Are women’s careers really over at 45?

African Women Business OfficeA toxic combination of ageism and sexism means that women’s careers are effectively ending at the age of 45, according to a new Government report.

There has always been a pay gap between genders, although it is closing. The labour market are still putting women through the struggle of being paid less for the same job and getting a lower bonus than men. During Ros Altmanns research as the Business Champion for Older Workers, he came across evidence of age bias against women that seems to prevent them from promotion.

Altmann says ‘Privately, HR executives have shared with me their thoughts about women’s progress through big organisations and, as one put it, ‘talent progression stops for women around age 45’. For men, I am told it is around age 55. There is certainly ageism in the workplace but it may affect women even more than men. Neither is acceptable of course, but not enough is being done to overcome the problems.’

It is not clear what is driving this age barrier, which strikes women at a ridiculously young age. Women who have barely reached middle age are being passed over for younger applicants.

Thoughts are this is happening because the role of the media may be quite powerful in driving attitudes to older people – and to older women in particular. Whenever there is a newspaper or online story about the over-50s, the most frequently-used images are of the very elderly and infirm. The ‘elderly’ road sign is a classic example of the mental image of ‘older’ people.

Stock image of older office workersStock images should be showing energetic, lively people in the prime of their lives. This feeds into the subliminal perceptions of old age. As soon as we hear or think of someone over 50, we have been conditioned to conjure up images of much, much older people. Wrinkled hands and walking sticks are not appropriate representations of people pushing 50.

The oldest female national or international newsreader is only 52! This proves the same problem is hitting visual media too. The career progression for such women seems to be cut short prematurely. Some have spoken out about the culture of ‘youth and beauty’ that they believe prevents women from staying in front-line roles in visual media. There is a view that the public only wish to see younger-looking presenters.

If women are passed over for career progression in favour of younger candidates, they are being denied a future.

Such ageism and sexism still seem to pervade too many businesses. If women are passed over for career progression in favour of younger candidates, they are being denied a future. Many of them just leave work altogether which is a waste of skill, talent and experience and of course they will be poorer for the rest of their lives. Older women have soft skills, life experience, coping strategies and empathy, on top of their intelligence and energy, which can add significant value to the workplace.

When it comes to handling stress, depression and pregnancy, there is openness and support, but not for such older women. No one is trained to deal with the health impact women face during the menopause, this is never spoken about in the work place but impacts women’s careers.

What can be done to overcome this?

There needs to be penalties for those firms which do discriminate.

Appropriate line manager training in dealing with an aging workforce is essential. The Recruitment industry should ensure its members refuse to work with employers who tell them they will only hire young people, or those who look a certain way. Older women’s support groups would help and firms should be required to publish a regular age and skills audit, showing the gender and age breakdowns of their staff, including their new recruits, which would make it easier to track any bias.

Of course, it is not going to change overnight and stereotyped attitudes take a long time to alter. But the sooner we start, the sooner it can happen.

Read the full report here

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