Episode 146: Ageism, or Prejudice Against Our Future Selves

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…the second of two shows about aging in the workplace. Perceptions of women as workers often change as they get older…

“They're not seen as attractive as they were before. And I mean that both physically as well as in terms of the skills that they have, or they're seen as behind the times…”

“So if we have a wrinkle that’s a defeat, if we have grey hair that’s a defeat. Increasingly I think women in the workplace feel they need to hide these signs of aging just to maintain a sense that they are still relevant.”

But having lived a little can pay off, career-wise…

“In many ways all the life experience I had beforehand helps to inform my practice now and makes my job more enjoyable, and makes it easier to understand my clients.”

Three perspectives on aging and work, plus ideas for combating ageism…coming up on The Broad Experience.

I don’t want this show to be depressing but at the same time I do – as usual – want it to be real. And the reality is there seems to be more bias against older women in the workplace than there does against older men – now I know that men face age discrimination too. But what little research exists points to the fact that a combination of factors hits older women who either want a new job, or want to keep an old one.

 “So there is this paradox that goes on when women are younger.”

That’s Terri Boyer. She directs the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women's Leadership at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Terri has appeared on the show before – a very early episode – and I knew if anyone was following the research on women and aging at work, it would be her.

“Workplaces are obsessed with their potential to be mothers or the fact that if they're going to be mothers they're not going to be as dedicated to their career despite the fact that many women don't actually become mothers at all. But then what you see happening about the mid-thirties and later in women's lives is the opposite starts to happen.”

Suddenly, just as many women begin to feel a little freer of home responsibilities than they did …work begins to lose confidence in them for a different reason…  

“…because they're not seen as attractive as they were before. And I mean that both physically as well as in terms of the skills that they have, or they're seen as behind the times or not as committed to their work. So despite the fact that in the beginning we may have discriminated against women because of their potential to be mothers and be distracted and not as committed, now as they age, we're discriminating against them because they're perceived as maybe not as qualified or less likely to be flexible, et cetera.

And the research plays this out for sure. We see that women are experiencing an intersection of ageism and gender discrimination that men don't seem to experience in the same ways, and particularly around their physical appearance and their health and their perceptions of skill, particularly when it comes to technical skills, and their ability to learn and contribute.”

AM-T: “That’s so interesting, so are you saying that men, I mean I know age discrimination can happen to anyone, and lots of men have experienced it, are you saying women are more likely to be thought less likely to be technically savvy at say, 50, than a guy at the same age?”

“Yes. Women are definitely seen as less tech savvy and less likely to be able to learn the skill. So this is a really interesting piece. Women are in general perceived as less technically skilled as men or more fearful of technology or technophobe if you will. But as they age. That's definitely something that employers may hold against them where they say, mmm, she might not be able to be as responsive or up on the latest technologies that we definitely need in our workplace. And so you see that coming back to women and being used as an excuse for their lack of employment or not hiring them or demoting them.” 

The Institute Terri heads actually has a program called ‘transitions’ where they work with women to help them navigate some of what hits them later in their careers – whether that’s demotions, downsizing, not being able to get back into the workforce after a break. Terri says a company will often assume…

“Oh, she’s 45, 50, she’s gonna want a much higher salary level than the entry level I’m able to offer her, or maybe looking for a kind of compensation package we can’t give and so I’m not gonna hire her here because she’s not looking for the same things I am, I want someone fresh out who’s moldable, who’s still young and looking to build their career.”

Age discrimination is illegal in many countries but it happens all the time. A Broad Experience listener in Canada responded to a callout I did on Facebook, and she described a conversation just like the one Terri just talked about. She’s in tech, got a call from a recruiter at a global company – but for technical reasons…the woman hadn’t been able to view the candidate’s CV ahead of time. When the recruiter found out my listener had 25 years of experience…her tone changed right away. She told her she was over-qualified and out of their salary range – without even asking her what her salary expectations were. She mentioned wanting someone ‘young’ and trainable…then when she finally viewed her CV she realized what a good match she was…but my listener said she was so upset by the call she decided not to continue with the hiring process. She says she’s been working since she left high school, and she’s guessing the recruiter thought she was quite a bit older than she is. But the woman’s attitude left its mark. The candidate knew that at least at first, she’d been a victim of age bias.

