Breaking the Age Bias
The theme of International Women’s Day on March 8th this year is ‘breaking the bias.’ We are asked to “imagine a gender equal world, free from bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A diverse, equitable and inclusive world in which difference is valued and celebrated. Together, we can forge women’s equality, Collectively we can #Break the Bias”.
Who could possibly quibble with any of that? Trouble is that when I look at all the photographs promoting IWD I only see faces, diverse in absolutely everything, except their age.
So, not a single wrinkle or grey hair on any of the women in the images on the official IWD website, all making the #BreaktheBias symbol with their hands as our team at LFF is doing above. Why? Maybe it’s because equality for women is considered to be a younger person’s game and maybe, when we think of breaking the bias, we are mainly thinking about the biases against women at work, and there is an (erroneous) assumption that as older women no longer work, they are unlikely to experience discrimination based on their gender.
The facts tell a different story. Our population is ageing so that, over the next thirty years the number of people over 50 in the workforce will rise from a quarter to a third. And many of us are working well into our sixties, often through necessity rather than choice as the state pension age rises. Unfortunately this increase in older employees is not universally welcomed with open arms by the managers and colleagues of those of us who have a few extra wrinkles. Last year a a World Health Organisation study showed that one in two people questioned hold ageist attitudes and another recent study showed that 26% of people experience age discrimination. These are staggering statistics - but are they borne out in lived experience? Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that I decided to do some research of my own with our Super Troopers group.
I asked for the help of still-working Super Troopers, 21 of whom filled in a questionnaire for me and gave details about their experience of ageism at work. The good news from this is that institutional ageism isn’t a problem, probably because the policy and practice of this form of discrimination is illegal. However, my Super Trooper research showed that just over half of them (exactly like the WHO study) have experienced some form of ageism, often at the hands of particular individuals who have made their lives at work at best disagreeable and at worst unbearable. Most asked to protect their anonymity, so I have just used their initials throughout.
Finding Work & Holding Onto Your Job
L.K. is a very senior Executive Director. She is newly divorced and, at 63, was seeking a higher paid job to take care of her own needs and those of her youngest child, still at home. She commented: “I only recently felt that ageism played a role in some of the jobs I was applying for. In my previous work history if I interviewed I’d normally land the job. Because of Covid I did very many zoom interviews and sometimes made it to the last round, only then to be excused. Was this related to my age? I am not sure but I believe it must have been a factor. I was asked “Do you still see yourself in this role in 5 years?” That’s harder to answer at 63 than at 23.”
C.H. is a very senior Human Resources Manager. She encounters ageism in recruiting managers who refuse to interview anyone who is (presumed to be) around 60 years of age. “They assume that older people are plodders, slow, winding down to retirement. They think that they’d find the work too much and wouldn't fit in with the team. They also presume that every older worker is the same - computer illiterate and slow.”
Another respondent, SD, who is a self-employed full-time marketing consultant said “Part of the reason I work alone is due to ageism in the workplace. I enjoy working with younger minds, their agility and limitless energy is exciting to me, but I know for a fact that I have been turned down for jobs due to my age.”
RK, an NHS nurse with 41 years of experience who now works in community infection control, commented rather sadly: “I have no plans to stop working, I just wish as a society we were not so ageist.” RK has had to endure comments that she couldn’t be compared to a much younger team member ‘because her computer skills were not as good’ (an irrelevance for her job) and that she was ‘keeping a younger person out of a job.’
JK, a senior teacher, encountered ageism when a new headteacher came into the school where she worked. “The new headteacher (female) started to make the older staff feel ‘vulnerable’ in their employment. I was one of the ones she was trying to ‘replace’. In our one-to-one meetings she once asked me about retirement…when I was 59! She began to undermine my role and even told me that my senior position was ‘not permanent’. I involved my union at that point, because my position was permanent.
KF also worked in a school as a senior PA to the headteacher of a school with 183 staff and 18 direct reports. “Younger staff repeatedly asked me when I was retiring and intimated that I was too old to do my job effectively”. She also endured ageist banter asking if she’d ever leave and one member of staff who spoke rudely to KF retorted that it didn’t matter what she said (when reprimanded) ‘because you’ll soon be too old to do your job.”
L.P. is a part-time sixth-form teacher. “My ex-headteacher told me I was too old to apply for a head of year position and currently one of the leadership team (a male) is both misogynistic and ageist. He thinks we’re all ‘silly old women.’”
