According to the United Nations, the 65-plus age cohort is growing faster than any other group. In another 30 years, it is likely to double, and the 80-plus group is expected to triple. Many of these people, including women, continue to seek employment either out of need, desire, or both. Unfortunately, ageism is a growing problem, and research shows that women face a double blow of sexism and ageism.
Statistics from Age UK show that ageism is the most common form of discrimination in Europe, and women suffer the most. Founder of Bonnie Marcus Leadership in California, Bonnie Marcus, reports a similar situation in North America. The 72-year-old says women are viewed as both less attractive and less competent as soon as they begin to show signs of aging. Noting that society “worships youth and beauty,” she said people equated looking old with not having value. This has several implications.
The Economic Impact of Ageism and Sexism
The American Society of Ageing says it is a global reality that older women are less represented in the workforce. Furthermore, they have a lower chance of getting hired than older men. This is partly due to a bias against older people and negative misconceptions which continue despite evidence to the contrary. It is generally believed that older workers are unproductive, unfamiliar with modern technology, and unsuitable for the modern work environment.
However, several studies show that older workers are excellent employees in several respects. Not only do they have lots of experience, but they have a strong work ethic, and they’re less likely to leave in search of greener pastures. They also tend to have better conflict resolution skills.
You may think that older women, at least, would be found in positions of power where their experience and wisdom would be advantageous. However, that is not always the case. When you look at heads of state and leaders of major organizations around the world, men are the ones at the helm. Just 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs in the U.S. and 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs in the U.K. are women.
Contrary to what many people believe, ageism and sexism isn’t only a problem for the women who are directly affected. Organizations, countries, and entire economies suffer when there is low job market participation by mature people. According to PwC in its 2018 Golden Age Index, having older people in the workforce increases gross domestic product.
PwC determined that if countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) increased employment rates for people over age-55 to New Zealand’s levels, long-term GDP could increase by as much as $3.5 trillion. Far from being a burden or an obstacle, hiring and retaining mature workers benefits both businesses and economies.
Why Age Discrimination Persists
Age discrimination is prohibited in the U.S. under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The law protects people age 40 and over from discrimination based on age as it relates to hiring, promotions, benefits and compensation, training, and other terms of employment.
However, ageism continues to be pervasive because it is difficult to prove. Based on a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court in the case of Gross v. FBL, individuals who believe they are victims of ageism need to prove that age is the reason for the treatment they received.
If you ask Patricia Barnes, an attorney and authority on age discrimination in employment, another issue is that women’s organizations rarely speak out against ageism. In an article from Forbes, she said that groups like the National Women’s Law Center and the National Organization of women seem more concerned with issues that affect young and middle-aged women.
How Employers Should Respond
There are several reasons why employers should facilitate the inclusion of mature women in the workplace. We’ve already acknowledged that excluding older workers harms the economy. However, the American Society on Aging notes that discrimination against older women also costs employers and drains the healthcare system.
To help alleviate the situation facing mature women and reduce the risk of discrimination claims, you should consider:
- Creating an age-positive culture in your organization
- Using age-neutral language and imagery in job advertising
- Facilitating training on diversity and unconscious bias
- Devising flexible work policies
- Offering development opportunities to workers of all ages
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It’s clear that mature women are at a disadvantage in today’s job market. Businesses need to be aware of the barriers that these individuals face so they can not only keep discrimination claims to a minimum but benefit from the contribution they make.