Reading: Ageism In The Workplace: Do Women Get Hit Harder?

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Ageism In The Workplace: Do Women Get Hit Harder?

Fired. Pink-slipped. Demoted. Women with chops feel age is undermining their ability to work

By Katie Weisman

Ageism in the workplace can leave women confused and isolated
Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi

Forty is the new 50 for women in the workplace.

That’s because ageism is alive and well. And research indicates it’s hitting women harder than men.

For example, Susan, a top executive at the company where she began her career, was asked last year to fire a group of women on her team, all of whom happened to be over 40 years old. After following orders, she was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement and received extra pension benefits that “stink of hush money.”

Susan is conflicted because she loves her job but suspects her company dipped its toes into age discrimination with the layoffs she was asked to perform. If she speaks up, however, she’s likely to be let go herself. (Note: TheCovey has changed the names of many women like Susan featured in this story, as well as the names of employers, to ensure anonymity and protect interviewees from potential retaliation.)

Ageism: Women Get Hit Harder

A New York Times report from January 8th suggests that older women are “experiencing an unfamiliar sensation: power” following 71-year-old Glenn Close’s Golden Globes Best Actress win and the appointment of Susan Zirinsky, 66, as president of CBS News.

But a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that while both men and women are subject to age discrimination, women are the most vulnerable.

In 2015, a team of researchers led by David Neumark (Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Irvine) created over 40,000 fictitious applicants who applied to low-skill jobs in 12 cities across 11 states. (The team targeted low-skill jobs because labor economists feel the chances for realistic responses are higher than with high-skill jobs, where employers might be more familiar with the applicant pool.) The fake younger workers were 29-31 years old, the middle-aged workers were 49-51, and older workers were 64-66.

Initial versions of the study show that compared with younger applicants, call back rates were 18% lower for all middle-aged workers — and about 35% lower for workers 64-66, behavior that is consistent with age discrimination.

Overall, call back rates for women were significantly lower than for men. Older female applicants experienced a 47% lower call back rate for administrative jobs (7.6% for older women versus 14.4% for younger) and a 36% lower call back rate for sales (18.4% versus 28.7 %). A final version of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Political Economy.

Last August, the AARP released a new study called “The Value of Experience” in which 61% of the 3,900 adults aged 45 and up said they had experienced or seen age discrimination at work.

But here again, women experienced more. According to Susan Weinstock, the AARP vice-president for financial resiliency programming, 64% of women said they had experienced ageism compared to just 59% of men. What’s notable, says Weinstock, is that though the unemployment rate for older workers aged 55 and over is slightly lower than that of younger workers aged 25-54 (2.9% vs. 3.2%), an older worker who loses a job takes double the amount of time to find a new one. “Once you get shoved out the door, it’s hard to get your foot back in,” adds Grace, 55, a marketing copywriter and consultant.

Age discrimination is not unique to the US. Last summer, the British Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee issued a report stating that more than 1 million people aged 50 or older are being locked out of work due to their age. A 2017 report from Canadian senior living and long-term care provider Revera revealed that 42% of Canadians surveyed felt that ageism was “the most tolerated” form of social prejudice.

The (Intractable) Problem With a Name: Ageism

Age discrimination has been illegal in the US since the 1967 Age Discrimination Act, which prohibits age-based employment discrimination for workers aged 40-65. It was revised to include workers of all ages in 1975 and further acts were introduced in 2006, culminating in the 2010 Equality Act that protects workers from being discriminated against for a wide range of reasons including age, race, disability, religious beliefs, sex, pregnancy or maternity.

In 2009, however, the US Supreme Court ruled that to prove age discrimination in a bias claim, the defendant must prove that age was the deciding factor in an employment choice. This requirement is exceedingly hard to litigate because a company can always argue that a senior employee was actually fired due to cost-cutting a high salary, rather than due to their age.

In 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, 18,372 age-discrimination complaints were filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the US federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights in the workplace. This is down from the 20,854 cases brought in 2016.

But while litigation is down, reports of age discrimination are up. Complaints among women, blacks, Asians, and workers over age 65 have nearly doubled, according to a 2018 study released by the EEOC.

Businesses Aimed at Women Might be More Ageist

Experiences of ageism were shared in conversations TheCovey had with women 40-plus in a variety of industries ranging from entertainment to corporate consulting. Interviewees elaborated on the age-related challenges they have experienced or have seen in their respective fields. Ironically, industries such as fashion or beauty — which enjoy a primarily female clientele — were tagged by female employees as environments rife with negative age-related issues.

