What are the challenges that women over 50 years of age face at work in Manchester? What do these challenges mean for their financial stability, emotional happiness and everyday lives? And how are these challenges being exacerbated or highlighted by the experience of COVID-19?
These are all questions that have been occupying Elaine Dewhurst, a Senior Lecturer in Law in the University's School of Social Sciences. She has been exploring these issues through a collabrative project, Uncertain Futures, working with colleagues at the Manchester Art Gallery and artist Suzanne Lacy, in the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA) and in social care at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“COVID-19 itself did not create new inequalities, but it exacerbated existing ones.”
Exploring age discrimination through art
Elaine and her colleagues are conducting a unique participatory art project involving the collection of narratives from women over 50 years old in Manchester around their experience of work. The artwork allows these women to describe and expose the inequalities they have faced during work and to uncover the often overlooked strengths of these women. The research, overseen by an advisory board made up of local women’s groups, highlights a wide range of discrimination: age and gender being at the forefront, but race and disability also being evident.
COVID-19 has played its part in this research, which was planned before the pandemic hit. The planned artwork has been delayed, but the work of uncovering the women’s stories and preparing for the collection of narratives has continued apace.
Additional challenges of lockdown on the world of work have provided new lenses through which to view the inequalities faced by the women involved in the project – the team have dubbed this the ‘COVID+ effect’. Elaine explains: “What we found is that COVID itself did not create new inequalities but rather that it exacerbated existing inequalities. So, for example, one issue often raised by women over 50 at work prior to COVID was the digital divide. COVID, of course, exacerbated this massively.”
“These women have endured so much but they have been so resilient and creative in their ability to overcome these challenges.”
A life-long passion
Elaine has spent her career working on equality law, first fascinated by a chapter on the right to equality in her Constitutional Law textbook, bought with her scholarship money. The conscientious undergraduate had planned to read all 3,000 pages of that textbook but got hooked on the crucial role of equality in upholding all other rights.
Her PhD focused on the lack of equality given to migrant workers in Ireland. A post-doctorate investigated the growing phenomenon of age discrimination. Her current work continues in a similar vein, with a focus on the intersectional nature of discrimination particularly with respect to age and gender.
“I am passionate about equality law,” says Elaine, “and about the impact of inequality on individuals and their ability to fully enjoy their human rights. I am also aware of the personal impact of inequality on individuals. I have witnessed family members struggle with age discrimination and gender discrimination, and I am aware of the emotional, financial, and social impact of these inequalities.
"The experiences of my family are not unique: the incredible women on the advisory group of the Uncertain Futures project consistently highlight the challenges they face due to their age and gender, which impacts greatly on their lives. It is sobering but also inspiring research. These women have endured so much but they have been so resilient and creative in their ability to overcome these challenges and are incredibly selfless in their desire to share their experience and knowledge. We have so much to learn from these women.”