100 Women of Influence award winners go to work

by Hannah Tattersall

Avril Henry takes financial care of her mother and mother-in-law, including paying their rent. Both are women who stopped working to raise their children, and went through a divorce in their 50s.

The managing director of Avril Henry and Associates says the two women are hardly alone in this category. “The kids have left home, the woman has worked part-time or not at all and is left without a home, not much super or savings and a partner who looked after the finances, so no knowledge of financial matters and technology,” she says.

“They find themselves over the age of 55 unable to get a job and therefore unable to afford housing.”

Since 2012, the number of women over 55 who find themselves homeless has risen 44 per cent, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Factors such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial difficulty and limited superannuation put older women at risk.

Henry, recognised in 2015 in the diversity category of The Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence awards, is working with fellow alumnus Jo Cavanagh, the chief executive of Family Life, to advocate change.

The Catch-Up project, a pilot program aimed at securing futures for vulnerable older women, is working with the Women of Influence Alumni Projects, a new initiative designed to galvanise the 600 award-winning influencers, who have been recognised over the years in the 100 Women of Influence awards. The Alumni Projects is a way for this group of women to develop ideas together, network with each other and ignite change in their communities.

More diverse future

Amy Wright, program manager, Women of Influence, says Alumni Projects is about keeping track of an amazing group of women who are continuing to be influencers in their fields of work. By enabling them to tap into each other’s networks, Wright hopes to see an increased level of connectedness and a drive to create more passion projects such as this one.

Jenny Morris’ Women for Election Australia (WFEA) is one such project in the works. As CEO of The Orijen Group, Morris was recognised in the 2014 100 Women of Influence awards in the diversity category, for her contribution to creating a bolder and more diverse future for all Australians.

She founded the non-partisan, not-for-profit organisation WFEA in 2013 in a bid to drive more women into politics. It’s been a tough slog: since the recent leadership spill, women make up just 22 of the Liberal Party’s 107 federal parliamentarians.

WFEA works with school-age children to encourage and inspire women to think of politics as a career. Morris has conducted focus groups with girls in high school and learnt quickly that you cannot mention the word “politics”.

“They’re absolutely committed to changing their community. They’re absolutely committed to doing things to make a difference, but as soon as we said ‘politics’ they say, ‘Pauline Hanson and Julia Gillard’ and ‘we don’t want a part of it,’ ” she says.

“It’s difficult to reach them, to actually come up with a language that excites them.”

Morris says the lack of diversity in this space is a global problem. “Interestingly, 97 per cent of the world’s politicians are over the age of 50. There are only 3 per cent under the age of 30, so young people don’t feel represented,” she says.

Mentoring program

She likens the issues to the corporate sector 20 years ago, “which was a boys’ club and very blokesy”.

“You had to really convince people that there was a bottom-line game to increasing women’s participation. You don’t have to make that argument in corporate now, but it just hasn’t gripped at all in politics,” she says.

Morris is establishing a mentoring program and has run a world cafe at Parliament House in NSW, where girls were given the opportunity to meet local politicians such as Jodi McKay, Penny Sharpe and Kate Washington and ask them questions.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for the women who are interested in what we are doing to support other women – to come and give their advice and guidance and share their stories.

“We’re really trying to focus on how to counter the negative stories that we’re getting from the media.

“To bring women together and create a cohort that supports each other as peers is very empowering.”

Catch-Up, says Henry and Cavanagh, is focused on garnering support for an entirely different, yet equally important, demographic.

“We want to raise awareness and support for this issue at a national level and to create local community programs which strengthen older women’s knowledge, skills and networks to address financial insecurity, homelessness and social isolation as they age,” says Henry.

The Australian Financial Review’s Women of Influence is proud to support these projects as part of our new initiative, the Women of Influence Alumni Projects. If you’d like to find out more, contact afrwomenofinfluence@fairfaxmedia.com.au.

The winners of each of the 10 categories and the overall winner of the AFR Women of Influence Awards will be announced at a gala dinner in Sydney on Wednesday..

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