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22 September 2014

Gender and ageing in the workplace: discrimination against older female workers

gender and ageing paper 2014

From the early years of the 21st century, increasing the employment rate of older workers, in particular women, became one of the European Union’s priorities. In recent years, policies to keep people in employment have made it possible to increase the employment rate among female workers aged over 50. Yet the authors of A gender perspective on older workers’ employment and working conditions, published by the ETUI in September 2014, qualify this observation by pointing out that the trend in question is to some extent the result of a financial constraint.

To benefit from a full pension, many women indeed have no option but to extend their working lives to compensate for the financial losses associated with careers that were fragmented or that began late, perhaps because of the demands of motherhood. This is the conclusion reached by the authors of this working paper, Gérard Valenduc and Patricia Vendramin – both of them lecturers at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) – who issue a warning to European leaders against taking measures that would further reinforce this form of discrimination against women.

When it comes to health, the situation of female workers aged over 50 is equally cause for concern. They complain more of musculoskeletal disorders than men. The authors’ explanation for this is that men, by the time they reach retirement age, are more likely than women to have avoided this painful condition by leaving work or changing jobs. Women are also more likely than men to report stress, problems with sleeping, and a feeling of general fatigue.

Women’s twofold working day – paid work and work at home – would explain these phenomena. The point is that while people may think that women aged over 50, insofar as their children have left home, have less to do, these women nonetheless continue to put far more hours than men into unpaid work, in particular cooking and domestic tasks. Valenduc and Vendramin believe that society is much readier to acknowledge the painful nature of the risks encountered in sectors dominated by men (exposure to dangerous products, noise, etc.), through the granting of bonuses or the option of early retirement, than those encountered by women (lack of job discretion, repetitive gestures, inability to break off work).

However, the physical problems associated with ageing are not the sole contributory factor to early labour market exit. Many other women choose to stop working in advance of the statutory retirement age because of the adverse psychological conditions under which they work.

In a Policy Brief on the ‘individualisation of the work relationship’, Philippe Davezies, a lecturer in occupational health and safety at the University Claude Bernard Lyon I, shows that the emergence of new forms of work-related malaise – the manifestations of which are generally referred to under the blanket heading ‘psychosocial risks’ – stems largely from changes in the prevalent forms of work organisation. ‘In just a few decades the world of work, even in heavy manufacturing sectors, has developed in the direction of the organisational patterns and methods associated with services’, says Davezies.

These changes have led to a disengagement on the part of management such that the managerial hierarchy now focuses its attention exclusively on the administrative, accounting and financial aspects of labour as distinct from the real nature of the tasks that workers perform. ‘Employees have discovered with astonishment that it is perfectly possible for them to be managed by bosses who are pretty much ignorant of what they actually do’, writes Philippe Davezies. This tension between the – frequently impossible – goals set by the upper managerial echelons and the nature of the work performed by employees has bred innumerable individual conflicts and a great deal of suffering in and beyond the workplace. As a means of tackling this problem, Philippe Davezies recommends the development in companies of autonomous forums in which employees can express themselves collectively with a view to opening up a new dialogue with management concerning the content of their work.

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