Invisible women: Doctor fights to turn the tide for seniors
MATURE Women's Ambassador Dr Susan Mitchell's role is a first in Australia and recognises the frightening depth of the crisis now and into the future for our women who have given their all to have so very little left.
The high-profile media personality and noted women's author is tasked in South Australia, with the hope it will morph into national impact, of turning the invisible issues around mature women into visible.
"In the past five years the number of women over 50 facing homelessness has increased by 40 per cent," Susan says about these women who are struggling to find work. "What we are doing with these women is throwing them on the scrap heap."
Governments must act Susan declares. "This is a tsunami that is going to happen. There is going to be a surge of women. With technological change heaven knows how the employment market is going to fare. We need to have an organised approach to this or these women will be thrown on the scrap heap and just left to die. And, that cannot happen."
However, she isn't seeing a Parliament that is leading the management of this change in our community, nor one that truly reflects Australia's society and the needs of its significant number of over-50 women.
"It's like Sisyphus who was notorious for rolling the boulder up the hill and then it would roll back," Susan says. "Then you would push it up again and you would gain a foot every time. It's how change works, But you have to keep rolling it. I think we are in the period where it has rolled back on us.
"In terms of women, how many of them over 50 are in Parliament, for example, and yet how many women over 50 are in our society?"
Susan's ambassador role is the first of its kind in Australia. It's been created by the South Australian government to deal with the largest number of people over 50 on mainland Australia. In there is a "huge cohort" of women who can't get jobs because of their age and because of discrimination.
Susan is currently hitting the Adelaide corporate streets armed with a deeply researched booklet Mature Women Can!, using her high public profile as a television, radio and print commentator to spruik the message of what organisations can do to turn around the incoming tide which is going to economically challenge all of Australia.
Susan is will equipped for the task. "When I was growing up there were no role models," Susan says. The child of the 70s said the best-known woman then was Dame Edna Everage - and she was a bloke. "I thought, we have to start celebrating women of achievement," she adds. So, for the past 35 years Susan has been championing women's issues and exceptional women's stories through her 14 books - among them Anne Summers, Sallyanne Atkinson, Colleen McCullough, Robyn Archer, Margaret Whitlam, Sonia McMahon, Tamie Fraser and Janette Howard. There was a 15th book, about Tony Abbott, but that's another story for another day.
Meeting Margaret Whitlam was a moment in time for Susan that stands out from her crowded life. "Highly intelligent and very witty, and full of the joy of life," is how Susan describes her impression of Margaret as she wrote Margaret's biography. "She was beside him (Gough) the whole time. That love story lasted nearly 70 years," Susan says.
Back in the present Susan pines for change; a real, tangible end to mature women's discrimination. "They have the distillation of everything that is good in us," she says. "Look at what they have lived through, what they have done and what they have experienced. They are being treated like an old tub of yoghurt, left in the back of the fridge well past its use-by date. We must stop thinking like this. We have to make the most of their skills. It's criminal to treat anyone like this. I would like to see this change before I kick the bucket."
I'm not exactly sure of Susan's age. I did ask. "Do you think women should tell their age," Susan asks me back. "As soon as you tell someone how old you are, they define you by a number rather by your skills, talents and experience."
After several minutes of impassioned, articulate speech on what is clearly a major issue in the battle for respect and recognition of older women, Susan made a powerful case for women not revealing their age.
Instead of going on the attack against ageism, Susan says you should stand proud as a mature woman and detail why it is so important that you are employed as a mature and capable person. List your strengths; be proud and loud about them. "Kiss my assets," is her call to arms.
"When you get that in your head, it's a way to deal with it because as soon as I say to I am actually 78 or 75 or 68, they have a picture or an immediate, almost visceral reaction," Susan says.
"The women I have interviewed said things have been said to them like 'oh, you are much older than you sound on phone, your voice is very young'. Well, yes, so is my mind. It's a bit like when women were defined by marriage. You had to be Mrs and take the man's name. How ludicrous is that? Gradually women have said it's irrelevant if I am married or not.
"Or, when you were asked what you children were doing while you were at the interview. 'Well, I tied them to the Hills Hoist and left them with a bowl of water'.
"It's kind of nobody's business how old you are," Susan says. And the answer to what specifically is her age? That lays grounded into the pavement of the inner-city Adelaide street where we sat.
Susan's 16th non-fiction book is starting to get its legs. She simply can't let this women's 'tsunami' become part of Australia's social and economic history without an intense insight from this outstanding social commentator. "I will write until I drop," she says.