Some industries, such as technology and fashion, are known for being youth-centric. But ageism isn’t just about young versus old. In many workplaces, men benefit from the privilege of being seen as "distinguished" or “experienced” as they get older, whereas women are often seen as “older” or “crankier”. The fact is that age discrimination for women begins earlier than it does for men.
What is Ageism?
The Longevity Forum in the UK tells us that ageism at work begins at 40 for women, versus 45 for men. You might be thinking how is that possible in this day and age? No pun intended and let’s talk frankly here, starting with getting a baseline understanding as to what ageism actually is. Ageism is defined as prejudice and discrimination against people based on their age. Women believe, with reason, that ageism is definitively harder on them than men because men are ‘let go’ after women as they are still seen as the ‘heads of household’ and therefore have a fundamental edge in the race to stay alive at work in a restructuring scenario.
Female ageism at work as a form of discrimination is not only commonplace, it’s actually deeply insidious since it’s not even acknowledged in the same way that sexism or racism are. In all honesty, it is sometimes younger women under 40 who unconsciously or in the name of competition or ambition who are driving older women out, pushing them aside from promotion opportunities or even getting basic raises.
It can be argued that female ageism at work is one of the last remaining "normalized" forms of discrimination. And ahem ladies, in the U.S. right now (as in 2020), laws protecting women have actually become weaker. This is happening despite the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a 15% increase in Age Discrimination cases for women over 40 from 1997 – 2017 versus an 18% decrease for men over 40. Unbelievable but is it really? We all know women, our friends, mentors, sisters, perhaps ourselves who’ve found themselves in an ageism situation. A recent AARP study showed that 6 in 10 people over 45 have witnessed or personally experienced some kind of ageism at work.
Ageism At Work: Unconscious Bias
Let’s get into the weeds a bit here. In some cases, age discrimination at work happens not out of blatant maliciousness, but because of what is called unconscious bias. Society perpetuates certain stereotypes. A major one is that older women aren’t on the same social media or aren’t digitally native and therefore can’t execute certain tasks or understand how to use key tools in the workplace the way someone under 30 can.
Unconscious bias hinders women from even getting hired. Besides being seen as technologically weaker, other common assumptions are that women over 40 salary requirements are too high and that they’re not willing to travel. At many companies, conversations about career development stop happening when women are in their later 40s or early 50s. In fact, studies show that women’s peak earning years are from 45-54 and start to decline after 54. Ugh. This becomes a cycle. Women themselves may get fearful that they will lose their jobs if they continue to push for bi-annual reviews, promotions, raises, bonuses and in the interest of self-preservation, just stop asking, pushing, ensuring those reviews and opportunities occur.
Here’s another form of unconscious bias: A fashion brand or digital marketing firm may look for someone who is "passionate about the industry". Equally, on Wall Street or in the tech world, it’s de rigueur to "work hard and play hard". These are codewords for "a person who is willing to put in very long hours." A young, single person may be ready and very willing, but an older woman with a family, especially a younger family as women have children later and later, is less likely to want to be working at 8, 9 or 10 PM. As women over 40 begin to re-prioritize their lives, they might become excluded from opportunities for workplace success.
Gendered Ageism in the Workplace
We all know that women make less money than men do. We all know that women make about 81 cents for the same exact job a guy does who gets a full dinero. But yes, we women are still paid less than men for doing the exact same work. It is also quite well known that women of color, from Native Americans, to Hispanics to Black women make even less. But what is rarely studied - even by the very institutions studying and advocating for closing the gender wage gap - is the gap associated with age. So here’s what we learned at Caire. The average woman’s peak earning is at age 40, but men keep climbing up and there peak at around 49. It’s shocking really.
In general, female or gendered ageism is an unique and specific issue, one which is the LEAST likely to be addressed in companies’ diversity or inclusivity goals, mission statements or management training. Less than 10% of companies make any conscious effort to combat ageism, and particularly female gendered ageism. Indeed, in the age of LinkedIn and online resume submission, many companies unconsciously or consciously filter out candidates of a certain age, altogether.
