For working women their everyday experiences are littered with challenges. Pregnancy, motherhood, menopause, there’s always something that can (wrongly) be seen as a reason not to hire or promote. That’s why the latest research by the Harvard Business Review that’s found there’s no right age to be a woman really isn’t a surprise.
When it comes to women and age everyone seems to have an opinion. We’re too young, too inexperienced, too preoccupied with our families, too old, too stuck in our ways. We can’t win.
How do we overcome this issue? Can we change it or are we resigned to turning 50 and becoming invisible?
No right age for a woman
If you’re reading this and shaking your head in disagreement, ask yourself this, when was the last time you questioned a man’s age? Our point entirely.
Men and women face very different experiences in the workplace. Both in terms of societal expectations but also biologically, women have a great deal more challenges to overcome than men. It’s those challenges that are being used against female leaders, and create an imperfect explanation of poor timing.
The Harvard Business Review found that whether a woman is “young” i.e. under 40, or “middle aged” i.e. 40 to 60 years old, or “older” over 60, they all face gendered ageism in the workplace. In short, there’s no right age for a woman to succeed in the workplace.
Challenges for a working woman
If we set ageism aside for a second and look more broadly at women in the workplace, and particularly female leaders. It’s clear that there’s still a stark difference and at no level in business do women have representative parity with men.
Let’s look at the numbers:
In a society that likes to talk the talk about equality, such a difference in representation has to be questioned. What is causing that divide? It seems there are only two explanations - gender bias and ageism.
It’s difficult to separate those two factors because for female leaders they’re intertwined.
Women aren’t promoted into managerial positions because they’re of childbearing age.
Gender bias - check. Ageism - check.
Women aren’t being promoted into senior leadership positions because they might be going through/about to go through the menopause.
Gender bias - check. Ageism - check.
Women are being dismissed as set in their ways and not worth investing in.
Gender bias - check. Ageism - check.
Women are overlooked for promotion as it’s assumed they aren’t interested.
We could carry on.
But this isn’t an issue that’s aimed solely at men. It’s a viewpoint that exists across society as a whole. Gender bias can be expressed by both men and women.
One study found that 45% of its male participants and 28% of its female participants expressed gender bias when responding anonymously. This highlights how deep-rooted gendered ageism is in our society and changing that requires a complete societal mindset shift.
When you think about the way older men and women are described there’s a world of difference. Silver fox, wise, assertive, experienced. There’s no questioning a male’s credentials or whether he’s got the experience. That’s why it only takes a man 20 years to be promoted to CEO level vs 24 for women. Female CEOs are also twice as likely to be promoted internally than if they go for an external position, because they’ve already proved their competence.
There are clear double standards for male leaders and their female counterparts, with female leaders seeing their careers ending when they hit the big 5-0. The UK’s society is getting older, by 2024 there will be twice as many women aged 55-64 as there will be 16-24. Which presents the question: will that create a turning point for female leaders out of necessity? Or will the prevalence of older women be further used to dismiss their worth.
Diverse teams are an enormous business asset, but that means diverse in every way - age, background, gender, and race. They encourage creativity, increase productivity and create a more positive, inclusive working environment. When we think about ageism in the workplace and how we can overcome it, we need to also think about how we can help all female leaders and workers. By looking at every woman’s individual battles to success and the extent to which they hold them back will help to level the playing field when it comes to promotion success.
After all, women promote two to five times more women to senior positions as men do, so creating more female leaders, regardless of age and diversity, will open the door for all women. Because you can’t have a diverse team without a diverse leadership team.
How to combat ageism
What’s clear is that there’s still a long way to go. Yes when you compare stats about female leaders from 20 years ago to today there’s been progress, but it’s at a glacial pace. Leaders and businesses need to tackle the issue head on and be drivers for change. But how do they do that?
It’s time to pull our heads out of the sand and admit that there is an issue. Recognising how gender and age bias impacts the workplace is the first step to solving it. Once the issue has been identified it’s then possible to establish how, when and where it presents itself in the business and focus on changing those areas.
This issue is as much behavioural as it is institutional, investing in training for leaders to further raise awareness is key.
Focus on skill set and experience
As much as we want to focus on the issue of ageism in the workplace, the objective is for age not to come into it. Instead we need to focus on a person’s experience and skill set rather than how many times they’ve circled the sun.
Looking at recruiting practices to minimise bias is one way that can help. This could be structured interview questions or blind application processes. There are some quick wins that can be easily implemented to help keep the focus on a person’s merits rather than their age.
Highlight impact of blended teams
Instead of focusing on the negatives, flip it. Highlight the strengths of a diverse, blended team, including older workers. There’s a lot that younger team members can learn from more experienced leaders and team members and reminding people that will make a difference over time.
For this approach to work, the overall leadership team also need to be fully committed to creating diverse teams and understand the positive business impact of every type of employee.
This last one is for you whether you’re in a position of influence and leadership in an organisation or not. Become an ally for female leaders. That could be mentoring junior female employees who could be great leaders, it could be calling out unnecessary comments or jokes, or it could simply be supporting them in meetings.
Ageism against female leaders isn’t a male vs female thing, it’s not us vs them. It’s about pulling together to support our daughters, nieces, mothers, cousins and friends. It’s about creating a society and a working environment that encourages everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age.
It’s only once we get to that point that we’ll see a workplace where a woman’s age doesn’t matter.
That’s the goal. So, what can you do to help?
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