Age Bias Hurts Everyone—and Especially Women

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.


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Brenda Boyd

    I found this happening to me when I was in my mid 50’s. I could not find a full time job and when I did I was treated like I was stupid and actually called that because I was pursuing my MBA. When I tried to get temporary disability after a fall leaving me unable to use my right arm for months (I am right handed), To get temporary disability, I had to be interviewed and one of the question was if I was going to school for anything. When I responded that I was completing my doctorate degree, I was asked “Isn’t that stupid at your age” (Unnamed Social Worker, 2011). I was just one month shy of 65. They delayed it until I turned 65 and turned me down for the disability citing that I was not disabled, just old. Having dealt with lower paying jobs because I did not have enough education, only to have to jump through hoops to get the education and still not make as much as male counterparts.

    I worked for four months a year for a tax service for 26 years. I was a senior tax preparer, processor, office manager, multiple unit supervisor and finally a lead preparer after they cut out the office manager job to get rid of the bonus for office managers. My direct supervisor told several people that she did not like me, but I was her most productive office. She would provide extra supplies and help to the others, but not my office. When I finally had had enough, she tried to convince me to come back. I just laughed. I have had my own business since 2000 and felt it was time for me to focus on that.

    We really need to make sure that this antiquated system where men (the bread winners) get paid more than women (homemakers) especially since men no longer are the primary bread winners. Sometimes women are forced to be the bread winners when the marriage ends either by an unexpected death, divorce or desertion. Of these options, death, which seems the cruelest is actually the kindest, allowing the woman to grief and heal with no daily reminders of failure. The other two they could not hold it together. Meanwhile, the men walk away, accepting no blame and walking into jobs with enough money to take care of the responsibilities that they turn their backs on in many cases. Giving women an even playing field of equal pay for equal work will help with this situation, making men realized that they not only can but will be replaced by women who does the job just as well. I guess it basically requires a societal shift that many resist.

    1. Meryle Mahrer Kaplan

      Brenda, Thanks so much for sharing your experience. You raise a number of issues many face, including: hiring managers seeing you as too old to work when you are only in your 50s; a social worker seeing pursuit of an advanced degree as stupid at your age; being under appreciated by an organization you work for — until you left and they wanted you back. Good for you for having your own business for the last 18 years!

      These issues are often more challenging for women. Equal pay is sorely needed; so is getting rid of out-dated assumptions of gender and age. We at Respectful Exits are with you, focused on societal shifts at work and beyond.

      Thanks for joining us, Meryle

  2. Susan Harwood

    As a gender equality management consultant working in my own business since 1994, I have long advised women of all ages (but particularly older women) not to include their date of birth (or any other age-identifying factors) in their CVs and job applications. This strategy at least enhances the possibility that they might get a foot in the front door for an interview.

    1. Meryle Mahrer Kaplan

      Susan, Thanks for your comment. You are right! Hiding age-identifying factors can help women — and men — get the attention they deserve. This approach helps in hiring. It can also help in current jobs when people emphasize their vitality, interest in learning and doing new things, and in other ways challenge stereotypes about the older worker. Being “old out loud” and open about age — even in selected circumstances — can help undermine these assumptions. I realize this can be difficult. Maybe that’s why I do the work I do and cherish being seen as a ‘with it’ 71 year old.

      Combined with individual actions, collectively we can seize this moment, challenge age discrimination, and eliminate the sell by date and woefully out-dated norms about what age is right for what role. We can push the longevity agenda and create opportunities for individuals of all ages to thrive.


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