By Charlie Fletcher
You’ve heard the statistics: women earn 80 cents to every dollar that men make. If this gap continues, women won’t achieve equality for over 200 years. As if gender weren’t enough of a challenge, some studies and surveys suggest that women are significantly more likely than men to face age discrimination in the workplace.
Women in the workplace are forced to deal with discrimination on multiple fronts. In large part due to the Me Too movement, organizations are addressing sexism in the workplace. However, as Quartz editor Alexandra Ossola reports, sexism isn’t the issue women struggle most with at work: it’s ageism. According to a survey conducted by The Riveter, 58% of women said that they thought their “identities and/or physical attributes impact their experience at work.”
Older workers, which in some cases refers to employees as young as 40, often have fewer job opportunities and are trusted with less responsibility. Sometimes, they’re pushed out of their jobs in favor of younger and less-expensive talent. Ageism in the workplace, even of an unintentional nature, can have serious financial and legal consequences for businesses.
With so much at stake, it’s imperative that women as well as the organizations that employ them have a plan for how to, first, identity and, then, address ageism in the workplace.
How Ageism Shows Up in the Workplace
Of the 58% of women who told The Riveter that they believed their identities shaped their experiences at work, age was the most referenced identity factor—even more so than gender. Ageism is clearly a major issue in the workplace. For women, ageism at work begins at 40, which is a full five years before men, Professor Lynda Gratton, who studies and speaks on the topic, told Financial Times contributor Lindsay Cook.
At the age of 40, many women’s careers inadvertently peak as companies stop considering them for promotions or training. In addition to worrying about losing their looks and relevance as they age, women also have to worry about losing their jobs. When downsizing occurs, older employees are frequently the first dismissed since they’re seen as more costly to retain than younger employees.
Ageism also shows up in the hiring process when standard recruitment processes, such as requesting age identifying information on applications, unconsciously discriminate against older workers.
What Businesses Can Do to Combat Ageism
It’s no secret that business experts put a lot of emphasis on attracting young talent. But, what’s sometimes overlooked amidst the push to appeal to Generation Z employees is the fact that many of the most successful workplaces are diverse in multiple areas. Not only is inviting all generations to work together the ethical thing to do, but it can also benefit a business’s bottom line.
For example, Cook cited research by the Harvard Business Review that claims diversity is essential to business innovation. Companies that embrace workers of all ages were 45% more likely to report growth in the market share. Additionally, welcoming older workers can help to stave off skill shortage issues that plague many industries as well as provide mentorship opportunities for younger employees.
With the benefits of an inclusive and diverse workforce clear, businesses can begin to make their organizations more equitable. For some managers, their first instinct is to generalize about issues affecting older women such as menopause, but trying to use a one size fits all approach is dangerous.
The best place to start is listening to women. Management and human resources can work together to start asking women for their input about ageism in the workplace. From there, they can use the feedback to effect change.
Why Women Shouldn’t Ignore Ageism at Work
Despite the severe consequences of ageism in the workplace, some women believe their best option is the path of least resistance. Not wanting to be labeled a “troublemaker,” women will often choose to try to ignore discrimination at work rather than confront it. Challenging workplace ageism is especially difficult if your direct supervisor or boss is helping to contribute to a toxic work environment.
If you’re experiencing ageism in the workplace, it’s important to remember that, under the law, age is a protected characteristic just like gender, race, and sexual orientation. You should not have to put up with age discrimination in the workplace, and you’re not a “troublemaker” if you bring up your concerns to HR and management. If the mistreatment continues or escalates, consider taking legal action.
Unfortunately, ageism is an all too prevalent issue in the workplace. With women as young as 40 years old experiencing age discrimination, you must have a plan for how to best address ageism at work.
Businesses shouldn’t abandon women to deal with ageism on their own, and every organization has a responsibility to combat discrimination of all kinds. By listening to women, employers can bring about real change and make their work environment better for employees of all ages.
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Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. When not writing she is a part time wedding planner and spending time with her nephews.