This is the official #BreaktheBias pose for International Women's Day 2022
Subtle Ageism & Banter
Not all ageism is so direct and obvious but underlies attitudes nevertheless. Here are some examples:
H.M. worked for a London local authority which decided in the interests of ‘succession planning’ that all employees had to re-apply for their own jobs. All the younger applicants were successful, whilst all the older ones were offered redundancy. Subtle ageism was also noticeable in the positive comments given to younger staff who were ‘refreshing’ and ‘enthusiastic’, whilst there was no such encouragement to older staff.
C.D was made redundant with another 50 year old from her job in a West End property company, but none of the younger staff was offered this. KM has been struggling with menopausal symtoms and, as no allownace was made for her hot flushes and memory issues, she has been happy to work from home on a more flexible basis through the pandemic. And RB, who is a university lecturer, has noticed in the essays written by her young students that there is “a tendency to apply stereotypes to older workers and say that older people can be unreliable and off sick more often”. Whereas the exact opposite is true in reality!
And how acceptable are ageist jokes and banter? JG admitted that she was very hurt by someone in her office who said to her “make sure you go to the loo before leaving work as the roads towards your home are bumpy and, at your age, you don’t want to hit a pothole and wet yourself!” I wonder if the others laughed at this or found it as deeply offensive as JG did and as I do too?
My final quote is from SFL who is a free-lance artist and designer. “The bright young things in the art/craft business are quite quick to dismiss you. I was once condescendingly labelled as ‘time-experienced (!)’ in an interview. I am also rejected on applications to shows - nothing but age can account for this.” However SFL is not giving up the fight “If people dismiss me because of my age, they are the ones missing out. Get wise, we’ve all got experiences we can share.”
I say ‘amen’ to that SFL! I am also in total accord with the sentiments in the International Women’s Day manifesto of ‘an inclusive world in which difference is valued and celebrated’ just as long as they extend that to include all of us older women who are still contributing to society in whatever capacity. As you can see from the photograph above, the all-female team at Look Fabulous Forever spans six decades. Emily and Millie are in their twenties, Bryony and Clare in their thirties, Suzy and Anna and Janis are in their forties, Julie is in her late fifties, and Caroline is in her sixties. And then there’s me at seventy-four, living my best and most fulfilled life and, as with every member of our fabulous team, still very much feeling valued and celebrated.
Note to film club members. Our film on 18th March is about the 2014 resistance in Ukraine and ultimate overthrow of their Kremlin puppet president. Winter of Fire is an extremely well made documentary and it really helped me to understand the current conflict with Russia and how strongly the Ukrainians desire to be an independent country with links to Europe rather than to be controlled by Putin's Russia. However the film is quite a hard watch at times, so I will understand if it's not for you. Tx
Upcoming Event Information:
Makeup Magic Monday - Corrective Makeup Tips
Join us in March for another popular Makeup Magic Monday event. This month Sally and Tricia will be discussing beauty dilemmas and how to solve them! So if you're troubled by rosacea, hooded eyes, sparse brows, or any other dilemma, come along and discover the remedy!
Day: Monday 7th March
Meeting ID (if needed): 884 1108 4239
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
Film Club - Winter on Fire
Available on Netflix
Day: Friday 18th March
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
Can we see the Makeup Magic Monday at any other time if we can’t make the Zoom meetings!
I am absolutely appalled by the horrible treatment expressed in both your post and in the comments. In the US it is illegal to even ask about age when interviewing a job applicant. I stepped back from my career as a registered nurse, at 72, when the pandemic reared its ugly head, to protect my husband whose health condition made him vulnerable, but I wept that I couldn’t be in the fight. But, the only time I ever felt ageism is when a coworker didn’t think I could use a software program, not knowing I had years of working on a multitude of programs. She was quite surprised. I will say that I loved my work, stayed upbeat and positive and pitched in without being asked when others needed help. We had a great team and I was proud to be a part of it. I’ve met a few older nurses who have told me they cannot get a job because of their age, but their conversation in general was negative, all about their aches and pains, rude coworkers, “everything is terrible”. I would have been afraid to recommend them. Now, with “the great resignation” adding to the nursing shortage here, I hope they’re working if they still want to do so. I’m happily retired, enjoying the gifts of each day - same as I did when I was getting up at 0330 to open our center for another busy day. Re diversity - I had the same thought as another commenter when I saw the photo of all Caucasian women…thinking “that’s diversity?” then I realized it was a staff photo, not a reflection of the UK in general.
Tricia, I love your blogs and your insight is usually so spot on, but in this case, perhaps not? You refer to your staff as very diverse, yet there is not one person of color there. Bias exists in many aspects and age is just one. Exposure and opportunity to all of the beautiful colors in our world opens doors and eyes.