Gendered ageism: the next #MeToo moment?

Workingwise.co.uk speaks to author Bonnie Marcus about her new book, Not Done Yet!, about older women in the workplace who says employers need to wake up to the issues of gendered ageism.

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Read about National Older Workers Week

Ageism is not on the agenda of many workplaces, but, when combined with sexism, the impact can be enormous.

Author Bonnie Marcus, conducted research mainly in the US, Canada and the UK with Catherine Lindner of Out-Wit, Inc. for her new book Not Done Yet!: How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power which found that  80% of those surveyed experienced some form of gendered ageism. A third of all respondents (33%) felt they could not get a job or interview because of their age. The most common experiences were “feeling opinions were ignored” (47%), “seeing younger colleagues get attention” (42%) and “not being invited to key meetings” (35%).

Marcus’ book aims to raise awareness about gendered ageism. She thinks the only way to reduce discrimination is through more intergenerational communication, more networking and one to one mentoring. “It’s easier to stay in your comfort zone, but as you get to know people one on one it is harder to stereotype people. You realise that the person has value and you can learn from each other. That does not happen when everyone is in their own silo,” she says, adding that ageist assumptions are made on both sides.

Marcus reports ageism at both ends of the age spectrum, with women particularly affected, and says countries like the US and UK with a strong individualistic culture tend to be more ageist than those in the East where age is respected more and there is more emphasis on collaboration. Her research shows gendered ageism drops a little for women aged 35-40, but is more or less a factor at most stages of women’s careers. “There is only a nanosecond in their working life when the time is right for professional women,” she states.

Ageism can be subtle or direct, for instance, Marcus cites a woman who was told at interview that ‘ours is a youth culture’. A lot of people don’t get as far as an interview, however, and are sifted out beforehand.

Few role models

Marcus says ageism is not really on employers’ radar yet, despite the skills shortages we have and the fact that older women make up an increasing percentage of consumers. “It doesn’t make sense that women are not at the table,” she states. “Research shows that a key factor in helping women advance to leadership is to have sponsors and female role models and if employers are pushing those women out the door then young women are only seeing white older men at the top and can’t see a path forward for themselves.”

She adds that very few employers look at intersectionality. “They might look at gender, but not at gender and ageism or race. Many employers are just checking the box. It needs to start at the top with leaders who understand the business case and don’t just see it as a nice thing to have,” says Marcus, who has in the past called gendered ageism the next #MeToo moment.

Suffering in silence

Nevertheless, many women have internalised ageist stereotypes which begin in childhood with portrayals of wicked witches and so forth. This “sabotages” them, says Marcus. Moreover, many still don’t talk about gendered ageism. “They suffer in silence,” she states.

Her research shows nearly three quarters of women who had experienced gendered ageism didn’t do anything about it as they felt it would not make any difference, with over a quarter not trusting HR and nearly a quarter thinking it would lead to them losing their job. Many of those who did speak to HR were very dissatisfied with the outcome. “The culture needs to change,” says Marcus, adding that employers need to really focus on retention and retraining since it is much harder for women to get back into work after career gaps.

Lookism

Another issue linked to gendered ageism is the pressure to look younger in order to keep your job or position – and that is something women face earlier and more than men with women being judged less competent or valuable as they age. Marcus talks about a commercial real estate worker in her early 60s who had eye lift surgery who called it “an investment in my career”. “She felt that it meant she could work for another 10 years,” says Marcus. That is vital, given that most of the women she interviewed did not have enough money to retire because they have traditionally been paid less than men throughout their careers, may have had to take time out for caring responsibilities and may consequently face the gender pension gap.

She is hopeful that things are changing and notes the number of organisations which are raising awareness, even if that has not trickled down to the workplace yet. “I am very passionate about this topic, about building awareness and changing the conversation. We need to flip our existing male model of work to find one that works for women,” says Marcus.

She is herself affected and says that, like many women, she has been re-evaluating her career with a view to making more impact. She says she has questioned whether she fully lets go and changes direction or leverages some of her past experience in new ways. “I am still trying to figure that out,” she says. “I think that is a difference between men and women generally. Men tend to look forward to retirement when they get older. Women, having come through the menopause and with empty nest syndrome, may be looking to challenge themselves. There is a lot of creativity I feel I have not tapped yet and that is exciting.  I am not done yet.”

*Join us for the first National Older Workers Week. It runs from 22nd-26th November and will include a series of online events for employers and candidates with leading experts and employers. There will be a panel discussion on the results of our survey of older workers’ experience of Covid and their attitudes towards their working lives, a best practice event on everything from eliminating age bias in the recruitment process to returner programmes and lifelong learning, an event for line managers on managing multigenerational teams and a candidate-focused  event sharing older workers’ experiences with expert advice for those who wish to change their careers. Find out more and register for the free events here.



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