Mixed fortunes for seven ages of women women

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THE PILL, the right to abortion, equal pay and the sex discrimination act have come to define modern woman's independence and equality.

The past 30 years have changed the lives of younger women beyond recognition, but older women are living more similar lives to their mothers than expected, and some women are in a worse position, according to a leading social researcher.

In a lecture entitled The Seven Ages of Women, to be published shortly, Professor Isobel Allen, head of health and social policy at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster, has analysed the changes that have affected women's careers, aspirations and lifestyles since 1968.

"There is still a glass ceiling for older women, which should have been broken through by now. Old attitudes die hard, and there is still this assumption that if you don't have a full-time career with no deviation you might be less than competent," says Professor Allen.

"The lack of flexibility in the workplace means that taking breaks to have children can knock women off the career ladder," she adds.

Professor Allen says that although the opening up of opportunities, legislation and the increase in choice and control which women have been able to exercise in their lives has been dramatic, some women today are in a worse position than women 30 years ago.

"It could be argued that all these developments have contributed to a situation in which many women find themselves worse off, perhaps not financially, but more stressed and more pulled in all directions."

For the first three "Ages of Life", until women are in their late thirties, the situation has changed enormously.

Girls under 13, the First Age, do better at all the standard tests at school and have much better female role models, in career and educational terms, than they did 30 years ago. They are, however, more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and are less likely to be able to go to school on their own.

For the Second Age, of girls aged 13 to 24, there has been a huge improvement in their aspirations and achievements. Double the number get good qualifications at school and go to university. In 1975, only 24 per cent of girls achieved five or more GCE O-levels or grade 1 CSEs compared with 49 per cent of girls in 1996 getting five or more good GCSE results. Over half of all undergraduates were female in 1997.

On the downside there is increasing concern over young women's health as they are tending to have sex, drink, smoke and experiment with drugs at much earlier ages. Over 33 per cent of 15-year-old girls smoke at least one cigarette a week - a figure compared with under 25 per cent only 10 years ago. Teenage pregnancies have halved since 1966 but are still a problem.

In the Third Age, women aged 25 to 34 are making inroads into the male bastions of yesterday - 25 per cent of all barristers are women compared with 6 per cent in 1968, and a third of practising solicitors are women compared with only 3 per cent in 1968.

After the age of 37, changes have been much slower. For women in the Fourth Age, 37 to 48, life has not changed to the same extent. This age is traditionally a time when men's careers take off, but represents a dip for women who are trying to juggle work and family. The lack of flexibility in the workplace and the costs and difficulties of childcare are preventing women from returning to senior positions after a short time out.

The Fifth Age, 49 to 60, is the time when many women return to part-time or full-time work and gain independence again. But, since the Eighties, pressure has been put on many women to become full-time carers for elderly relatives, a situation, which leaves many women bitter.

In the Sixth Age, women aged 61 to 74 are four times more likely to be divorced than they were 30 years ago. The majority have no income other than a state pension and means-tested benefits. Many women entering the Sixth Age feel considerable resentment about looking after elderly relatives when freedom, through retirement or children leaving home, is around the corner.

In the Seventh Age, women over 75 are more likely to maintain their independence in old age than they did 30 years ago. Half of those over 85 are living alone.