Grace held full-time salaried positions in corporate beauty marketing until a few years ago when a restructuring eliminated her job. She was able to land a full-time contract job with benefits at another company, but that post was later eliminated due to cost-cutting. Grace, the most senior member of her team with the highest salary, was let go.

“I feel it’s age discrimination,” she says. “You age out of the industry. And [the cut off] is getting younger than 50. No matter what office you walk into [today], it’s filled with young women who have great titles but no experience. For those of us with experience, companies can’t meet our salary.”

In Grace’s field, the key to staying relevant is to be able to write with a millennial voice.“‘Get Woke’ is not how I envisioned my career going forward,” she sighs.

These sentiments were echoed by Alexandra, 54, a long-time fashion and luxury goods publicist who is really enjoying her newfound entrepreneurial consulting work in marketing, branding and public relations.“I do not want to go back to the corporate world. They are hiring much younger people with less experience,” she says.

Alexandra left her last corporate communications job because she felt she was no longer learning anything new and didn’t enjoy the skill sets she was tasked to use on the job — such as budgeting and managing staff. “I became aware very quickly that I would not get a similar job. The writing was on the wall because companies are hiring 30- to 35-year-olds. I’m frustrated for women in this industry. There is huge age discrimination and for women who want to get back in [after being let go], it’s very, very hard.”

Alexandra notes that women, salaried or independent, have to be flexible and make “their own opportunities.” But that doesn’t mean that being your own boss will work for you: Juggling medical insurance and irregular paychecks are often hard to digest and, she admits, not for everyone.

Demoted in Financial Services

The banking and financial services sector offers another view on age discrimination. While ageism might not be blatant — let’s remember, it’s illegal — many women feel the repercussions daily.

(In fact, several of this writer’s friends who work in finance declined to speak for this story due to fear of corporate reprisal.)

“I’ve seen three women in their 60s who were encouraged to leave and take retirement. They were given packages that they were comfortable with, but I have not seen this happen with men the same age,” says Jennifer, 64, a financial services marketing executive. “When you see this happen around you, it’s cause for concern.”

Jennifer loves her job and loves managing and mentoring those on her team, but she admits she’s “married” to her position. She cannot afford to leave and become an entrepreneurial consultant for fear of losing benefits and a steady paycheck.

“I could potentially search for another Chief Marketing Officer role in another organization or poke around and look for Chief Executive positions in small to midsize firms, but will a company want to take a 64-year-old woman?” she asks.

Jennifer, like Lisa, the chief of staff for an architectural firm, regularly experiences ageism at the water fountain. In her mid-50s, Lisa says she was given the “side-eye” by younger women in the office when she was asked to spearhead the implementation of a new internal IT program.

“It’s more at the peer level and most of my peers are 45 and up,” Jennifer observes. “They talk about the time when they were growing up, or pop culture like movies or influencers, subjects that are hard for me to participate in. I have to work very hard to be current.”

“I am trying to read the tea leaves and be mindful and aware. And I’m constantly working to keep my skills at the very top, something important for women at any age,” Jennifer says. “I am not going to be outdone by anybody.”

Meghan, a 54-year-old partner in a multinational consulting firm, has the same mindset. After her group was restructured, she was effectively demoted even though she’d hit 99% of her target goals. She now reports to a younger woman — who holds her old position and performed regularly at least 20 points below her target goals.

Meghan is six years away from her company’s mandatory retirement age and lucrative pension.

She is trapped.

“My boss played it that this was a better role for me, but the woman who replaced me and to whom I’m being asked to report didn’t achieve her objectives,” says Meghan. “Who would float that with a man the same age?”

Meghan feels that while age discrimination does not prevent women from landing the job, age becomes a factor when there are internal executive restructurings.

“Ageism happens because it’s easy,” Meghan observes. “Sure, some older folks run out of gas. But in other cases, it’s hard for the older executive to make a stink. In many cases, women are simply less vocal. [Management] knows that because of your age and proximity to retirement that they can abuse you and give favorable treatment to people younger than you. You’re not going to balk. It’s difficult to leave when you’re at a top senior level since there are not many positions out there.”

Where Experience is Wanted

In spite of these anecdotes, headhunters claim there are opportunities for older women. Trish Shortell, a career headhunter and now managing director of MediaLink’s executive search practice, specializes in CEO or CMO searches and says that almost all of her current searches make hiring a woman mandatory and that age is irrelevant.

