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Working Women’s Double Dose Of Discrimination: Gender And Ageism

By Margye Solomon for Forbes

Mark Twain wrote:

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.

Really? As a woman in her late 60s, I'm not sure I want to go back to my twenties or even my teens. Battles with sexism and ageism in the workplace aside, I rather enjoy the peace and happiness that comes with age.

Everyone begins the aging process at birth. Then at some point in our lives (generally following our teen years), we begin to become wary of the process. The ancient Greek poet Homer called old age "loathsome" and William Shakespeare called it the "hideous winter." Each wrote their descriptions of old age while in their twilight years, leaving a legacy of loathing for younger generations to study. Over thousands of years, human beings have learned to see old age as a disease, something to be avoided even though we know it is inevitable.

According to the UN, the number of people over the age of 65 is growing faster than any other age group and is expected to double in the next 30 years, while the number of people over 80 is expected to triple. With the abhorrence and fear of aging instilled in us from birth, we are given a psychological platform from which to operate in the workplace:

In with the new, out with the old.

Between this mentality and an aging population, it's no wonder we continue to engage in the same discussions year after year.

Ageism in the workplace does affect both men and women. Here comes the BUT: not equally nor at the same age. Research shows that age discrimination in employment is clearly a woman's issue. In 2018, Lynda Gratton, coauthor of "The 100 Year Life: Living and Work in an Age of Longevity," wrote:

Ageism is 'far worse' for women than sexism.

Gratton's findings seem to mirror those of David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California whose research showed that women suffer more age discrimination than men starting in their 40s:

The evidence of age discrimination against women kind of pops out in every study. Ageism at work begins at 40 for women and 45 for men. At that point, the employer no longer considers the worker for promotion or training.

The BBC attempted to tackle the question "Why do women appear to bear the brunt of ageism at work?" in a recent article by Tamasin Ford. Ford interviews 72-year-old Bonnie Marcus, founder of Bonnie Marcus Leadership in Santa Barbara, California. Marcus attributes visible signs of aging in women as a primary trigger. She says:

As soon as women show any visible signs of aging, they are viewed as not only less attractive, but less competent...And as women get older, they face the double whammy of sexism and ageism.

Does discrimination against women really boil down to our physical appearance? When we are younger and "better-looking," we fight sexism. When we are older and not as attractive, we fight ageism. I carry the gene that caused my hair to turn white as a young woman. I spent thousands of dollars over the years having my hair colored because I was taught that "gray hair on a woman makes her look old, while gray hair on man makes him look distinguished."

Mark Twain again:

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind it doesn't matter.

That's great, Mark, but evidently it does matter in the workplace.

There are things women can do to help deal with the judgement conferred on them. Therese Borchard recommends "confronting our changing looks" as Step 1 of her "6 Steps to Help Women Deal with Aging." We can continue to stay fit and healthy, however, I'm not certain much of our work on ourselves will matter when faced with a societal issue.

Take heart - there is an upside. Combating ageism for women in the workplace isn't a losing battle - however, accepting its existence and making it a priority are essential steps forward. The American Society on Aging shared list of reasons why it should be a priority in "Embracing Older Women in the Workplace:"

  1. Exclusion of older women hurts the economy.

  2. Older women save money for employers.

  3. Discrimination against older women drains American healthcare dollars.

Jeannette McClennan, co-founder and president of the digital innovation firm McClennan Mason, did research and provided data proving that "Aging is a Woman's Super Power." McClennan's research shows that the advantage isn't just a rallying cry to give older women a self-esteem boost, but it's based on qualities and traits they develop over time. She found through a blend of research scales and open-ended questions that older people are happier than other age groups and are much more productive to boot.

Thinking again about Mark Twain's comment about growing down (beginning at 80 and working back to 18), I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Why would I want to give up my well-earned super power? I'm a better leader now than when I was 25, 35, or 45. I have more patience, more confidence, and far more energy than when I was working and raising children. The white hair that I used to dye is now a badge of honor. The lessons of my mother became mine when she passed on.

Human beings have been gifted 30 extra years. It's time to do away with the workplace "youth" culture we've created and advocate for retaining and hiring older women. As usual, it will take women to foment change.

Ageism is a human issue. Ageism is a family issue. Ageism is a financial issue. Ageism is a political issue. Ageism is your issue. Ageism is our issue.

Margye Solomon is the Chief of Staff at Envision2bWell, Inc. She is a master connector who sees connections and patterns in human relationships and in strategic commercial relationships.


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