Women's Feature Service

India - New Delhi


UK: Women & Ageism - Discrimination - Equality Bill +


By Barbara Lewis 


London (Women's Feature Service) - In her youth, British journalist and broadcaster Joan Bakewell was labelled "the thinking man's crumpet" on the strength that she had brains as well as looks and a propensity for short skirts (it was the 1960s, after all).


Now in her more demurely-dressed seventies, Bakewell has accepted a government invitation to become the 'Voice of Older People' and, as she once advanced the cause of feisty young women journalists in a then very male-dominated milieu, she is now pressing for older people, especially, older women to be heard. The thrust of her arguments is severely practical.


"Older women are disadvantaged in shops (no seats, for one thing), in there being no public toilets and in terms of how they are treated ... without respect or consideration," she said when asked about attitudes towards older women. "Women still do not have equal pay for equal work and that applies at all ages."


The government's decision to make her the spokesperson for the elderly, announced late last year, coincides with a new Equality Bill. Drawn from more than 100 separate pieces of discrimination law, for the first time it brackets legal measures against ageism with those against the five other forms of discrimination - against gender, sexual orientation, race, religion and disability.


In Britain, ageism is the biggest issue of them all. It is the most commonly-experienced form of discrimination, with 23 per cent of adults reporting that they have suffered from it (three times more than any other form of discrimination), according to figures provided by British charity, Age Concern. It looms especially large for women, who, on an average, live longer than men do and make up a bigger proportion of the elderly population. Women also run the greatest risk of curtailed professional careers and reduced pension rights.


"They face the double whammy of discrimination for being female, but for being older as well," said a spokeswoman for Age Concern. Last year, television news reader Selina Scott was awarded an out-of-court settlement after she brought a case against Channel Five television, claiming she had been lined up for a maternity cover position but was discriminated against for being too old. "How many women are there on mainstream current affairs programmes who are over 50? ... Yet, you look around and see lots of men," Scott, who is in her late 50s, has been quoted as saying. Channel Five's only comment was a brief statement. "The proceedings brought by Selina Scott against Five under new age discrimination laws have been settled," it said. "Five has apologised for the offence it caused Ms Scott." The channel did not disclose the terms of the settlement.


Other mature women broadcasters, Kate Adie and Anna Ford, have also accused television of favouring younger women and Bakewell herself has been quoted as saying the medium is dominated by the "hideously young". Ford, in an interview with the left-leaning 'Observer' newspaper, said the rejection of older women - whose experience should make them more highly-valued - was an especially British problem. "In America, there are women with white hair who are heads of banks, heads of corporations," she was quoted as saying in December. "Where are those women here?"


US women are not without complaint, however. Actress Meryl Streep attracted media coverage across the world with her comment in January that "of course there is ageism in the film industry". To tackle the British problem, the government's new legislation is expected to begin making its way through parliament in April. Its purpose is to make Britain "a fairer place," according to a government statement, announcing its 2008-2009 draft legislative programme. It will introduce an integrated "Equality Duty", preventing discrimination in the provision of services and meaning employment practices will have to be "age-proofed". In theory, broadcasting and other professions will include women of all ages. Service providers, such as insurers, and those offering professional training - routinely complained about by older people - will no longer be able to withhold services on the grounds that those requesting them are too old.


"Fairness and an absence of discrimination are the hallmarks of a modern, decent society, with a strong economy, which draws on the talents of all," the government commented further of its new law. It was speaking before anyone knew the full extent of the economic crisis, which has added to the challenge of ending discrimination of all kinds.


Many arguing for the better use of women in the workplace have stressed their economic value. Similarly, in the face of an ageing population, employing older people for longer would mean they make a much bigger financial contribution and are a smaller drain on the tax payer. But now cash is short and unemployment is rising, many are focused primarily on short-term costs, such as that the new legislation could entail.


The Department of Health has commissioned research, showing age discrimination in the provision of health services could be expensive to eradicate. Age Concern is also concerned that the new law could take time to implement. It still warmly welcomes the changes. It is only concerned that for some elderly people, who have already waited long enough, they will be too late.

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