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Women, the workplace and gendered ageism

Monday, March 4 2024
Written By: Poppy Millett
  Women are living and working longer. A fact that (provided the individual wants to stay in work) should be cause for celebration. However, a rise in ageist attitudes seems to coincide with the rising age of our population, with the UK found to be the most ageist country across a study of 20 countries. […]

 

Women are living and working longer. A fact that (provided the individual wants to stay in work) should be cause for celebration. However, a rise in ageist attitudes seems to coincide with the rising age of our population, with the UK found to be the most ageist country across a study of 20 countries. [1]

Gerontologist, Jeanette Leardi observes related attitudes as stemming from an almost wholly negative perception of ageing, especially in women: “Ageing reflects a cumulative process [but] society see it as nothing but deterioration and decline.”

Ageism (specifically, ageism targeted at women) is increasingly being cited as a discriminatory factor in employment tribunals. So much so that the EHRC published new guidance on 22 February 2024 to help employers understand their legal duties towards employees experiencing menopausal symptoms. International Womens Day

Not only is this guidance essential reading for employers – but your teams and managers would also benefit from paying heed to a study conducted by the CIPD that revealed 67% of employed women aged 40 to 60, who experienced menopausal symptoms, reported that these symptoms predominantly had a negative effect on their work.

Of course, ageism is not exclusive to women – all genders can experience ageism. But, for reasons we explore in this article, women are more likely to feel the brunt of ageism, both in and outside of the workplace, and experience ageism for different reasons than their male counterparts.

So, this International Women’s Day, we want to explain how gendered ageism can show up in the workplace, how it affects individual and communal health, and what organisations can do to interrupt the biases at play that too often lead to women over the age of 50 to leave the workforce.

 

What is ageism and what's the harm?

Ageism is discrimination against someone because of their age. Gendered ageism is discrimination against someone based on a combination of their age and sex. Alongside gendered ageism, we also have ableist ageism, where people bear the brunt of biased assumptions being made about their mental and physical ability as they age – for women, this is where the experience of menopause enters the chat.

Often (though wrongly) thought of as harmless, ageism’s presence in our culture and in our organisations can be extremely damaging to people, to workplaces, and to the wider economy.

A work environment that devalues, overlooks or pushes out its older workers will find this demographic less committed to (if not wounded by) their work, presenting a major risk to overall productivity and staff retention - from a group that is otherwise known to be extremely loyal, or more so than younger workers. It also robs all staff of the opportunity to learn from those more experienced, establishing generational divides. (More on this in our recent article: From Boomers to Zoomers: Our Changing Attitudes to Work)Women at work

Evidence shows that being an older worker means you are less likely to receive a promotion, developmental training, or be hired over someone younger than you with an identical skillset. Plus, once an older person gains or remains in employment, they are at some point highly likely to be patronised, infantilised, or have pejorative assumptions made about them i.e. stereotypes around older people having less energy, being slower at using technology or being resistant to change. [2]

Experiencing discrimination due to our age can be extremely frustrating and disheartening, having adverse effects on individual wellbeing. It can lead older people to internalise negative narratives about themselves, limiting their lives, activities and aspirations. Being/feeling excluded will result in individuals, eventually, no longer trying to participate and becoming isolated – loneliness being a significant risk factor for mental and physical illness.

Moreover, feeling forced to retire earlier than planned, or needing but being unable to get a job due to age bias can pose extreme risks to older people’s wellbeing – with the rising cost of living putting immense financial and psychological pressure on all age groups and driving many retired persons to re-join (or attempt to re-join) the jobs market just to make ends meet.

 

How does ageism affect women in the workplace?

Studies show that working women face scrutiny and doubt around their capabilities and worth at every age, with older women often encountering diminished perceptions of their relevance and value. A phenomenon less prevalent amongst their male counterparts, as illustrated by the (darkly comic) fact that there are more men named Dave leading the UK's top 100 companies than there are women overall, despite women consistently outperforming men educationally across all levels.[3]

On top of the age bias we see in recruitment, women are less likely to be hired/promoted over men when both groups are equally as qualified – putting older women at a double disadvantage in the jobs market. One study saw committees choosing not to hire women in their fifties because they have “menopause-related issues and could be challenging to manage.”International Women's Day

This is plainly discriminatory (an example of gendered ageism and ableism) and contributes to the still prevalent taboo around menopause. One that prevents many female workers from disclosing symptoms that may be affecting their work – impacting their ability to access necessary support and accommodations (as is their right under the Equality Act 2010) and going on to influence their long-term health, their productivity, and their likelihood to leave the workforce.