And yet. The fastest-growing population in the U.S. is NOT millennials, it’s women aged 55 and up. And despite all the gendered ageism, women over 55 are expected to represent over one-third of new hires from 2016 to 2026. Having said that, this may not happen as expected because of the rapid and disproportionate loss of women in the workplace in the Covid era. Regardless, the notion that age affects ability needs to be erased. Older people, and in particular older women, are now proven to positively contribute to bottom lines both in actual business results and work culture. A recent PwC study showed that if all the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries – including the U.S. – could increase their total GDP by around $3.5 trillion by matching New Zealand’s employment rate —one of the consistently highest in the world— for older workers (55 and over).
At the workplace, sometimes gendered ageism is self-caused. It’s a form of self-sabotage actually. When we say, ‘Well, I’m older than you are so ...” or “At my age ...” or “I’m having a senior moment ...” as a joke or comment, this is actually self-stereotyping behavior. If you’re saying these seemingly innocuous comments, people around you of all ages and genders are likely to start perceiving you as old and forgetful or worse, not able to execute your work creatively or efficiently.
Separately, women who are dealing with workplace competition or stress are sometimes dismissed as being cranky or irritable due to "The Change". Let’s all agree to call it what it is: menopause or perimenopause. If this is something happening to you, be upfront and direct about it and let people know that no, it’s not menopause, what’s bothering you is “this…”; and then get specific.
How Women Can Stay Competitive At Work
The fact that it's necessary to discuss how to stay relevant in the workplace after 50 (or even 45) is unjust, but unfortunately, anti-discrimination laws are unlikely to ever be completely effective. Most employment lawyers throughout the U.S. will tell you that it is nearly impossible to prove ageism as an individual or even as a group of women banding together. Discrimination against older women in the workplace is not something that is calculated or planned, and it is easy for employers to work around the prevailing laws.
If a younger person than you gets a promotion, it can be justified that the promotion was awarded not because of their younger age and therefore a need to retain said person, but some other issue, such as the promotion was based on workplace innovation. When someone over 45 or 50 is released from their job – aka fired – there are numerous reasons that can be drummed up, including the ever present, restructuring. Of course, no workplace would ever admit that the person fired was simply “too old".
If women want to get ahead, or stay ahead, as they enter their 50s and go through menopause and beyond, they need to be proactive and hyper aware. At caire beauty, we tell all of our friends and family to always have your resume ready and actively network no matter your age.
Older Women Are a Growing Force at Work
So we know that the population is getting older, and that older women - we like to say grown up women - are increasingly common in the workforce. The good news is that with age comes wisdom, knowledge and experience. It is also known but perhaps needs to be firmly communicated and showcased that grown up women typically possess strong communication capabilities both verbally and in writing. Equally, grown up women typically exhibit decisiveness and are able to make good decisions based on a relatively fast interpretation or read of a situation or group of facts. Women who can portray these key skills should speak up, speak out and make sure that people know that you are using your experience and capabilities on behalf of the company, the department, the business.
At the same time, it is important to note that showing confidence and enthusiasm in yourself and your career will go a long way to keeping you in play - meaning available for interesting projects and assignments, potential promotions and bonuses.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Yes, it's true that there are some or several physical phenomena going on during before, during and even after menopause that can be a real challenge. Menopause can affect women in several ways:
- Hot flashes
- Low mood; making it harder to cope with workplace stress
- Poor concentration
- Reduced confidence
These are all issues that can be managed and mitigated, however, and are not an excuse for age discrimination in the workplace. MOST women can, and do, excel at work in their 40s, 50s and 60s, especially if they invest in their bodies and mental well-being. At every age, it is entirely possible to not only remain productive but indeed to project proactiveness, if you practice good self-care. We won’t enumerate here what good self care is but the basics of course include: sleep, meditation, water intake, good skincare, exercise, lots of walking and stretching, less alcohol and better nutrition.
