Australian women outlive men then struggle with disadvantage

Women live longer and healthier lives than men but face lower rates of pay, are less likely to participate in

Women live longer and healthier lives than men but face lower rates of pay, are less likely to participate in paid work and accumulate less superannuation to retire on, which leads to disadvantage later in life.

These are the findings of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) Reform Council’s report, Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia, released today, which charts Australia’s gender disparities over a lifetime.

The report notes that women over the age of 60 are more likely than men to need assistance with day-to-day activities such as transport, household chores and property maintenance. But almost one-third of older women report an unmet need for assistance.

As Australian women age, they become increasingly invisible.
We don’t hear much about the lives of older women, nor do we see many representations of older women in the media. Many people are blissfully unaware of issues faced by older women until they, their mothers, or other women in their lives enter this age bracket.

The number of people aged 65 and over in Australia will nearly double by 2050, and those aged over 84 will quadruple. These will mainly be women; a phenomenon termed the feminisation of ageing.

Older women don’t necessarily have it harder than older men, or vice-versa, but their experiences and circumstances are distinct. And these unique challenges require tailored solutions.

Ageing and widowhood

For women, increased longevity often brings with it multiple chronic conditions and disability. Many older women outlive their male partners, often following a period of care-giving. Older women have reported neglecting their own health needs while care-giving until they reach crisis point.

Upon widowhood, many older women live alone, some for the first time in their lives. In 2011, 32% of women aged 65 and older lived alone in Australia and 69% of these women were widowed.

Many need help with home maintenance previously done by their husbands, yet these needs often go unmet. Although older women may inherit the family home, some face rapid declines in financial stability, putting their living situations into jeopardy.

Reasons for women’s worse financial positions in older age reflect social, economic, and cultural factors including the gender pay gap and gendered care-giving roles. Many older women may never have been in paid employment, potentially having stayed home to raise families.

It is unacceptable that older Australian women find themselves isolated, poor, and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of living alone with multiple health conditions.
Image from

Those who did work outside the home likely earned less than men. They acquired very little, if any, superannuation, and rely solely on the aged pension in their later years. These circumstances put older women at risk of poverty and housing insecurity upon widowhood.

The latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey shows older single women have particularly high rates of social exclusion and income poverty. The assessment of social inclusion is based on the belief that material resources, employment, education and skills, health and disability, social support and interactions, community engagement, and personal safety are important to a person’s ability to fully participate in society.

These factors add to older women’s physical, social, psychological, and economic challenges upon widowhood, particularly during the early transition period – within two years of her husband’s death.

Challenging false assumptions

Our recent in-depth look at older women’s transitions to widowhood debunked some long-held assumptions. Many people assume that women fare better than men in widowhood because they have more social ties to friends, family, and the community. This is not necessarily the case.

Another false assumption is that adult children and other family members will be around to assist and console. But increasing geographic distances between family or fractured relationships mean that family support may be short-term, via distance, or entirely unavailable.

Social and demographic changes challenge traditional perceptions of family. These are often more pronounced in Australia where social and cultural diversity is abundant. A lack of understanding and expectations of grief can also contribute to women’s isolation.

Further, it should not be assumed that women talk about emotional difficulties to family or health professionals. Keeping feelings in and “not airing dirty laundry” can be related to values and beliefs developed over a lifetime.

Time for innovative approaches

It is unacceptable that older Australian women find themselves isolated, poor, and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of living alone with multiple chronic conditions. We need innovative strategies to identify women at higher risk of poor outcomes and deliver cross-sector strategies involving local government, NGOs, health services, and community organisations to build support within communities.

Providing practical support should also be part of this approach. A recent Johns Hopkins University research project – which brings handymen, occupational therapists and nurses into the homes of low-income seniors – is just one example of how a small investment can make a huge difference and keep people out of nursing homes.

We also need to develop a bereavement support model to address vulnerabilities and risks associated with older women’s transition to widowhood, while facilitating their empowerment for health management and societal engagement.

The COAG Reform Council has recommended that COAG agree to annual performance reporting on gender outcomes against an agreed set of gender core indicators. This is an important long-term goal to address the factors that contribute to older Australian women’s well-being across her lifetime.

Increasing awareness and appreciation that ageing and widowhood are gendered experiences is an important first step.

The ConversationHave you had an experience that relates to this problem? 


