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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 paid work and accumulate less superannuation to retire on, which leads to disadvantage later…

Increased longevity often comes with multiple health conditions and disability. Image from

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.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    As you suggest, women continue to outlive their partners. So could we have a government program to address the shocking gap in life expectancy experienced by men in this country please.

    Men continue to die much younger than women from disease, accidents and suicide. Unfortunately, despite governments all of persuasions paying lip service to the concepts of equity and equality, little effort has been made to address this shocking disparity.

    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Actually Mike the longevity gap between Australian men and women has been declining rapidly over the past 30 years. And given the average age gap in Australian couples (married or other) is two years (men being the older), women in fact live, on average, only a year or so after hubby dies.

    2. Mike Brisco

      Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike - a very fair point. But the research has already been done. Its findings confirmed so often, they are now beyond question

      If research is done on one gender, it is always discovered, disadvantage is due to gender alone. Also, society is sexist, and discrimination is entrenched. Thus disadvantage is ultimately due to things a person had no control over. The State must provide additional resources, if the disadvantage is to be overcome.

      If the research is done on one of the other…

      Read more
  2. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Very one sided research as usual, so what is the living standard of male widowers?

    1. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      I do not know the stats Rene but unless you can counter the argument in the article that ..."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" ... I think the answer is likely to be: relatively high compared to women.

      Why so sensitive?

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      The good news is that men are gradually catching up to women in terms of life expectancy, probably due to factors such as less smoking.

      This may have been good news for women also (as men could provide for women for longer), but the divorce rate is so high I think it will not do much for women or men.

    3. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      It forgot to mention how many elderly women lived of the super accumulated by their spouses who died earlier.

      Face lower rates of pay? if that is the case why haven't they taken it to the tribunal.

      Accumulate less superannuation? Overwhelming majority of people will get married, have children etc. The couples work things out between themselves, who does what and how much, these women are also beneficiaries of superannuation accumulated by their spouses.

      Problem with this sort of "research" is, they don't take into account families as a unit

    4. Julie Leslie

      GIS Coordinator

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Yes, but your comment assumes two things. One: that the family stays as a unit, sharing resources and two: that there is any money left after the male partner passes on. Often there is protracted illness (the menfolk not adept at looking after themselves or doing preventative health) which is costly.

      Given it is 'Movember' have all you menfolk checked for prostate and testicular cancer yet? Had a discussion about mental health? Looked into improving your diet and exercise regime? Gone to the doctor…

      Read more
    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, the main drivers of the rapidly diminishing gender gap in longevity are men's smoking rates are dropping more rapidly than women's (with men coming off a higher rate than women), a great drop in war dead, and male dangerous and risky behaviour in their twenties, especially car accidents. In fact, if the couple makes it 65, the longevity gap between the male and female falls under three years.

    6. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Julie Leslie

      Actually Julie, it really is that easy. The reason they don't is because in the real world there is no systematic gender discrimination on pay.

  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Jarrod Chestney-Law

    logged in via Facebook

    I wonder if this will create a new concept called "Death Privilege" where not only are we privileged while we're alive, but our early death is also another privilege we jealously hold over others...

  5. Luftmensch

    logged in via Twitter

    Canada is a country which is similar to Australia and it also reports similar rates of poverty in senior women compared to men. Here are some of the outcomes of the research on poverty and women in Canada.

    Senior women: Almost half (41.5%) of single, widowed or divorced ("unattached") women over 65 are poor. While the poverty rates for all seniors have improved overall, there is still a large gap between men and women. The poverty rate for all senior women is 19.3%, while that for senior men…

    Read more
  6. Chris Colenso-Dunne

    logged in via email

    In every jurisdiction that springs to mind, working class women will earn much less in their lifetime than working class men will. This is even after we adjust for the effects of time-out looking after children, spouses and ageing relatives.

    The reason for this is not difficult to find. Most well paid blue-collar occupations are in the heavy industries: mining; oilrigs; aviation and the like. Most working class females enter poorly paid occupations that don't require an apprenticeship followed…

    Read more
  7. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    Once again, gender research completely silent on the realities of married lives. Women are not poorer going into old age. They have exactly the same income/wealth as their hubby. How can it be otherwise when all their income/assets had been combined since they first got married!? And let's not even start on motherhood.

  8. Mike Brisco

    Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

    "Australian women outlive men then struggle with disadvantage"

    Er ... Isn't being alive, an advantage, over being dead at that age?

    A really useful advantage, compared to men of the same age?