Why we need The Commission on Older Women

Marlyn Glen

18 April 2013

The findings of a new report – “Great Expectations : Exploring The Promises of

Gender Equality” -  by the think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research

(IPPR)  has been described by its Associate Director, Dalia Ben-Galim, as

demonstrating that ,

“ 'break-the-glass-ceiling' approaches have come to dominate mainstream debates about gender equality, and have led to a narrow focus on formal, legal equality.

“While important in seeking to combat the discrimination and sexist attitudes that still exists, this kind of approach is limited in its ability to bring about change in most people’s lives.”

The report examines what should be the priorities for “ a new era of gender politics”

To do so is not to criticise the emphasis on the need to promote more women into posts of authority and influence in both the public and private sectors to help to change the everyday experience of women at work.  

The report advocates a change in accent away from  comparing the “average woman” with the “average man” towards “changes that are rooted in and relevant to the daily experiences of women”

These should concentrate on, 

“women in paid work – where, for example, more high-quality, better paid part-time jobs are required to address flexibility at the lower end of the market and the concerns of older women

 “caring responsibilities in the home – where a more progressive system of parental leave and affordable and accessible childcare provision would allow men and women alike to balance work and caring demands and aspirations


“women in culture – where a healthier representation of women needs to move beyond totemic 'women who've made it' and focus instead on breaking down stereotypes that affect many more women in a wide variety of roles and situations.”


No one should criticise the report for implying that these are “new issues” when it does not.


The work of women through their organisations over the years has already focused attention on women and job segregation, the 5Cs of “caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work” and the “feminisation of poverty” with women more likely to be poor and in low-paid, low-skill and low-prospects jobs.


Over 3 times as many women than men are in part-time work in the UK, and the report makes an interesting contrast between the role of part-time work in Northern European countries and the UK.


The report makes an important contrast between the purpose of part-time work in Northern Europe and in the UK


In Northern Europe part-time work is viewed as a positive contributor to promoting a more congenial work-life balance and a happier family life.


In the UK part-time work is seen as a necessary condition for creating a more “flexible” de-regulated workforce.


It points out,


“space for autonomy and influence in work – an important measure of job quality – has declined over the last 30 years, with the sharpest contractions occurring in female-dominated low-paid sectors.”

In the same spirit of focusing more on the everyday experiences of groups of women and less on individual successes, Labour has  established a Commission on Older Women.


Chaired by Harriet Harman , the party’s Deputy Leader , it will explore the key areas of  


 Older women in the workplace

 Older women and their caring responsibilities

 Older women in the media and public life


Harriet Harman says that generational changes in society mean that today’s women who are 50 and over have a different style of life, different kinds of work regime ,different responsibilities and different expectations.

She quotes the findings of a British Social Attitudes survey which asked women the question ,

“Do you think that older women are not given enough opportunities by employers?”

In the 1980s only 20 per cent of women said “Yes”

Now, 70 per cent of women say , “Yes” .

Not only have today’s mothers in the over 50s age group held down a job while they brought up a family, but also now some may  have caring duties for elderly relatives or grandchildren.

Research by Gransnet has found that three-quarters of grandmothers over the age of 50 are caring for their grandchildren, over a third are looking after vulnerable or elderly relatives, over a third participate in voluntary work, and more than one in four of them are still in employment

Often it is these mothers who keep a family financially secure by looking after the grandchildren to allow their sons and  daughters to go out and work.

 They tend to work in the public sector and to use it, but they see that same public sector stricken by cuts as a Government withdraws its obligation of support from it.

 Here the voluntary sector tries to preserve the abandoned services as much as possible and older women make their contribution to their communities by working for charities and their like.  

The consequences of longer-life expectancy and the provision of pensions are just two major challenges which will face many of them in future years.


It is on matters such as these women must be listened to.


Another grievance made by this age group is that they may be passed over for promotion because they are “past it” , but first in line when redundancies occur.


Related to this is the near-invisibility of older women on the airwaves , exemplified by the case of Miriam O’Reilly who, two years ago, won a famous, deserved tribunal victory against the BBC for ageism when they removed her as a presenter from their rural affairs programme Countryfile.


She is a member of Labour’s Commission and is also attempting to become the Labour Party candidate for  the Tory-held marginal seat of Nuneaton in the West Midlands at the next General Election.


Another member of the Commission is 69-year old Arlene Phillips , the choreographer  sidelined by Strictly Come Dancing as a judge to be replaced by a younger woman while the 3 men retained their places.


Placing a preponderant emphasis on the successful individual woman as a role

model to enthuse and inspire other woman is no guarantee that the successful woman will continue to support that aspiration once she has achieved it herself.


In the early 1950s a young woman seeking an entry into professional politics wrote this :

"Why have so few women in recent years risen to the top of the professions?

"One reason may be that so many have cut short their careers when they marry. In my view this is a great pity.

"For it is possible to carry on working. taking a short leave of absence when families arrive, and returning later.

"Should a woman arise equal to the task, I say let her have an equal chance with the men for the leading Cabinet posts. Why not a woman Chancellor—or Foreign Secretary? "

That young woman was Margaret Thatcher.

However once installed as Prime Minister, she did very little to promote other women, with just one appointed to her Cabinet in her 11 years in Downing Street.

Consider also that one million women in Britain became unemployed during the second term of office, and the obvious conclusion is that Margaret Thatcher had little interest in being an advocate for the rights of other women.

We all wish Labour’s Commission on Older Women well, and expect that its work will reflect the lives and the needs of an older generation of women still making a difference to the lives of others every day.




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