Michelle DiGiacomo, Senior Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney and Patricia Davidson, Dean, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing; Professor of Cardiovascular and Chronic Care, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

  1. the more we hound our gov’ dept’s they might see women as equals…one day!!

    • Sue, I’m assuming you have recently lost a partner and this is a difficult time for you. Don’t let Wayne’s confusion and demeaning comments upset you. Many of us ( including Judy) are questioning his comment on nagging. I could get into asking him to provide research and data to back up his statement but of course there is none. I’m guessing he’s dealing with other issues.

  2. I have never seen women as anything less than equal, well only since the 1960’s not sure about before that although I do remember my mother playing tennis all day while the old man was out working to keep us alive, I guess that was a bit of a struggle for her !!

    • Life was much slower then woman ran the house and men earned the money thats just the way it was. Maybe she was just good at time management and organisation.

    • I don’t know many women who have had the money to socialise all day. Many have had part time employment all the time they have raised families.

    • I brought up my children while my husband was posted all over the world to areas of conflict. I do nt know anyone who played tennis all day. Was too busy keeping my house and children clean and fed. When they were grown up and had left school there weren’t many jobs available to those of us lwho had no experience in the business world .

  3. I don’t think too much ahead. I enjoy each day, it is a gift. What will happen, will happen regardless of whether I worry or not. So I choose not to worry.

    • Agree Debbie, and I am grateful for what I have, I was a single parent and am grateful every day for the choices that I made. You can never put a price on peace of mind.

    • Sopt on, Lee.I have also been a single parent , you work hard, put children first, pay your bills , put a roof over your head and be happy with what you have.Sometimes you live on toast so your child can have new footy boots or go on that school camp but you are happy and do have peace of mind.Whatever happens you soon adapt and learn to cope.Peace of mind is priceless!

    • I remember my mother and father fighting every day of their lives. He was a drinker and could get aggressive – she just couldn’t let it be until he was sober. It would have been so much better for all concerned if they just separated. But in those days couples just stuck it out. I too was a single parent which even though I struggled, was the best thing for my daughter after the way my parents were. I too had peace of mind over my decisions.

    • Lee Horrocks Yes Lee I chose to be a stay at home Mum and I don’t regret it. The Aged Pension to there for people like me. Luckily at the moment my husband is still working. I am at peace with the decision I made.

  4. Never thought that that I would end up being alone and disadvantaged because my husband died at 57 and although I worked I was never superannuated. Now I am

  5. Not only in Australia, all over. This should be taught in school to young girls. You have no idea that taking time off to care for your children will harm you financially when you are older. Be it death of a spouse or abandonment you can be in dire straights when you become a senior

    • Rob Mcgrath They may have courses in money management skills now, I realize it very hard for a teen or even 20 something to think ahead to their 60’s. Life is much different for them in the work force now as well, we were blessed to land a full time job out of school but those jobs are few are far between now a days.

  6. This is one of the reasons we have aged pensions. Many widowers are also in this position. My wife died at age 60. Fortunately, I had an excellent job with good superannuation. I recognise many of my generation, particularly women, did not have that same opportunity in life. I believe local government, community charity organisations. philanthropists and volunteers must become more involved in providing greater services to the elderly. We all have a responsibility to support our elderly colleagues, of both genders, when we have the resources to do so. Advocating more and more, and bigger government handouts is unsustainable for our country in the long term. The solution is in the hands of local communities to help these people.

    • The Army did not superannuate still don’t. They get a pension based on years service and rank. However that does not come into effect til you reach the age of 60. My husband did not live to that age. Things may have changed but that was how it was when he left the British army. So no I did not receive any superannuation. I worked until mid ninties but was never superannuated

    • Wow, that’s a surprise June, here in Aust?? It’s terrible if they don’t, as Super became compulsory more than 20 yrs ago & I thought it was for everyone ! After all it’s part of your wages, so the money should belong to the worker.

  7. Just watched Butler speaking on his book on ageing and Australian women. They live longer and in poverty, have about $16,000 and less to nothing in super. They make up a high percentage of volunteers.

  8. I having all those hardships mentioned in the article, certainly I’m not an isolated case. We seem to have fallen through the cracks in society

    • Agree with you Bev.,try being sick and trying to live on the basic age pension. I spend about a third if m pension on pharmacy to try and keep living. I have Cancer. Doctors don’t take into consideration your finances when they write no substitution on scripts that can cost over $50 per month.

    • Feel for you June, I am in and out of hospital for the last 5 years and doing it hard with cost of living increasing all the time

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *