Not one man turned up to a Shellharbour council forum about the looming housing security and affordability crisis facing older women in the city.
And this made social commentator and women’s advocate Jane Caro – who led the day-long workshop designed to encourage women to take control of the growing problem – very angry.
“I don’t think there’s a single man in the room,” she said in her opening remarks. “I’m not joking – it really, really shits me, because if it’s a women’s issue men walk away.”
Joining workers from housing shelters, government agencies, the council and private housing providers, as well as a number of women who are already face housing stress, Ms Caro said explained her anger.
“Women have spent their lives putting your needs ahead of theirs, couldn’t you just for a few minutes think about their needs,” she asked those not in the audience.
“It absolutely infuriates me that the reward for a lifetime of putting other people’s needs ahead of their own is to stare into the barrel of a very insecure old age.”
“It is shocking, it is wrong and it is an indictment of our society and the way we take women and their efforts and their work for granted.”
According to the council, which ran the forum with the help of a grant from the NSW Government, older women are known to be more vulnerable than men to housing stress because they generally earn lower incomes, are more likely to work in part-time roles, and retire with less superannuation.
In many cases, the council said, women also take more time off work to care for children and ageing parents, can suffer greater financial strain after divorce and are more susceptible than men to domestic violence, which are all factors in housing stability.
In the absence of men, Ms Caro said it was up to women to come up with ways of stopping the growing numbers of older women who are homeless or under housing stress.
“Superannuation schemes were clearly designed entirely around a male working model, and no consideration was given to women’s part time work,” she said.
She suggested university fees for young women could be reduced to make up for statistics which showed they were likely to earn $1 million less on average than men.
“Women do better at university than men, they get higher marks... but they get paid less from the day they leave,” she said.
With women over 55 found to be the fastest growing cohort among homeless people, Ms Caro said there was “a lot of shame” for many who felt a sense of failure about not meeting societies expectations of keeping a home.
“This is what people do when the trajectory of life is ripped out from under them: we tend to internalise it and feel that we have failed,” she said.
“But the great thing about all of us being in this room, and the light that’s very slowly being shone on this issue, is that by talking about it, by finding and meeting other people who are in the same situation, we can lighten the shame.”