At 53, Blair decided to go back to work after taking some time off to raise her children. Her previous career was in advertising but now desired a new career in sales. She got a job in retail as a sales associate in a women’s clothing store. However, despite getting the sales position, Blair was never allowed on the floor. She was told to remain in the dressing room area at the back of the store. She was repeatedly harassed and forced to commute hours to locations where there was an ‘older’ demographic. Her applications for managerial positions were ignored until one day, her 30 year old manager took her down to the store room in the basement of the mall and told her outright, “Blair, you’re just too old. Look around you.” Blair was the victim of gendered ageism.
Gendered ageism is the intersectionality of gender bias and ageism. As women age in the workplace, they face this bias every day. Affected by what Catalyst calls ‘lookism’, society’s emphasis on youth and beauty, women are viewed not only as less attractive but less competent and valuable as they show visible signs of aging. Men experience ageism as well, though not as early as women and they actually gain respect and income as they show signs of aging. The research supports this alarming truth.
To better understand the implications of gendered ageism on women over 50 in the workplace, I recently surveyed 729 women between the ages of 18 and 70+, with 65% of respondents from the United States and the majority of the remainder from Canada, the UK, and Europe.
A high percentage (80%) of women surveyed experienced some form of gendered ageism. The most common experience (47%) was having their opinions ignored. Forty-two percent stated their younger colleagues get more attention. Others reported not being invited to key meetings (35%), and (33%) not getting a job or interview due to their age.
For those women currently employed, 77% reported a prevalence of gendered ageism in their company. Women who work in public companies were more likely to experience it (82%) compared to (73%) in private companies.
What was most disturbing was that women felt there was nowhere to go for help when experiencing gendered ageism. Seventy-five percent of those who experienced it and were still employed, did not take action. The most common reason given was that they didn’t believe it would make a difference (70%). Most important to note, however, is that 26% didn’t trust HR and 23% stated they didn’t want to risk losing their job. Of the 11% that did speak with HR, 71% were very/somewhat dissatisfied. Of the 19% that spoke with their manager, 44% we very dissatisfied.
When asked what actions do women want their companies to take? Sixty-one percent would like to see gendered ageism recognized as a DEI initiative. Currently, ageism is rarely addressed by in DEI programs, and gendered ageism isn’t even on the radar as an issue in most companies.
The majority of the women (54%) want their company to acknowledge the accomplishments of older women. They also would like gendered ageism to be included in mandated unconscious bias training and for their company to assess the policies and workplace practices around hiring, compensation, and promotion. They want a safe environment to discuss their experiences with gendered ageism without repercussions.
The Great Resignation has left companies with a low employment rate and a challenge to find qualified workers. Now is the time for companies to solve their problem in part by addressing gendered ageism in their ranks, and seek to retain and/or hire qualified older women who want and need to work. As companies look for ways to advance young women and plug their leaky pipeline, they need to consider the powerful mentorship and role modeling that older women can provide.
Women over 50 add the value and wisdom of their experience and the temperament to help their companies and teams solve problems. Companies that fail to recognize this resource will continue to lose valuable talent.
Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC, is a certified coach, speaker, host of the podcast Badass Women at Any Age, and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley). Her latest book is Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Their Workplace Power.