Put Your Best Self Forward at Work
Gendered ageism means that it's assumed that once you are over 50, if you're female, you're less confident, less skilled, and less useful at work. It's assumed that you're planning to retire soon and that it's not worth promoting you. Campaigning for diversity and inclusion in the workplace might help the next generation, but it's not going to help you if you are one of the many women who is finding that their opinion is suddenly less valued in meetings, or who is being passed over for promotions that they are qualified for.The best option for staying competitive in the workplace is to make sure that you look, and act, like the capable and confident woman you are. Make sure to stay close to your boss and your bosses’ boss - let them know by scheduling reviews, one on ones, having out of work chats that you are focused on the future and moving onwards and upwards. Make the issue of menopause in the workplace non-existent by making people focus on your skills and ambition, rather than your age.
Fight for Those Promotions
Having been in the workplace for longer than some of your younger colleagues have been alive, you may have learned a lot about when to speak and when to stay quiet. Your quiet wisdom, however, may be seen as a lack of workplace competitiveness. You may over the years have decided to only speak when you have something of value to contribute. But this may be perceived as your "not coping with menopause and work stress".
Learn from your younger colleagues and declare your ambition. Talk about how you have plans for the coming years. Get involved with new projects. Ask for opportunities. Young people - make that ambitious people - make it clear that they're hungry for opportunities, and that hunger is rewarded.
Learn New Skills
You might be good or even fantastic at the job you're doing now, but do you have the skills for the future? Get comfortable with new technologies. Ask for training in the latest software and processes. Or figure out training on your own. Everything is on YouTube now. Everything. You can learn how to do anything from editing videos to excel pivot tables to learning how to set up and design a stunning website on YouTube. Make sure that you have the skills that are needed to do your job tomorrow, and heading into the future.
Read key newsletters and general news about your business and sector and attend industry conferences. If you see something interesting, send it quickly to your boss and friends in the business. Better yet, add a brief, light note as to what this might mean for your company or business. This habit shows everyone that all engines are firing and that you’re on top of what’s happening.
Keep That Youthful Confidence
If you look glowing and bright, project and voice positivity, without being relentless obviously, about your life, your work goals, people will both subconsciously and consciously respond to you positively. Sounds basic but maybe a little more difficult to achieve than we would like. Write down everything you say or text about yourself at work and objectively figure out whether you’re projecting negativity about your capabilities, your colleagues, your company. It’s easy to criticize and complain.
Here’s where we get to talk about ourselves for a minute. Step up your skincare routine from just moisturizing after cleansing. At Caire Beauty, we offer proprietary skincare formulations that are specifically designed for women who are in their 40, 50, 60s and beyond. Our products and a few other new brands on the market aren't just "anti-aging", they’re designed to help you look and feel your most empowered pre, during and post-menopause.
If you build skincare and style into your daily routine, it will help you consistently project confidence. It's not about trying to "stay young" because you're in denial about your age. It's about making the most of your natural attributes and making sure that as you get older you are still the best you that you can be. If you feel good about yourself, your bosses – whether younger or older – are more likely to re-invest and listen to you. Likewise, if you feel good about your face, you’re more likely to re-invest in yourself! Take good self-care of yourself, speak up about what your career goals are, drive energy into your voice and your colleagues will perceive you as the confident, together person you desire to be.
Support Other Women
Make a point of supporting other women in your industry and internally. While women in the workplace have progressed a lot over the last few decades, there are still numerous challenges to overcome, and one of the best ways to fight those challenges is for women to lift each other up. If you advocate for other women, they will be more likely to advocate for you, and together you can create opportunities for each other and be a force against both the conscious and unconscious discrimination that happens at your company.
Historically, women have competed against each other and often actively undermined each other. This helps no one in the long term. The best thing that women can do for each other is to work together. Mentor a younger employee, make sure that your peers get the credit they deserve, support someone older by recognizing her work publicly and help the sisterhood succeed.
If you have other ideas or personal stories on how you’ve stayed competitive in your career, please feel free to share with caire. We’d love to highlight some of your stories in the coming months (with your permission only of course).