I asked Terri Boyer…

AM-T: “Has it always been this way, I know your knowledge goes back a long way especially as concerns women in the workplace in the US…I’m just wondering, obviously there were many fewer women in the workforce in the 1960s, you were more of an outlier if you’d had a career beginning in the 1940s or 50s and carried into the 60s or 70s or 80s, but do you think this attitude to aging women has always been the same or do you think it’s more intense now than it was decades ago?”

“I think it's likely more intense now than it was decades ago. And that's because women's, the share of older women in the paid labor force is actually growing. So by 2024 you're looking at women over the age of 55 representing about a quarter of women in the labor force. So women, older women in particular, are growing in numbers in the workforce. And so you're seeing a change, that increase has only been in the past decade and a half. And so you're seeing a change in the perception of employers and workplaces on how women are in these workplaces and what their skills look like, et cetera. So I guess by their virtue of their greater numbers in the workforce you're seeing more reaction coming from employers and co-workers.”

I told Terri about the conversations I’d had for the last show, the menopause show, and about how surprised I was that the UK was all over this idea of de-stigmatizing menopause at work. They seem way ahead of the US.

“I think in the States we see menopause and women’s transition from fertile to infertile as something that is a negative. You know we're so focused on the youth culture here, particularly for women, right, that menopause is seen as one of those weakness aspects that would highlight your gender and because of that, because we still don't tie women to the identity of leader, that highlighting something that's about their gender identity would breathe fresh in people's minds that they aren't ready to be leaders or they aren't fitting our ideal of a leader.

I think that you know, our focus on youth contrasts directly with the idea that you may be aging and that there's physical proof of it. We want to hide that. We don't want any physical proof of our aging in the workforce.”

Still, Rachel Lankester of British-based online community Magnificent Midlife, says it’s not like British women don’t face prejudice.

“There’s a lot of shame associated with both menopause and with aging. If you look at the difference between men and women, men are silver foxes as they age, men don’t fight aging as women are encouraged to do –  yet everything about aging for women is seen as negative, and that applies in life in general but also in the workplace, so if we have a wrinkle that’s a defeat, if we have grey hair that’s a defeat. Increasingly I think women in workplace feel they need to hide these signs of aging just to maintain a sense that they are still relevant.”

When I first met Rachel in London a few years ago she was running just one aspect of her business – a website called The Mutton Club. In case some of you aren’t familiar with the expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’…  

“Certainly in the UK women are very, very scared of becoming mutton as they get older and that goes back to being mutton dressed as lamb…so trying to be younger than you actually are, and I wanted to turn that on its head and make women feel quite pleased actually to be mutton…so the whole idea of Mutton Club was you had to be mutton to get into it, you couldn’t be in it if you were younger.”

Rachel started the Mutton Club in part because of her own experience going through menopause at the early age of 41. She found herself completely unprepared for how that experience would make her feel – but ultimately, it led her to view her life in a completely different, more positive way, and we’ll get into more of that later.

She is a great admirer of writer and anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite – maybe some of you know her work. You can check it out at thischairrocks.com. Rachel says we nearly all have negative feelings about ageing, as women. How can we help but imbibe what’s all around us?  

“We buy into those narratives, we’ve been fed those narratives for so long. We’re fed anti-aging products in our 20s…and young girls now are having that so it’s about changing it not just for the women suffering ageism in workplace now but the women coming up. Because if they’re looking at older women in the workplace and perhaps not even seeing them, because if we dye our hair we’re contributing to making ourselves invisible…it’s not obvious to see us because we’re trying to look younger, than those younger women aren’t seeing older women flourishing in the workplace and they buy into that ageist narrative, but as Ashton says, ageism is prejudice against our future selves.”

AM-T: “I know, that’s such a great way to put it.”

“It’s fantastic, because we’re all going to age.”

