The findings of recent research on women in leadership and ageism reminded me a bit of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Instead of “too hot or too cold”, the study, published in Harvard Business Review, found that women in the workplace were deemed to be “too young or too old.” And unlike Goldilocks, who eventually found a bowl of porridge that was “just right”, the study’s authors concluded:
“…no age was the right age to be a woman leader.”
The article found its way across social media, shared widely by anti-ageism and women’s rights advocates. The study confirmed what I’ve heard from thousands of women of all ages across the U.S. since starting Changing the Narrative, a leading anti-ageism campaign: Workplace age discrimination against women is rampant and pernicious, interfering with our wellness and economic security. Ageism—i.e., prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination based on age—affects women of all ages. As I was reading this article, several “too old” stories I’d heard came to mind:
- A 31-year old woman who had been told by her employer that she was probably too old to keep her position as a social media content manager. The assumption was that at her age, she would not be aware of the latest strategies and tactics.
- A group of women in their sixties who asked if they could take home the refreshments served in a workshop I was facilitating. I learned that they were trying to live on minuscule amounts of social security and could not find employment, despite a plethora of help-wanted signs in the town’s Main Street shops and restaurants.
- Women who had excelled in professional roles in Fortune 500 companies being forced to take whatever job they could find to make ends meet after being pushed out of their longtime roles.
And then there were the “too young” stories—women who shared experiences very similar to those reported in the study. They included not being taken seriously despite significant accomplishments, being talked over, being mistaken for support staff and more. One former intern of mine, now in academia, reaching out to me on LinkedIn, sharing her story about being dismissed by an older male colleague when she was asked to present her research at a conference: “It’s not your turn yet.” This motivated me to write this piece for Next Avenue, asserting that we can’t solve ageism against older people by directing it against those younger than us.
If there was something surprising about this study, it was the finding that middle-aged women (age 40-60) also experience ageism. I hadn’t heard stories about that. I suspect it’s that menopause thing that seems to terrify some men.
So what can we do about it?
The study authors suggest several steps to combat gendered ageism, including recognizing age bias, addressing age bias and “lookism” in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training, focusing on skills-based hiring, and specifically fostering intergenerational, mixed-gender teams and professional relationships. We agree. All of these solutions are part of our workshops on the business case for age-diversity and how to achieve it.
Beyond that, however, we’d like to suggest several steps that any of us can take as individual women to advance change.
- Learn more about ageism and recognize our own bias. It is not just men who are guilty of gendered ageism, it is often women as well. We need to learn more about ageism and recognize our own bias. A great way to start is with this Implicit Association Test from Project Implicit, off the Harvard University website. Changing the Narrative’s website resources page also has carefully curated lists of resources to learn more about ageism.
- Be the person who encourages their employer to learn more about the benefits of being age-inclusive and to include age as part of DEI policies and measurement. There is always a person who moves the needle on these issues. This year, I’ve been asked to speak on this topic to organizations ranging from a state agency, a community college, a specialty business, a healthcare institution and a large provider of services to other businesses. Every time, it was a single individual who had the courage to put the idea forward to their teams or senior leadership that resulted in an invitation being extended to speak on this topic.
- Use whatever platform(s) we have to advance women. Each of us has a voice, a platform, an audience in some shape or form. We can use those platforms not only to educate people about this issue but to elevate the women we know. I know women in workforce development centers who are ensuring that women age 50+ learn about the most successful job seeking strategies, and that they secure funding for any needed up-skilling or re-skilling. It was a woman in a Chamber of Commerce who first accepted my invitation to speak to chamber members about how they could benefit from age diversity and fill their talent pipelines in the process.
I’m currently in a women’s group where the facilitator is always on the lookout to elevate and amplify the voices of women around her.
I often quote the late civil rights leader, Grace Lee Boggs, who said, “we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” It’s time for all of us to lead to ensure that women of all ages are in leadership.
Janine Vanderburg is the co-founder and current senior strategist of Changing the Narrative, a leading U.S. anti-ageism initiative, and speaks on the benefits of age inclusion in the workplace and how to achieve it.