Throughout their lives, women are more likely to take time off for childcare, more likely to take on caring roles for unwell family members, have to work part-time, more likely to be in lower-paid jobs than men and less likely to receive a promotion after becoming a parent. All the above resulting in a gender pension gap of 37.9%! This, alongside the disadvantages older women face related to hiring, is a massive cause for concern during a cost-of-living crisis and leaves them more vulnerable than men to financial difficulty and its effect on their mental health, safety and security. Here, balancing the scales would look like increased flexibility for workers with caring responsibilities. Something we saw possible during the COVID-19 pandemic that now seems to be under threat from more ‘old school’ employers.

Physical appearance plays a large role in whether women, in particular, experience ageism. One Harvard Business Review study found that “women in their fifties and sixties who may not have ‘aged well’ and do not ‘look vital’” will miss out on opportunities given to similarly aged men. Feeling ‘invisible’ is a common sentiment of middle-aged and older women and is demonstrative of a culture and, by extension, workplaces that still assess women’s value superficially, inhibiting true recognition of their worth beyond surface appearances.

 

What can businesses do to support older women?

Despite us highlighting some rather negative trends in this article, there is plenty businesses can do to help squash bias, prevent discrimination and support all genders and age groups in thriving in the workplace:

 

Make sure everyone understands discrimination law:

Ensure all employees (managers and their reports) are aware of the minimum standards expected by The Equality Act (2010) and how we are all protected from discrimination in the workplace.

 

Take stock of your hiring and promotional practices:

From language used in job descriptions/advertisements to potential patterns in who you’re hiring, be vigilant about any possible biases. To avoid having decisions influenced by unconscious biases about age, gender or looks, remove names, ages and any photographs from applications where possible.

 

Provide training on ageism and related subjects:

Consider training to help people-managers understand how easily biases can unintentionally affect who they are hiring, promoting, evaluating or supporting through personal matters like caring responsibilities and health concerns.

Convergent’s consultancy support and workshops on Dismantling Bias, and Ageism and Intergenerational Working are a good place to start making changes and challenging ageist attitudes.

Similarly, Luminate’s workshops on Menopause in the Workplace, Building Stronger Teams and The Benefits Of Kindness help foster a culture of understanding and give managers/individuals the tools to support their wellbeing and that of others. Their ReStart Programme with, law firm, Allen & Ovary is a perfect example of this.

 

Start the conversation:

Nobody knows what older working women need to support their wellbeing/remain engaged better than themselves! So take the time (through either surveying, focus groups or in 121s) to understand what would benefit this cohort best, what challenges they are facing, and whether sexism/ageism/ableism is showing up in your workplace.

 

With almost all population growth in the next 20 years predicted to be from older workers, now is the time to make supporting your older workers (if and where needed) a business priority. In fact, by holding ageist beliefs and engaging in ageist behaviours, we are in effect targeting our future selves. This means that, without change, everyone who is lucky enough to grow old is likely to experience ageism in their lifetime.

Older people and women are crucial members of the workforce, who bring valuable experiences and perspectives that both the competency and culture of any workplace would suffer immensely without. This demographic should of course be supported in fulfilling their potential at work, as any other member of staff might be, free from worry, stigma and discrimination.

 

...

This article was written in collaboration with Convergent.

Convergent is an EDI Consultancy working with organisations that are genuinely committed to building an inclusive culture where a diverse mix of people can thrive. Convergent helps Boards and People Teams have brave conversations about EDI and is helmed by Heeral Gudka - you can connect with Heeral on LinkedIn.

 

[1] (Ng R and Lim-Soh JW (2021) Ageism linked to culture, not demographics: Evidence from an 8-billion-word corpus across 20 countries. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Science 76(9): 1791–1798)

[2] Vickerstaff S and van der Horst M (2022) Embodied ageism: “I don’t know if you do get to an age where you’re too old to learn”. Journal of Aging Studies 62: 101054.

[3] Williams, Annabelle (2012) Why Women Are Poorer Than Men and What We Can Do About It, Penguin, Michael Joseph

 

 

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