AM-T: “…the tricky thing is, it’s so hard when you’re younger to see yourself as older, because you’re in your life now…and you can think maybe 5 years into the future but to think 20 years into the future is really tough, isn’t it?” 

“Well I did it even at 41, when I went through early menopause the biggest problem for me was feeling catapulted into middle age. Because I associated menopause with being a much older woman, I had no idea it could impact me at 41, and then over time I realized that yes, I was being prejudiced, because at 41 yes of course I was middle aged. I was in the middle of my life.”

“I like the word mid-life, middle aged does sound a little old to me but now I have a completely different approach, I am really proud to be a midlife woman.”

 AM-T: “Why?”

“Because it’s brought so much to me actually, and this is part of the narrative I want to get across. For example, we feel we are losing our value in the workplace and the world, we may feel in competition with younger women, we feel we’re struggling to keep up with certain things. But all of that is actually within our control; most of it is in our head, because ageism starts between our ears. If we can re-frame our own narrative about ageing that’s in our heads, and acknowledge things like, for example, we have a second creative peak in our 50s, who knew that? We have - lot of women talk about a surge in energy post-menopause. And women don’t know about that. When we’ve gone through menopause we have a different hormonal profile and that means we’re actually hormonally on more of a level playing field with men, and therefore why can’t we just go out, start believing in ourselves and start upping the impact we can have – it’s just that so many of us, and society tells us to do this, thinks of it as negative and I don’t believe it is. So I’m really pleased because midlife has brought amazing things to me and amazing knowledge, and opportunities, capabilities, new people I’m meeting, so that’s good.”

She’s not the only one. Stay tuned.

A couple of months ago a reader responded to a comment I’d made about ageism in one of my newsletters. She’s from New Zealand and her name is Kate Wiseman. She wrote:

As an older newcomer to the law, I find my age works in my favour. People seem to assume I’ve been doing this for a long time and give me credit far beyond that which I deserve!”

Which I suppose you could say is a sort of ageism in reverse…but I asked Kate to record a voice memo telling me a bit more about her later-in-life career. She was at her holiday home by the beach when she did this so you may hear a bit of extraneous beach noise.

Kate got married pretty young, had a son, and rather than going back to her old area of sales and marketing thought she’d really like to do a law degree. So when her little boy was one, she started studying law.

“But his dad didn’t like me being out of the house and not earning money so I only did one year o my law degree then and then I went back to work.”

That was more than 25 years ago. Kate had another son, got divorced, worked some more, married again, helped her husband run a business, had twin daughters who are now 16. And when they went off to kindergarten…she decided she wanted to take up her law degree again.

“So I started that long process, took me about 8 years in the end to finish…but it was good time, because I studied, slowly at first and then I increased the number of papers I did as the children got older.” 

She worked part time in law as she went along. And a few years ago she qualified as a barrister.

“It’s taken hard work to get here but I’ve also been extraordinarily lucky in ending up in a good place, and in a good role, which I love. I have great clients and interesting work, and one of the things and the reason I’m doing this interview in the first place, is one of the things I find is people assume I’ve been doing this job for a long time because  I’ve got wrinkles, I’m in my fifties, early fifties, and I understand a huge range of the issues facing my clients because I do a lot of work in the family law area…and often with people with companies. I’ve had my own business, I know what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. I know what it’s like to be an employee…to be the manager of a group of people. I’ve had 4 children of my own and a stepdaughter. I’ve been through two divorces and I’m married for the third time, which some people say  is a triumph of hope over experience but so far, so very good…and I find that most of the time people just assume that I’ve been working in the field for a long time. No one ever questions my experience.”

In fact, she says, quite the opposite – sometimes her own confidence has lagged that of her client. She was in court for the first time as a newly minted lawyer a few years ago, quaking with nerves…

“…and the judge had asked some tricky questions right at the start of the hearing, and my heart had sunk, but I happily was able to get up and answer the question and my client said to me afterwards that he’d listened to the judge and thought, oh no, what are we gonna do next? And then he said, and then my lawyer got up and saved the day! And that was such a wonderful thing to hear, especially after my very first hearing. But he didn’t know it was my very first hearing, and he still doesn’t know to this day, as far as I’m aware.”

