women earn only two thirds of the income of mature-age men, have significantly lower workforce participation than men, are more likely to be underemployed than men and retire earlier with around half the superannuation of men of the same age.

This International Women’s Day (Friday 8 March), Diversity Council Australia said more work is urgently needed to address this critical underutilisation of female mature-age talent.  

ABS statistics reveal that mature-age women (defined as 45 years plus) are consistently underemployed and underutilised:

  • Undervalued: Women aged in their fifties and above earn 37% less than men of the same age. Women between 45 and 65 are more highly represented among casual workers than men and are twice as likely to have a job with no leave entitlements than men.
  • Underemployed: Only 47.1% of women aged between 45 and 74 are employed full time compared to 76.9% of men. More than half of mature-age women work part time and 18% of these women (that is 164,500 women) would like to increase the number of hours they work.
  • Discouraged: The percentage of mature-age female discouraged job seekers has remained consistently higher than that of male discouraged job seekers for most of the last two decades. Close to half a million more mature-age women than men (452,300) are discouraged job seekers.
  • Departed: Women retire earlier than men (at 49.6 years of age vs 57.9 for men) and with half the superannuation of men although, on average, women live another 3 to 4.5 years longer than men.

DCA’s CEO, Nareen Young, urged employers to take a good look at why mature-age women are being left out:

“Apart from traditionally female-dominated sectors such as teaching and nursing, I am often struck by how few older women I see in many corporate workplaces. I can’t help but think mature-age women really are invisible at work. But in an era of skills shortages and an ageing population, it makes no sense that these women are so undervalued,” said Ms Young.

“One contributing factor is that the burden of care for older, frail family members usually falls on middle-aged women – increasingly at the same time as they are still caring for children. More disturbingly though is that discrimination might be at play – the most common reason given by female discouraged job seekers for not seeking work is that they were considered too old by employers,” said Ms Young.

Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner, said ignoring the huge pool of talent and experience represented by mature-aged women undermines the national imperative of growing the economy.

“Employers who automatically seek to import labour should look first at this local pool of skilled and experienced female workers. Able mature women who are willing to work are keen to achieve financial independence and especially to save for retirement. The long term public costs of consigning them to unwanted early retirement are massive but can easily be avoided by assessing mature-age female workers on their capacity to do the job,” said Ms Ryan.

Rowan Arndt, NAB's Head of Diversity & Inclusion says the combination of an ageing population and talent shortages makes it critical for organisations to face age diversity challenges.

"Australians reaching traditional retirement age are now often continuing to work, or returning to work. This talent pool needs to be recognised and empowered, so mature-age workers are able to further their careers.

"At NAB, we are working to ensure a level of inclusion for mature-age workers, especially women, by removing barriers and changing mind sets," said Mr Arndt.

Research clearly demonstrates significant benefits for organisations and the wider economy from attracting, engaging and retaining female mature-age workers:

  • Increasing older women’s labour participation rates to match men’s could increase per capita GDP growth to 2044-45 by 1.5% (Productivity Commission, 2010).
  • Organisations can gain an average net benefit of $1,956 per mature-age employee per year, generated from a combination of higher retention rates, lower rates of absenteeism and decreased recruitment costs (DEEWR, 2012).
  • Workers aged 65+ have the highest productivity and motivation levels, suggesting that life stage and experience are key drivers of productivity and motivation (Ernst & Young, 2012)
  • A range of mature-age workforce productivity benefits accrue such as the provision of a depth of knowledge to clients and colleagues and being less likely to be absent or quit their jobs (World Economic Forum, 2012).

In partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission and sponsored by National Australia Bank, with SageCo, DCA is conducting important research on how Australian organisations can implement workforce solutions that better harness the skills and talents of Australia’s female mature-age workforce. Called, Grey Matters to Women: Attracting, Engaging & Retaining Your Female Mature Age Workforce, the results will be released in May 2013.