The gender pay gap’s grim legacy: homelessness among older women in Australia

My mother is among those at highest risk of becoming homeless in this country. If you grew up in a single parent household, there’s a chance your mother is, too.

The 2016 census showed that the number of women over 55 experiencing homelessness increased by 31 per cent compared to the 2011 census. This was more than double the rate of homelessness increase in the general population. A more recent study reports that there are now more than 405,000 women over forty at risk of homelessness in Australia. The situation continues to worsen, especially in the wake of Covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on health, employment, and housing.

These figures are alarming, and raise the question of how we have let down our mothers and other women who, regardless of their parental status, have been continuously disadvantaged by a system that works against them. Women in this age group are particularly susceptible to financial and housing insecurity due to lifelong discrimination.

I’m sure in your family, like in mine, similar stories have been shared over a few wines at Christmas. The aunt who was fired or forced to resign for getting married or pregnant. The friend of your nan’s who never married, so never stood a chance of owning a home, and now lives in a housing commission flat (she’s one of the lucky ones, according to these statistics). Many women over forty-five have worked part-time or casually for many years; they lack sufficient superannuation; they have taken large unpaid periods off work to raise children or care for loved ones; and, of course, they have been subject to the gender pay gap.

My mum was born in 1966, three year before the government introduced the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ in an Arbitration Commission decision. I’m sure my grandmother felt that significant change might come in her daughter’s lifetime. She was a single mum, too—a widow. However, progress in closing the gender pay gap has always been slow and inconsistent.

While the current pay gap is 13.3 per cent (the lowest it has ever been), women are still paid on average $253 less than men each week. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s ‘Status of Women Report Card’ for 2023 states that on average women do nine hours more unpaid labour per week than men. Single women make up the majority of rent assistance payments. There is a 55 per cent drop in earnings for mothers in the five years following childbirth, while men’s pay remains unchanged. And, women approaching retirement have 23.1 per cent less super than men. It’s easy to see how these figures stack up to a bleak housing outlook for single older women who don’t own a home.

My mum took her first job in 1980, when she was fourteen. In my childhood, she worked as a medical receptionist. For every hour she worked, she was almost certainly paid less than a man in a job of ‘comparable value’. For every curtailed pay check, there was a lower superannuation benefit, a lower amount left for savings at the end of each week and, inevitably, a lower amount to put towards a house deposit.

We never owned a home, but instead relied on the volatile rental market. We moved a lot—once from Queensland to Tasmania to take advantage of the lower cost of living. For a short period, we slept in a friend’s garage. I never thought of us as homeless but, looking back, my mother was at risk even then. While it might be argued that a woman in a similar position now is better off than she was, I think she’d still be on the same trajectory. Given the rental crisis that is expected to continue for years to come, maybe even worse off.

It’s easiest for me to conceptualise my feelings on this subject by relating them to my mother. Yet this probably also minimises the problem in some ways. It makes it feel like if I can just keep a roof over her head, then all of these hundreds of thousands of women (and the many more heading in the same direction) stand a greater chance.

The number of older women in the private rental market doubled in the 2016 census and continues to rise rapidly. If these women are no longer in the workforce and receive government benefits, the numbers are even more against them. The Rental Affordability Snapshot shows that only 0.5 per cent of properties on the rental market are affordable to a single person on an aged pension. This results in many women resorting to unstable housing such as living in vehicles, staying with friends and family, or trying to move from one house sitting gig to the next. All of these options can be stressful, but many older women who are currently homeless don’t self-identify this way, so don’t seek support. They often have a stereotypical view of someone homeless as a man who sleeps on the streets. Usually, they blame themselves for their situations, despite never having experienced homelessness before. It’s clear that the fault lies not with them, but with a long-broken system.

For those women that do recognise their homelessness and seek help, there aren’t many options available. While there are over 1,500 homelessness services nationwide, only three of them receive funding to provide specialist services for older people.

More funding and services are a clear necessity to even begin to deal with this growing concern. Addressing rental affordability is another obvious one. The National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group have made further suggestions for how these issues can be addressed. At the policy level, this includes developing a National Homelessness Strategy specifically targeting older women and implementing a Federal Government Strategy to address financial insecurity among this group. This would be a good start, but it seems clear that more needs to be done to start unravelling generations of systemic oppression.

Primarily, we need measures to address the lack of superannuation among women at retirement age. Surely, a government that loves to deal in averages could top up women’s super-levels to the equivalent of a ‘comparable’ male. Perhaps more realistically, The Housing for the Aged Action Group and Social Ventures calls for a tax incentive or subsidy that could leverage off capital from institutional investors, such as superannuation funds. They also present other practical and implementable measures such as ensuring women who are not yet homeless but lack appropriate housing can access emergency accommodation, and establishing services in other States based on the successful early intervention Home At Last model from Victoria.

The statistics presented here serve as evidence that much is still unknown about the flow-on effects that the gender pay gap will have on women as they age. The imperative is the same now as it has been for decades: we need to address this inequality. Not only in terms of the current overall percentage of pay discrepancy, but also its legacy.

Staring at decades of data is a reminder of how many have struggled, and how many more will. Unlike our mothers, who had no way of measuring the injustices faced by their own mothers, at least we know the magnitude of the struggle. I can only hope that this will be a step towards lasting change.

If you’d like to support older women experiencing homelessness you can donate to the Housing For the Aged Action Group here.


Image: Pawel Czerwinski

Samantha Trayhurn

Samantha Trayhurn is a writer based on Awabakal Country.

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