Age bias in the workplace hurts all workers. It’s real, it’s consequential, and it’s pervasive: Two out of three workers between 45 and 74 report having experienced age discrimination at work.

But while both men and women are targets of this bias, women face unique challenges that make them particularly vulnerable as they age.

In general, women live longer, are poorer, and have to work—and are interested in working—longer than men.  And yet, they have a harder time getting hired, and face increasing discrimination in the workplace as time goes by.  The acronym for Sex + Age Discrimination is SAD. It is, sadly, accurate.

The impact of this discrimination starts early. As studies of the gender pay gap reveal, women earn significantly less than men over their lifetimes. This problem is compounded for women of color who typically earn even less than white women. Women’s reduced compensation is made worse because over their working lives, women are more likely than men to modify their work schedules or stop working for a period to care for children, parents, ill partners, and grandchildren. Because they earn less, women pay less into Social Security and other pensions, and get less back if and when they retire.

Impact of Age and Gender on Hiring

The reigning assumption that 65 or so is the ‘time to retire’ means that both men and women are kicked out of careers at that stage. And after that standard retirement age, it becomes increasingly harder for both genders to get hired—but especially hard for women. Economists have used fictitious resumes to study the impact of age and gender on hiring.  In the largest such study, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 2017, researchers sent otherwise identical resumes modified for gender and age (young, middle-aged and older) to employers advertising more than 13,000 lower-skilled positions in fields that attract applicants of a range of ages (sales and administrative roles for women and sales, security, and janitorial work for men). Their findings include:

  • Hiring discrimination against older workers exists and increases with age
  • Women face substantially more discrimination than men; this includes significant drop-off in call backs between age 30 to 50 and an additional drop-off at 65
  • Drop off is less pronounced for men, and is largely delayed until older age (65)

As the study authors hypothesize, appearance matters. In films and in life, gray haired older men are seen as distinguished; older women are seen as far less attractive and less worthy of inclusion.

Hiding Age

To counteract these negative stereotypes, women avoid revealing, or lie about, their ages. They dye their hair and in other ways try to disguise the aging process.  They do so for good reason. In her book—published at age 78—You Don’t Have to Look Your Age…. and Other Fairy Tales, Sheila Nevins (former President of HBO Documentary Films) reflects on her own face lifts and other strategies she and other women use to appear younger. As she wisely notes, we are both victims and accomplices when we hide our ages.

Younger women face disadvantages as well, and advanced education doesn’t protect them. Catalyst longitudinal research on graduates of prestigious business schools indicates that even women pursuing MBAs face inequalities. Women are placed in slightly lower level positions and are paid slightly less for first jobs post MBA—even when controlling for years of experience pre-MBA, industry, and breaks in full time work. The gender gap in pay and advancement grows quickly and dramatically.

In short, the band of opportunity for women is weaker and narrower than it is for men. By the time women are in their 40s, they may be at a peak career juncture. Regardless of their ambition, talent, and track record, age may already be having an impact. Workplace practices focused on early career—such as equal pay at hiring and opportunities to expand skills, prove themselves, and begin to advance—will not solve all the issues facing women at mid-career and beyond.  The Sex + Age intersection must be understood and addressed directly, early and continuously.

Steps Forward

There are preventive steps that individuals can take: be smart about managing careers, champion colleagues regardless of age, and seek employment with organizations that value a diverse, multi-generational workforce.

However, individual action in the face of a social epidemic is far from enough.  Workplaces must expand the age band of opportunity with explicit attention to the unique needs of women and the very vulnerable 50-plus age groups.

The opportunity for valued older employees to continue to contribute at current workplaces—share knowledge, mentor others and get the work done—makes sense for employers and the entire workforce. Flexible, respectful exits should be demanded of all employers and especially those that claim to be great places to work.

As Nevins suggests, “It’s time to be old out loud.” I agree!  Expanding the age range of opportunity will take more than individual voices. Change will require a powerful campaign, and women can and should be leaders in this effort. Together we can fight age discrimination at work and increase opportunities for all workers.