Age Bias Hurts Everyone – and Especially Women

By Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, Respectful Exits

Age bias damages people and affects all workers. Just as women face a variety of forms of discrimination at work, they face greater challenges as they age.  Gender bias intersects with age and other factors like race and ethnicity and adds a unique set of burdens.  In general, women live longer, are poorer, have to and are interested in working longer.  Despite this, they have a harder time getting hired, and face increasing discrimination.  The acronym for Sex + Age Discrimination is SAD. It is, sadly, accurate.

Unfortunately, the impact of discrimination starts early and is pervasive. Let’s start with money — as documented in studies of the gender pay gap, employers pay women less than men when doing the same work. This problem is compounded for non-white women who typically earn even less than white women. Women’s reduced compensation is made worse because over their working lives, women are likely 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.

The reigning assumption that 65 or so is the ‘time to retire’ can make it difficult if not impossible to stay in current jobs. Once this happens, it is harder for older women to get hired. Don’t think that’s true? Economists have used fictitious resumes to study the impact of age and sex on hiring.  In the largest such study, 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. These included sales and administrative roles for women and sales, security, and janitorial work for men. Their findings:

● There is discrimination and it increases with age
● Women face substantially more discrimination than men; this includes significant drop off in call backs between ages 30 to 50 and additional drop off between ages 50 to 65
● Drop off is less severe for men, doesn’t start until between ages 50 to 65 — 20 years later

There is age grading and it is harder for women to pass the test.  As these economists hypothesize, appearance matters. It signals age and the differential response to older men and women. 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.  To cope, 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, You Don’t Have to Look Your Age…. and Other Fairy Tales, Sheila Nevins talks about her own face lifts and other strategies women use to appear younger. As she wisely says, 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 issues. 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 — 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.

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 the diverse, multi-generational workforce, including older workers.

However, individual action in the face of a social epidemic is far from enough.  Workplaces must combat age and sex + age discrimination and expand the age band of opportunity with explicit attention to the unique needs of women, older millennials and the very vulnerable 50 plus age groups. The notion of age 65 as the “sell by date” makes no sense when thinking about capable employees. Phasing into retirement – Respectful Exits – is a crucial priority.

The opportunity for valued 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. These flexible, respectful exits should be demanded of all employers and especially those that claim to be great places to work.

As Sheila Nevins suggests, “It’s time to be old out loud.” We agree!  Expanding the age range of opportunity will take more than individual voices. It will take a powerful campaign and women can and should be leaders in that effort. It will also take tools and advice for individuals and advisory work with employers to help them make the transition and become truly modern workplaces.

Together we can increase opportunities for individuals and workplaces and fight age discrimination at work.


Over time Respectful Exits will offer our expertise to guide organizations and share tools and insights with individuals. Starting today we invite you to:

• Visit our campaign website at
• Review the “Campaign” page and watch it periodically for suggested actions
• Share this blog and news of our campaign on social media
• Make a donation in this crucial start-up phase. You can email us for details at

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