She loves the work she does now.

“A lot of the time I’m older than my clients and I suppose again they assume I know what I’m doing, and more and more I feel as if perhaps I do know quite a bit of it, certainly not all of it…”

But she loves that about the law – that there’s always more to learn.

“I’ve been lucky. Coming late has just been a good thing. It’s not a handicap at all, and in many ways all the life experience I had beforehand helps to inform my practice now and makes my job my enjoyable and makes it easier to understand my clients.” 

Kate Wiseman in New Zealand.

So one thing we haven’t touched on so far is of course that ageism affects women’s ability to earn a living. Research shows that women are far less prepared for retirement than men are, they don’t have nearly as much saved. And plenty of women in their older years are single. Here’s Rachel Lankester again…

“The pay gap kicks in early, it gets worse as we age. We are penalized for caregiving whether that’s children or older parents. Everything comes at midlife, we are caring up and down. But in Australia apparently the biggest group experiencing homelessness is older, single women – and that is just scary. We need to do something about it to enable women to keep earning in later life. We can’t stop otherwise we will absolutely be in poverty in older age.”

We keep reading about how much longer we’re all going to live and how in some countries we’ll need to work into our 70s or older…but how can we work if companies won’t hire us or won’t keep us on?

I asked Terri Boyer for some suggestions.

AM-T: “I mean is there anything we can do about this, it’s so depressing to think about this especially if you are in your forties and suddenly thinking about this next push into your fifties…is there anything people can do to combat age discrimination other than getting Botox and stuff like that?”

“Well, right, if we keep getting Botox then we're not going to combat the age discrimination because we're going to keep conforming to people's standards of perceived youth as beautiful and the highest level of contribution that we can make.

I think there are definitely a few things that women can do in particular to build employers’ perceptions of their worth in the workplace. And the first is to know your worth, to be able to confidently articulate the sorts of things that you can contribute to your workplace. And that's going to require a little bit of self-reflection and understanding of what you can contribute in the workplace. A lot of times women in particular, they may be able to articulate very well the mission and value of their organization or their department, etc. but they don't tend to think of their own leadership value, or their own skills that they contribute. And so being really sharp and building into your own professional development, regularly self-reflecting on what your worth is and being able to articulate that in a manner that comes off very quickly and confidently is something that can be very helpful.

The second is to make sure that you're making connections across generations. One of the things that that Transitions program that I mentioned earlier that we're doing out of our institute does, is helps women build connections across the generations. So we have young students, young professionals, as well as women who are mid to late career or even retired, talking with each other and showing that you're able to communicate across generations and understanding the perspectives of others in the workplace. So making sure that you're not attracting yourself only to people who are like you, that you are building those connections across different generations would be really helpful to you.”

She says those connections should include mentors and sponsors who are willing to champion you and your work.

Rachel Lankester agrees…

“…it’s really important to get people mixing both in life and the workplace and it would be really nice to have more mentoring relationships, I think. And the mentoring can work both ways, I have a mentor who is much younger than me who helps me on stuff and similarly I’m mentored by people older than me, so it can work all ways. And I think having that conversation where younger women in particular are aware of older women thriving, it helps them relax about getting older and it also enables all those discussions to come about.”

 AM-T: “Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot because I’m sure there have been times in my life at work where I have thought uncharitable thoughts about an older woman. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head but I can totally imagine me doing it.”

 “I can too, and I think I did it, and then you get to the age you were being disparaging about or at least thinking negatively about, and it’s a completely different picture.”  

 Empathy is everything.

 That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Terri Boyer, Rachel Lankester, and Kate Wiseman for being my guests on this show.

And I’ll just acknowledge here that I know age bias works the other way too – I’ve heard from several of you talking about being passed over for jobs because you’ve been told you’re too young, and people wouldn’t take you seriously in the role. And I don’t want to minimize that experience – but I believe the ageism at the other end of the spectrum is more damaging because it hits women in their prime earning years just as they’re trying to save for retirement.

I will post show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com and as usual I would love to hear from you – you can always email me at ashley at thebroadexperience.com or track me down on social media.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.