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Intersectionality of age and gender

Age Discrimination

Intersectionality of age and gender
7th National Australian Women Lawyers Conference
'Investing in the future'

(Check against delivery)

26 August 2018

“Older people” are often thought of as one homogenous group. How often have we heard – what do “older people” think, what challenges do “older people” face? Older people are often defined by their age, and clustered to describe or presume their experiences or opinion.
Of course, older people are very diverse with varying life experiences, aspirations, and circumstances. 

When we think about age discrimination, there is a tendency to think about the experience within that separate category. The same can be said for other forms of discrimination – whether it be sex discrimination, racial discrimination, or disability discrimination. 
This kind of thinking is consistent with the ways anti-discrimination laws in Australia are framed. There are separate Acts dealing with discrimination based on different attributes:

  • Sex Discrimination Act,
  • Racial Discrimination Act,
  • Age Discrimination Act,
  • Disability Discrimination Act.

The intersectional approach, however, recognises that there are particular consequences when two or more forms of discrimination interact. Conceptualising discrimination on the basis of a single attribute in insolation hinders our ability to respond effectively.
Obvious examples of intersectionality include age and disability, age and race, age and gender. It is interesting to consider the attributes of “older person” and “female”. These attributes cannot be viewed in isolation either. Gender and age inequalities are not distinct, and the intersection of the two needs attention. This can clearly be seen when considering financial security. Older women experience compounded disadvantage when compared with older men when it comes to financial security:

  • In 2016, one in three single women over 60 were living in permanent income poverty.[1]
  • Women on average retire with less than half as much as men.  In 2016, women who retired had an average super balance of $157,000 and men had an average of $271,000.[2]
  • Nearly half of women aged 65 to 69 are reported to have no superannuation of their own.[3]

The capacity for women to accumulate and sustain wealth over their life is different from men. Women’s incomes and work cycles are different, often coming in and out of the workforce due to caring roles, working in lower paid roles and industries, and having difficulty regaining employment. This can be particularly difficult for women wanting to re-enter the workforce after a career break. There can be many reasons for this. This can be because they don’t have a current CV, or have difficulty identifying their skills following their time away from the workplace. This issue is being targeted by the government with Skills Checkpoint. The program, announced as part of the 2018/19 budget, will provide advice and guidance on transitioning into new roles or new career pathways, with a view to encouraging reskilling and supporting ongoing engagement in the workplace. Their networks may have moved on, or their tech skills have stagnated, while they were out of the workforce, or in casual or part time roles. Perhaps the job the used to do no longer exists because of automation, or their qualifications or registrations are not current or out of date. It might also be because they require flexible working arrangements to manage their caring responsibilities – for their children or grandchildren, for their own parents, or their spouse or partner. While workplaces are getting better at this, there is a still a long way to go. The legal profession, in particular, can be challenging for a woman with caring responsibilities.

Data from a Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey showed that reports of age discrimination among older male jobseekers have steadily declined from 42 per cent in 2001 to below 20 per cent in 2013. But the same decline has not been observed among older women.[4] The survey found gender to be a common factor predicting perceived discrimination in both job applications, and in the course of employment. Interestingly, age was a significant predictor of perceived discrimination in job applications only, while being a mother of young children was a significant factor only for discrimination in the course of employment.[5] This is a clear example of where the cross-section of gender with age produces different outcomes of discrimination.

I have prioritised implementing the Australian Human Rights Commission 2016 'Willing to work' report as one of my three priorities for my term as ADC. The Willing to Work report makes it clear that many older Australians are willing and able to work but are prevented from doing so by age discrimination and lack of positive policies and supports. This economic disadvantage experienced by older women has flow on effects to other aspects of social and economic wellbeing. This results in some issues being more acutely experienced by older women - two of these issues are also key priorities for me in my term as ADC.

First, older women at risk of homelessness. Australia is facing a crisis of older women at risk of homelessness. In just 5 years, the number of older homeless women has increased by over 30% to nearly 7,000 in 2016.[6] This figure is expected to continue increasing due to economic disadvantage experienced by women. Secondly, elder abuse. Older women are significantly more likely to be victims than older men.[7] This may be because older women face both gender inequality (which underlies violence against women) and ageism.

People can face a particular disadvantage at the intersection of two or more attributes – whether that be, for example, age, race, sexual orientation, or having a disability. It is clear there are particular challenges for a person who is both 'older' and a 'woman'. I am committed to addressing three areas where this intersection leads to particular disadvantage - implementing Willing to Work, and addressing older women at risk of homelessness, and elder abuse.

S Feldman and H Radermacher, Time of our lives? : building opportunity and capacity for the economic and social participation of older Australian womenLord Mayor's Charitable Foundation (2016). At

R Clare, Superannuation account balances by age and gender. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia Limited (2017). At (viewed 4 July 2018).

R Clare, Superannuation account balances by age and gender. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia Limited (2017). At (viewed 4 July 2018).

M Hahn and R Wilkins. Working Paper No. 9/13 Perceived job discrimination in Australia: its correlates and consequences. Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series (2013).

M Hahn and R Wilkins. Working Paper No. 9/13 Perceived job discrimination in Australia: its correlates and consequences. Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series (2013). 

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 ABS cat no 2049.0 (14 March 2018). At (viewed 10 May 2018).

R Kaspiew, R Carson and H Rhoades, Elder Abuse: understanding issues, frameworks and responses. Australian Institute of Family Studies (2016). At (viewed 28 July 2018).

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner