Middle-aged women being overlooked in the workplace

Louisa Mitchell says women in their 40s and 50s have been overlooked in the workforce as part of the solution to an ageing population problem

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 5:06am

The government appears to be taking the issue of our ageing population seriously, with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah making it a focus of his latest budget report. Policy debate seems to concentrate on two areas - reversing the low fertility rate of young women and addressing the burden of the elderly currently living in poverty. Both are critical problems that need fixing, fast.

However, there appears to be a whole swathe of people missing in the middle of these two groups. These are our middle-aged women. They do not seem to be adequately considered as part of the solution to our burgeoning ageing problem and rising dependency ratio - two workers for every elderly person in 20 years, down from 10 to one in the 1980s, according to Tsang.

Women now in their 40s and 50s are expected to live until their late 80s. So those in their 40s still have around half their life to go, and those in their 50s, a good 30 years or more. Life expectancy is increasing so that women in their 40s and 50s in 2031 can expect to live until an average of 90 years old.

But a study for Civic Exchange and The Women's Foundation, titled "The Changing Faces of Hong Kong", shows that although today's women in their 40s particularly, but also their 50s, benefited from the education reforms of the 1970s, their labour force participation rate still collapses through middle-age.

For women aged 40 to 44, it was 72 per cent in 2011 but for women aged 55 to 59, it was 43 per cent - and that gap has widened over the past 20 years. The comparable rates for men were 96 per cent for those aged 40 to 44 and 78 per cent for the 55-59 age group.

Sustaining women in the workforce requires change at home and in the workplace. Flexible employment practices help women remain in the workplace while fulfilling commitments to children or elderly relatives. Gradual improvements are being made in this area, such as the introduction of three days' paternity leave, which although often criticised for being too little too late, is a positive development.

But wider opportunities for career development and appropriate salary increases are the key to keeping women working for longer. As the middle-aged woman is increasingly educated, so her expectations rise.

Women in their 40s and 50s still significantly lag behind men in terms of average monthly earnings. Only 29 per cent of working women in their 40s and 50s were in top-status jobs, such as managers/administrators, professionals and associate professionals, in 2011, compared to 43 per cent of such men.

The corporate sector is particularly weak in this area and that is why The Women's Foundation last night launched the 30 per cent Club, a voluntary group committed to bringing more women onto corporate boards. Mentoring will be required to help achieve their goal. But women also need to be appropriately rewarded through pay. And this needs to happen across all sectors.

Middle-aged women, and strategies for developing and sustaining their careers, need to be integrated into the overall policy agenda to address the challenges posed by our ageing population.

Louisa Mitchell is an independent social policy researcher. This article is part of a series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation