Experiencing Age Discrimination? Feeling Invisible? Try These Solutions.
Issue 103 — August 5, 2019
My friend Dede Thompson Bartlett is a very accomplished woman. Former Vice President of Corporate Affairs Programs for Altria and Corporate Secretary of Mobil Corporation and President of Mobil Foundation at a time when few women reached those heights, Dede has a powerful presence, as though she could walk into a corporate boardroom anywhere and go right to the head of the table.
Becoming invisible, especially if you are a woman.
Yet at a recent conference we attended, she took me aside and whispered into my ear “I wish you would write about ageism.” She went on to reveal that when she had recently passed a “milestone birthday,” she suddenly began to see herself as “less than.” Invisible.
“I began to feel that I was ‘no longer in the game,’” she told me. “And it flew in the face of reality. In actuality, I was engaged in many pursuits: I was busy writing another book, lecturing, serving on several boards and traveling extensively overseas. No one would have guessed what I was feeling.”
Many women say they feel invisible after 50 no matter how much of value they know they have to contribute.
This doesn’t happen only to women. Former Arizona governor and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt tells the story of the passenger sitting next to him on a flight who at first couldn’t quite place him but then asked, “Didn’t you used to be Bruce Babbitt?”
However, because of the value placed on youthful pulchritude for women, we are more likely to be given less credence and fewer opportunities once the physical aging process takes us past the age of 50. “Women of a certain age tend to feel invisible. In the workplace they have to fight to remain relevant, to have their ideas heard, despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be better investors, better managers and better entrepreneurs,” Kejal Macdonald writes in Marketwatch and quoted in this Take The Lead blog.
Whereas wrinkles, grey hair, and a weathered face are likely to cause people to view a man as looking more distinguished or successful even into his ninth decade or beyond, a woman with grey hair and wrinkles is more likely to be seen as “over the hill,” unattractive, and to be passed over for advancement. Hence, soaring hair dye sales and all those bad jokes about women lying about their age. Remember that insulting Megyn Kelly interview with Jane Fonda, where Kelly’s first question to the Oscar-winning actress was about her plastic surgery?
“The largest and most recent field study of age discrimination in hiring was conducted in 2015 and involved over 40,000 applications for over 13,000 jobs in 12 cities across 11 states. It found evidence of age discrimination against both men and women, with older applicants — those age 64 to 66 years old — more frequently denied job interviews than middle-age applicants age 49 to 51. Women, especially older women but also those at middle age, were subjected to more age discrimination than older men,” according to a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Significantly, age discrimination begins at 40 for women and 45 for men. But with the number of Americans age 65 and older expected to double by 2060 and being both healthier than previous generations and less likely to have adequate retirement funds to last, there is no question that there will be increasing numbers of people staying in the workforce past what used to be retirement age. And since women live longer than men, they will be more affected by ageism as they try to remain employed commensurate with their expertise. Plus, since the cumulative lifetime effect of the pay gap is likely to result in women’s lifetime earnings to be half a million to a million dollars less than men (yes, even accounting for time out for children), their financial resources will be stretched even further.
For these reasons and more, Americans are working later in life than before.
In fact, adults over 65 are twice as likely to be in the workforce than in 1985. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts due to this upwards trend that 13 million Americans over the age of 65 will be in the workforce by 2024.
Systemic solutions are needed for starters. And while it’s the right and fair thing to do, it’s also good business. Laws banning age discrimination may be in place, but laws don’t necessarily change the workplace culture. Any smart company will take in account these solutions suggested by Dave Weisbeck, chief strategy officer of Visier.
- Review your workforce data to understand and find any signs of potential age bias in hiring, promotions, salary levels, turnover and performance ratings.
- Keep in mind that, as with racial and gender equity, age equity is a cultural issue — if pockets of ageism exist within your organization, you will need to devise plans to address them not only via better HR practice and policy rollouts, but through culture change.
- Consider implementing a practice that for every position you have to fill, consider one or more older candidates (or candidates who will help create a more diverse team, in general).
- Develop hiring practices that reduce the potential for intentional or unintentional bias in the screening out of older applicants.
To be sure older workers have a responsibility to remain current in their professions, but the advantage of judgment and skill honed by experience cannot be overestimated. In the end, age diversity is as important as gender or ethnic and racial diversity to improving innovation and adding to the bottom line.
On the other hand, older workers are making themselves both visible and purposeful.
“Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” comedian Jack Benny famously said when he was nearing his 100th birthday.
They work because they need to for financial reasons, but also because they want to work in order to feel relevant, and to contribute to their communities or professions the skills they have spent a lifetime honing. Or, sometimes they pivot and refresh themselves by trying something completely new.
I remember thinking I might be too old when I was recruited to apply for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America presidency. I was 54. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do, providing energizing challenges at a whole new level that forced me to use every leadership skill I had learned in the previous 22 years as a CEO and many new ones as I moved from the state and local stage to the national and international ones.
And my husband, who retired from his long career as an insurance executive in order to move to New York with me took up a volunteer career that has proved enormously gratifying, as a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History. And little did I know that in my 60’s I’d become a successful author and in my 70’s cofound Take The Lead with the large mission of leadership gender parity by 2025 — so I can be alive to see it!
Designer Vera Wang didn’t design her first dress until she was 40 years old. Julia Child was 50 when she wrote her first cookbook. Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of the Little House on the Prairie series, didn’t write the series’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods, until she was 65. Frances Woofenden started waterskiing at age 50, and now at age 81 has won 100 awards. She waterskis five days a week. Harriette Thompson was 76 years old when she ran her first marathon and is still racing at 92.
Take The Lead’s board chair, Dr. Nancy O’Reilly had a career as a clinical psychologist, and more recently has written books about women’s leadership, including In This Together: How Successful Women Support Each Other. She also started the Women Connect for Good Foundation to support organizations that advance women. But her real third act of life passion is horses, Arabian show horses to be exact.
She says, “I had children and grandchildren when I started riding in my 60’s. I bought my first horse in 2012. I took him to show in what is called the Liberty classes. I would chase him around the arena wearing a red dress with black boots and a long whip. Each horse was judged on its beauty and how well it trotted. Riding in the shows became my passion because I realized I am not a sideline person. I showed my purebred Arabian Country horse Cey Hey in 2014.” Now O’Reilly has won multiple national championships.
Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing O’Reilly’s ambitious Southern California Equestrian Center, which she purchased in September of 2018. She boards other people’s horses in addition to her own and has a vision of turning the property into a profitable event destination and programs with horses to help women become better leaders.
Bartlett had this to say about how she overcame her invisibility concerns: “As I worked through my emotions, it became clear that I was my own worst enemy. The “ageism” I was experiencing was self-inflicted. I was not being excluded by others or discriminated against. My toughest opponent was in my head. I have relearned a lesson that helped me in times past when I could not see the path forward. I need to follow my passions — be it working on social justice issues or exploring the hidden places in the world…and while health permits I will keep charging ahead.”
As for me, I have a list of books to write, so long that I will have to live to 120 to finish them, papers to organize so the incredible history I have lived is available to posterity, and Take The Lead to bring to sustainability. My newest “new” thing is podcasting, so if you haven’t already subscribed, shared, and rated the Take The Lead Women Podcast with Gloria Feldt, please hurry and do it today. I don’t have forever, though I’d like to think so! (With thanks to Jamia Wilson for suggesting this week’s topic.)
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.