“I’ve never had a client say ‘I don’t want a woman,’” says Shortell.

Shortell also notes that opportunities exist for “senior sage advisor,” or mentor roles for the boom in start-up businesses. This, she says, is incredibly important as the baby boomers begin to retire, and companies need to rely on senior executives for the transfer of knowledge.

Companies are also looking outside their ranks for technology experts that they haven’t developed internally.

“Women have to take an inventory of their experiences. In a job search, you don’t want to recreate what you have done but instead look for something where you can reapply your strengths and what potential you can stretch,” Shortell advises.

She is very inspired by the phenomenal career of octogenarian Charlotte Beers, a former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather under whose tenure billings rose by $2 billion. “Be reflective on where to apply, and acknowledge that it might not be where you applied in the past.”

Founder and former CEO of the Joie de Vivre hotel group, Chip Conley echoes this view and even wrote a book about it: Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. In 2013, Airbnb tapped Conley, now 58, to become their Global Head of Hospitality and Strategy because of his solid expertise as a veteran hospitality executive. He stepped back from that role to launch the Modern Elder Academy in 2018, an academy in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula “dedicated to navigating midlife transitions.” Conley remains Airbnb’s Strategic Advisor for Leadership and Hospitality.

“Women disproportionately feel the effects of ageism,” says Conley, because they’ve always been disproportionately discriminated against. He cites Yvonne Sonsino, innovation leader and partner at Mercer (the world’s largest human resources consulting firm) and the author of The New Rules of Living Longer: How to Survive Your Longer Life, as saying: “Women live longer, tend to be paid less, are more likely to work part-time and more likely to have career gaps. As a result, the value of their pensions may be reduced by 40 percent compared to a man doing the same job.”

Conley feels that women bring unique strengths to the workplace — an ability to collaborate and empathize — that makes them terrific mentors.

“Modern elder women have the ability to see things holistically. Their generations were often responsible for helping to take care of their families and homes in ways that men [were] not,” he explains. “They learned early on what it takes to build community and consensus in order to keep the family thriving. This is a vital strength in running a business or organization.”

Julia, 49, a former corporate public relations executive, is hoping to return to the entertainment industry, which she says favors experience. “In entertainment, nothing about my age comes up when I’m called about opportunities,” she says.

Jenny Bicks, 55, is the only woman to speak on the record for this story. She echoes this sentiment while admitting there are caveats. A seasoned television executive producer, showrunner, and screenwriter, Bicks warns that even if women are gaining steam, writers’ rooms for sitcoms remain very much “boys’ clubs,” and older female actors have been quite vocal about their inability to land plum roles.

But among the professions that feed into Hollywood, some — like talent management, show-running, and screenwriting — appreciate, and gladly pay for, the experience that comes with age.

“I’m always so thankful to still be employed in this industry,” says Bicks. “Ageism exists in this industry, but you are given a path if you can prove that you know what you are doing.”

Bicks attributes her continued marketability to her track-record for success.

“At a certain point, those of us working in comedy grew older and more experienced. We began running our own shows and hiring more women. It started to shift for me specifically when I started writing for Sex and The City — we were a team of one man and six women,” Bicks recalls. “I started to develop my own shows like Leap of Faith, and half of my writers were women. That was the first of many shows that I went on to create, including Men in Trees, that allowed me to hire more women. The more women in positions to hire means the more we can change the way things go.”

Bicks is part of an informal group (dubbed the Woolf Pack, a nod to writer Virginia Woolf) of female showrunners whose average age is in the mid-40s. These women gather in a safe space to identify and discuss the issues that women face in Hollywood. Their primary goal is to mentor younger women and facilitate their entry into the industry.

And maybe, thanks in part to the spaces carved out by the #MeToo movement, women are now rising into important influential leadership roles. Bicks cites as promising the recent appointment of Karey Burke as president of ABC Entertainment and the current trend of women leaving top executive posts to become independent producers.

But this is Hollywood, where although gender inequality remains a huge issue, age can often be malleable. “People can pass as ageless,” Bicks warns, “thanks notably to plastic surgery.”

Nonetheless, conference rooms tend to be filled with thirtysomething executives, and Bicks worries they might not get her jokes.

“I’m lucky I got in when I did,” Bicks says. “And that my pedigree allows people to not see my age.”

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