Working Women: What Happens as They Age?

As women get older, many want to - or have to - continue to work, just as many men do.

But a new report from the advocacy group OWL indicates that middle-aged and older women may have a tougher time than their male counterparts. OWL, which calls itself The Voice of  Midlife and Older Women, today released its report, "Women and the Workforce."

"What surprised me was the number of older workers, women, over 50, over 60, over 70 who considered themselves unemployed and looking for work," said Margaret Huyck, the president of OWL's national board.  The report also found that for women age 55 to 61 who do have a job, nearly 21% of them are underemployed, compared to only 7 percent of underemployed men that age.

"We just have a long history of discounting older women as productive workers," said Huyck. The report finds the pay gap grows wider as a woman ages. For workers age 16 to 19, women earn 95% of what men do. Between ages 35 and 44, that drops to 80% and by age 65, women are making 76% of what males the same age make. "We've got women who have a lot of skills and who have experience, and that should be used. We need them, you know, contributing to the social system, and we need them to get compensated for it," said Huyck.

Part of the reason for this pay gap is that women are more likely than men to leave the workforce for a time. The report finds "most caregivers are female and middle-aged and drop out of the workforce for an average of 12 years to care for young children or aging parents."

Working fewer years, and earning less money, can make it difficult for women when they retire. According to the report, almost twice as many retired women (12%) live in poverty as retired men (6.6%), and that without Social Security benefits, half of women age 65 and older would live below the poverty line.

The report makes dozens of recommendations, including tougher anti-discrimination laws to discourage age and gender discrimination, incentives for companies to hire older workers, and support for women entrepreneurs. They also suggest changes that could help all workers, such as more flexible work schedules. Huyck, who has been a gerontologist for more than four decades and has written two books about aging, says she finds it hard to believe that many of these issues remain challenges for women in the workforce.

"I've been in this for 50 years," she said, "and I thought, Oh, by the time I got to be an old lady myself … things would have been all worked out and we would have gender equity at least and we would have age appropriate supports and opportunities available.

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