During the pandemic, economic, social and labour market impacts first hit younger women, particularly mothers working more casualised sectors and facing a sharp increase of unpaid work in the home. When Grassroots Research commenced the Generation Expendable? study in mid-2020, Australia’s pandemic fallout was already being described as a “shecession” and women in their 20s and 30s continue to bear financial, psychological and even physical costs as a result of the crisis.
But what of older women? Already known to face “dual discriminations” at work, how did the first year of the pandemic shape their experiences?  Would age and/or gender render them a ‘generation expendable’ in a highly stressed labour market – expensive, vulnerable to ill-health, their needs ‘invisible’?
The 152 older women responding to the Generation Expendable? online survey had gone into the crisis with reasonable job security. Around 95% were employed, with 70% in permanent contracts. But although a majority had retained work, this had come at a cost for many: loss of income and job security, increased workload and other factors which impacted their health and wellbeing.
In Australia, the capacity for women to earn can become constrained with age due to ‘personal’ circumstances such as disability (17.8% of survey respondents cited living with a disability or chronic illness); care commitments (19.1%); and also ‘systemic drivers’ such as Australia’s critical lack of affordable housing., As a result, 44% of women we surveyed had experienced financial impacts from the pandemic which they felt would negatively affect their retirement.
With many working the pandemic ‘frontline’ - as teachers, health workers, those delivering essential community care - vulnerability to the virus was keenly felt. Overall, 42% told of heightened occupational health and safety (OH&S) risks in the early months of the pandemic. While the slow rollout of fit-for-purpose protective equipment was a key concern however, over 40% of women cited broader workplace hazards.
Shockingly more than half reported psychological harms, experiences of inappropriate workplace behaviour which, where ongoing, constitutes workplace bullying.’
While researchers had anticipated cultural changes from ‘stressors’ and social anxieties within the new ‘pandeconomy’, the high rates of bullying identified in Generation Expendable? far exceeded reported averages. It was important therefore, that the follow up interviews and qualitative analysis sought to understand if this workplace bullying was ‘pandemic’ in nature or whether it was in fact endemic to the workplace for older women.
Figure 1: Participant experiences of workplace behaviours between March 2020 - March 2021
Drivers of workplace bullying are known to include a lack of worker autonomy and perceived workload inequity. Our research findings argued that they also reflect hierarchies inherent to notions of labour market value under capitalism: a system which in Australia, as in many other parts of a colonised world, reflected linear power relations of race, gender, Indigeneity and other ‘identities’ or characteristics protected under law. Did the pattern emerging from the study exemplify a different type of virus pervading Australia – a cultural virus of competition, meritocracy and individualism driving workplace toxicity?
Researchers had noted with interest the high rates of bullying predominating the feminised sectors; those core and care-focused institutions newly deemed ‘essential’. With bullying characteristically perpetrated by leaders upon subordinates, we expected that it would largely come from older white men, still predominantly holding the power in these sectors and this bore out. 40% of women surveyed identified older males as responsible for decisions in relation to their work during this time.
While direct, correlatory questions linking age and gender and bullying weren’t asked in the survey, that an almost equal incidence - 40% - of women cited older women leaders as responsible for work outcomes was unexpected and quite shocking to researchers. Younger women leaders were third common.
Figure 2: Data Table of decision-maker demographics suggests female leaders are also bullies of older women.
While the size and design of the study meant direct causal links were impossible to establish, the pattern emerging from the data implied that older women were not being targeted for bullying but also that many were perpetrators of bullying of women. Clearly, further research around the nature of bullying in the care sectors in particular, including a focus on age and gender, is urgently required if we are to tackle this psychological OH&S crisis.
The health impacts for participants during the pandemic were enormous. 77.6% cited ‘stress and anxiety’; 39.5% ‘depression’; and 37.5% ‘low self-esteem’. Some women had even relinquished jobs due to the ‘toxic work culture’.
While not all these health impacts can be directly linked to work conditions and culture, there was sufficient evidence in the quantitative survey responses and interviews to prompt researchers to question the structural design of Australia’s systems of care and whether institutional and hierarchical design was in some way ‘building the bullying in’.
Subsequent research is exploring whether the commodification of care and conversely, the dependence of growth capitalism on women’s unpaid care work contribute to a ‘toxic workplace’ for women. Women bullying women is a complex proposition and must be considered in the context of women’s burden of care, both paid and unpaid, which is likely driving a condition recently recognised by the World Health Organisation: workplace burnout.
If we are to address ‘care’ burnout for women in particular, we will need transformative thinking. This will almost certainly involve a shift from individualistic responses to critically evaluating our culture systems and norms and Australia’s enduring heritage of patri-colonial power structures in the workplace.
-  https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/gendered-impact-of-covid-19
-  The dual discrimination of sexism and ageism have been shown to impact women from the age of 35
-  Children or others outside the home for more than 20 hours per week
-  Broadly characterised by 21% living in the private rental sector and only 17.8% being outright homeowners
-  As defined by the Fair Work Commission and in a UK NHS study
-  In Australia, March 2020 – March 2022
-  Fair Work statistics show Health and Education regularly top sector lists for workplace bullying
-  Race was not included