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Women and Ageism: Unpacking an ‘Ongoing Issue’ at Work

Evaluating biases, training managers and surveying employees could reduce ageism and create a more civil workplace

Women have historically faced higher rates of ageism and incivility when compared with their male counterparts. A new report released during Women’s History Month showed that this issue remains a problem for workplaces globally.

A survey of 1,258 female respondents across 46 countries by Women of Influence+ found that about 77.8 percent have encountered age-related discrimination in their careers. Another 80.7 percent said they have witnessed other women being treated differently in the workplace because of their age.

Nearly half (46.2 percent) reported ageism among women to be an “ongoing issue.”

Rumeet Billan, CEO of Women of Influence+, said in a statement that ageism in the workplace is “a clear indication that we are facing a pervasive and systemic issue.”

“Our survey sheds light on the hidden barriers many self-identifying women face that not only hinder their career progression but also impact their confidence and well-being,” she said.

Additional findings found:

  • 40.7 percent of respondents experienced ageism within the first decade of their career.
  • 55.9 percent encountered ageism after passing 21 years in their career.

The most common type of ageism was age-based stereotypes or assumptions, cited by 74.8 percent of the respondents. Others said it manifested through a lack of respect from colleagues (50.1 percent) and unfair treatment in the promotion process (49 percent).

 “Women are never the right age. We are either ‘going to get pregnant’ or ‘too old,’” one anonymous respondent noted. “This reflects a societal tendency to place undue expectations on women.”

Examples of Ageism Against Women

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from bias on the basis of age, but employers still consistently discriminate against older workers.

Ageism has largely been driven by the misperception that performance worsens and capacity decreases as people age. In many instances, older employees are expected to just quietly take a back seat to younger talent.

Sarah Wells, an entrepreneur and author of Go Ask Your Mothers: One Simple Step for Managers to Support Working Moms for Team Success (Matt Holt Books, 2024), said older women often deal with both ageism and sexism, making the workplace a land mine of bias activity.

She explained that many women in her network have found ageism “all over the language used by their colleagues and bosses.”

“Women are not hired, promoted or given opportunities they are capable of and qualified for because of negative perceptions about their age and stage of life,” Wells said. “Organizations may even be unaware they are perpetuating ageism in their workplace culture.”

She outlined several examples of ageism against women in the workplace that can also impact workplace civility:

  • An older woman isn’t considered for projects involving new technology or emerging social media platforms due to the stereotype that younger employees are better with technology.
  • A working mother with young children is passed up for a promotion due to an assumption that she will not be as committed as a younger employee without children.
  • An older woman in a customer-facing job overhears her younger colleagues gossiping about the way she dresses being outdated.
  • A start-up company refuses to consider an older woman for a job for which she is highly qualified because her college graduation date on her resume elicits subconscious negative feelings about aging women.

A 2023 survey by SHRM revealed that one-third of HR professionals (32 percent) said that an applicant’s age played a role in decisions their organization made during the job process. According to people managers, older employees are more likely to be perceived by others as not competent with technology (49 percent), resistant to new ways of doing things (38 percent), and stubborn or grumpy (48 percent).

The Women of Influence+ report noted that ageism can negatively impact individuals at all stages of their careers, leading to unfair treatment, limited opportunities and marginalization. It can also result in increased social isolation and loneliness along with greater financial insecurity and depression, according to the World Health Organization.

“We know that our employees experiencing mental health challenges have higher rates of absenteeism and lower productivity when they don’t get the support they need and, worse yet, if the workplace is causing the issue,” Wells said.

Recommendations to Consider

Janet Harvey, the CEO of inviteCHANGE, a coaching and human development organization in Freeland, Wash., said developing a strategic inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) program can help reduce ageism in the workplace.

She said that leaders often misperceive the risk in making IE&D initiatives transactional and the opportunity cost of “making their largest consumer use their wallet somewhere else because the company is blind to the impact of policies that are exclusionary and out of tune with society.”

Wells offered three key recommendations to help companies combat ageism to improve civility at work:

  • Evaluate their own biases regularly.
  • Assess the state of their culture, which could be done via employee surveys, to identify hints of ageism at work.
  • Train and educate the workforce, particularly front-line management, on bias-related topics.

“Combating ageism in the workplace starts with each of us,” Wells added. “Let’s all remember that the value of our older colleagues is exponential, not expired.”

reprinted with permission from
SHRM 03.24

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