We’re often told that being a middle-aged woman is great. You might become invisible, but that just means you no longer have to give a fuck about anything. You stop caring what men think of you; any children are old enough to look after themselves; periods and contraception worries become a thing of the past. You’ve developed a tough-but-caring, takes-no-prisoners approach to whatever life throws at you. It’s a bit like being one of the female leads in an endless re-run of Mamma Mia, in which you occasionally take time out to do a cross-stitch to remind the world of just how few fucks you give.
Except, of course, it’s nothing like this. It’s one thing to no longer crave male approval – quite another to see your contributions to public and private life rendered invisible, too. Childcare has been replaced by eldercare, while the shame and secrecy surrounding the menopause has become its own cliché.
On top of that, the gender pay gap – aren’t we bored of that yet? – is wider than ever. New analysis from Rest Less, a jobs advice site for the over-50s, puts the average salary of a woman in her 50s at 28 per cent less than a man of the same age. Roll on old age, is what I say, until I remember the retirement income gender gap is the biggest it’s been in a decade.
I have six years to go until I hit my fifties. The older I get, the more I’m shocked by the way in which middle-aged women are being screwed over. Our male peers shore up respect and experience; we spend years falling further and further behind. It’s the drip-drip effect of living in a society in which active sexism persists while indirect sexism – male-default workplaces and work patterns, economic structures which rely on women’s unpaid care work – allow inequality to build like sediment. By the time you’re drawing your pension, there’s no way back.
With your first job, you might have suspected you were being paid less, but there was always that element of plausible deniability (it’s not quite the same role, you don’t have quite the same experience, your name isn’t quite Steve). It might have become less plausible with each job change, each pay rise, each promotion, but then you did take that time off to have kids, didn’t you? And there was that unfortunate business when you complained about Darren in accounts, so really, you’re lucky to be here at all. It’s no use complaining about it at home, since your husband now brings in considerably more than you (hence it’s only reasonable that you’re the one who takes time off to care for his elderly mum). Drip-drip-drip, year on year, and later they’ll tell you it all came down to freedom of choice.
I used to look at my mother’s generation and hope that they just hadn’t done feminism properly back when they had the chance. The alternative would have been having to admit that this shit never, ever ends. Battles you won in your twenties no longer count in your thirties, and so on, until you’re old and poor, exhausted by caring, with no one around to care for you. It’s a grim prospect. Far preferable to think that once you’ve defeated the first few bosses, the equality game’s been won. One look at the news will tell you otherwise.
Earlier this month the high court rejected the claims of women born in the 1950s that the pace of pension equalisation has been too rapid, leaving many who had been expecting to draw their state pensions at 60 facing poverty. Journalist Polly Toynbee describes this as “the one and only equality for women imposed with a rod of iron”, comparing it to the way in which “governments have been slow to pass laws and slower still to enforce equality for women in every other field”.
This is a generation of women who have spent their whole lives playing the role of universal mummy, filling in the gaps as social support networks crumble, ensuring no one else has to look behind the scenes and see all the sock-washing and arse-wiping that props up the public sphere. Yet the moment they ask for help, they’re the ones being told to grow up.
Even when it comes to what looks like blatant sexism, there’s always some excuse. This week 51-year-old presenter Samira Ahmed is taking the BBC to tribunal, arguing that the contrast between her pay for Newswatch (£440 per episode) and Jeremy Vine’s for Points of View (£3,000) is indicative of discrimination. Both are 15-minute slots, yet according to Ahmed’s employer the roles are completely different, what with one being news (serious, hard job, the sort of thing Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys might do = lots of money) and the other being entertainment (frivolous, easy job = less money).
Sorry, I got that the wrong way round. It’s the entertainment that’s important (bigger audience, household name = lots of money) and the news that’s not (just, like, news, the sort of thing Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys might do = less money). Anyhow, it’s nothing to do with Ahmed being a woman. Just like it wasn’t with Carrie Grace, until it was.
As Brexit (sort of) looms, we now find that women will bear the brunt of the costs . You could argue it’s only fair, since men took on more of the burden of voting Leave (thanks, chaps!). Or you could argue that really, we must be reaching a point where something has to give. How much more are we meant to take?
There are men my age and older, many of whom wear their pro-feminist credentials on their sleeve, completely satisfied that they’ve avoided the pipe and slippers chauvinism of their fathers, who remain utterly oblivious to the ways in which they’re stealing time and resources from the women around them. Could it not be that, while they’re still busy congratulating themselves on being the generation who “let us” work alongside them in similar – but less valuable! – roles, we decide to drop all the unpaid extras?
Indeed, those who keep marketing middle-aged womanhood as the time when women no longer have to give a fuck should take care. Both economic and domestic life will collapse the moment we take you at your word.