It’s not uncommon for older workers to hit a wall in their careers.
Sometimes it’s because they feel they’ve done all they can and want to retire; other times it’s because they fancy doing something different; and sometimes it’s because the work they do is simply no longer an option, either due to health or availability.
To hit a wall simply because of your gender, though, is absurd. However, it’s the unfortunate situation that many older women find in the workplace.
So, we ask the question: are human resources departments across industry sectors doing all they can to give older women a fair playing field? In other words, is HR failing older women?
An inward look
HR departments are often made up of women, including those in the senior roles (such as HR director); and many of those women are aged 40 and over.
Therefore, you could argue that HR in a silo is actively pro-women, regardless of age. However, it’s not necessarily a good thing for HR to be seen as a ‘female profession’, despite the good career path it offers women as they get older. Equality campaigning suggests all professions should be without discrimination.
HR is arguably working harder to try and change and the view in business and show that women, no matter their age, are just as capable. Progressive HR departments are using techniques which disguise gender and age – such as application forms where personal details don’t go through to the recruiting manager.
But does this inward attitude to older women translate across other business functions?
According to a study carried out Ros Altmann CBE, Minister of State for Pensions and the government’s champion of older workers: women’s careers effectively end at the age of 45.
Altman questioned HR executives, employees, and bosses. She found that companies fail to recruit, train, and promote older women, while women in their 40s are passed over for better-paid jobs because they’re deemed ‘past it’.
However, the same experience for men isn’t said to happen until a decade later, around the age of 55. Older men face the same issues as older women (less knowledge of modern computer technology; younger bosses etc.), so why is there still such a discrepancy between genders?
Well, according to Altmann women also face additional discrimination from their employers. The way they look is taken into consideration, with employers wanting “young, female staff who ‘look a certain way’”.
“Many women and men are reaching their prime in their fifties, and are certainly not past it,” she told the Mail. “Unfortunately, workplace attitudes are still so ageist and this urgently needs to change.”
An unexpected twist comes from the self-protecting way in which many male colleagues now behave at work. A controversial book entitled Sex & the Office suggests that a direct consequence of equality campaigning is that women are now suffering due to over-cautious men.
The term ‘backlash stress’ comes from the terror of being accused of sexual harassment – something which is now very common, according to author Kim Elsesser. The former equities trader at Morgan Stanley writes that men are now reluctant to mentor, assist, befriend and even hold open doors for female colleagues, for a fear their actions may be misconstrued.
Companies – and their HR departments – are contributing to this, Elsesser adds. They are now so scared of legal action, she writes, that they send staff on sexual harassment training courses and follow up even the most minor allegations – such as opening a door for a female colleague or complimenting her on a new suit.
While this is bad for men in the short term, it’s bad for women – especially older women who already face other discrimination – in the long run, as it’s preventing them from certain work benefits that could help with career progression.
Strong role models
There are countless reasons why having older women in the workplace has huge benefits. Diversity for one, and also quality; a 2012 study by Dow Jones suggested that companies with at least one female senior executive are more likely to succeed than companies with only men at the top.
But HR departments also have a responsibility to give younger women strong role models. If they can’t see where they could be in 10, 20, even 30 years’ time, then arguably they won’t work up to their highest level.
So, is HR failing older women? Right now, in many cases, a lot of the signs point to yes. Find out more about why HR is out of step with over 50s.