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Age discrimination against women and long-term impact on financial security

Age discrimination is not gender specific, but when compounded by additional gender bias, it can threaten women’s financial independence


As they age, women begin to encounter stepped-up discrimination in the workplace. This can have reverberations well into old age when women find themselves at economic disadvantages.

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As they age into their 40s and 50s, women begin to encounter stepped-up discrimination in the workplace: gender discrimination compounded by age discrimination. This can have reverberations well into old age when women find themselves at distinct economic disadvantages to their male counterparts.

Age discrimination is a pervasive problem, especially for older women

“Older women experience age discrimination at a greater magnitude than older men,” said Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior counsel to the chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But age discrimination is a problem for both genders, and the issue is “an open secret” about which society often gives a collective shrug, said Ventrell-Monsees, who has done extensive research into the problem.

“Age discrimination is a lot like harassment,” she said. “Everybody knows it happens every day, but so few people have called it out.”

There’s a compounding factor for older women, said Patrick Button, an assistant professor at Tulane University, who has studied discrimination against older workers. “So, you have the general gender discrimination,” he said. “You have the general age discrimination. And then you get the older women intersectional penalty.”

See related: Financial advice: One size doesn’t fit all

“In some sense,” he said, “it’s the triple whammy. It’s an extra burden on older women that’s not really well appreciated.”

Limited career opportunities stagnate earning potential

Button and University of California, Irvine, researchers conducted a 2015 study in which they created 40,000 applications for fictional job seekers, dividing them up into three age groups: older applicants, ages 64-66; middle-aged applicants, ages 49-51; and younger applicants, ages 29-31. Then the researchers submitted the applications to various online job postings.

See related: Gaining financial independence later in life

Most of the discrimination happened at the first stage of the hiring process when employers were deciding whether or not to contact a potential applicant, the researchers found. The callback rates for men were similar, whether they were young or middle-aged. But younger women were more likely to get a callback than were middle-aged women.

The researchers suggested a couple of reasons for this gender difference: evidence that physical appearance matters more for women than for men and that older women are perceived as less physically attractive. Also, there’s the problem of insufficient legal protections.

Little reprieve from employers or lawmakers

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. And a 1967 federal law prohibits age discrimination.

“But the difficulty is, if you face intersectional discrimination, that’s not covered,” Button said. “The courts say, you can invoke one of those acts, but you can’t invoke both of them. So older women are falling within the cracks of these two laws.”

This can impose extra legal and financial burdens on women trying to bring an age-discrimination lawsuit against an employer.

“There isn’t a special ‘age-gender’ claim,” said Robert C. Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. “Employees who believe they have suffered from both have to prove each claim separately.”

It’s also become harder to sue for age discrimination in general, following a 2009 decision in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Gross v. FBL Financial Services. The court’s conservative majority ruled, in a 5-4 vote, that workers bear the full burden of proving that age was the decisive factor in their dismissal or demotion.

“This is a significant and marked change,” Diana Hoover, a corporate defense lawyer in Houston, told the Los Angeles Times when the decision was published. “It imposes a difficult burden on the employee. You are not going to have an employer stand up and announce, ‘I’m discriminating against you because of your age.’”

Discrimination is hard to spot outright

Many times, though, the discrimination begins before a potential employee is even brought in for a job interview. Employers will run ads with code words, like saying they are looking for “digital natives,” Ventrell-Monsees said.

“Obviously, that’s someone who is born and bred for technology,” she said. “Older workers are called ‘digital immigrants,’ which has very negative connotations.”

Online sorting systems can simply sideline applicants with distant college graduation dates, she said.

Once in an interview, interviewers may ask pointed questions of a 50-year-old applicant like, “Do you really expect to be working in 10 years?”, or “What was your last salary?” or even “You’re overqualified, why would you take this job?” she said.

Even after landing a job, age discrimination can limit the ability to grow in a career

Once on the job, older sales employees may find they’re handed the worst territory. A manager may see her responsibilities diminished. An executive realizes she’s left out of meetings. Or they hear ageist terms tossed casually about, like referring to older people as grandmas and grandpas. In one case, Ventrell-Monsees said, a younger supervisor said to an older employee, “You’re so old, the building must have been built around you.”

Still, it’s very hard to win a legal challenge.

“What I find so frustrating and outrageous,” she said, “is the courts will be like, ‘That’s not really age discrimination,’ where it would be clear sex or race discrimination” if the terms were changed.

Not only is all of this more likely to happen to older women, but they are less prepared to absorb the blows than their male counterparts.

See related: How women can save for retirement

“Age discrimination is of particular importance to women due to … the increased likelihood of women suffering financial instability in retirement,” Bird said.

Financial impact of employment age discrimination

Here are some numbers that illustrate the scope and complexity of the problem:

  • Women make up two-thirds of all people over age 65 living in poverty.
  • Sixteen percent of all women age 65 and overlive at or below the poverty level, compared to 12% of men age 65 and older.
  • Women of color are at a particular disadvantage. Black, Hispanic and Native American women are almost two times more likely to live in poverty than older white women.
  • More than a quarter of women who never married live in poverty – a figure that is more than five times the rate of married women.
  • Nearly half of bisexual and transgender women live below 200% of the federal poverty limit.

These facts and figures are from Older Women & Poverty, a December 2018 special report produced by Justice in Aging. Many factors contribute to this situation, including women’s traditional caregiving responsibilities that limit their workforce participation during peak earning years, the gender pay gap, systemic discrimination on the basis of race and sexual orientation as well as women’s longer life expectancies. But key among them, the study’s authors write, is “gender discrimination lead[ing] to less pay and fewer opportunities.”

Because women tend to enter old age with less financial security than men, they are also more likely to try to work longer to make ends meet, Button said. “But older women are kind of blocked by age discrimination, and that just make the problem worse for them,” he said.

The recent economic turmoil triggered by the coronavirus lockdown may make matters worse.

“Discrimination occurs more often during a recession,” he said. “There’s going to be more applicants to jobs. As a firm you can be really picky about who and what you want, whereas when labor markets are tighter, employers can’t be too choosy.”

Overcoming the setbacks of age discrimination

So as an older woman trying to keep your job, or find a new one, what are you to do?

“Be cognizant of the stereotypes that others may have,” Ventrell-Monsees said. “Then shatter those stereotypes.”

Demonstrate energy. Demonstrate curiosity. As a woman, navigate as best you can that narrow line between being aggressive and dynamic.

“Recognize in your organization what is valued, and then you have to demonstrate that value all the time,” she said. “That’s the life we have at this point.”

If you’re someone looking for a job, retool your resume. Leave off the dates of past jobs and degrees, she said. Be as respectful of others as you would like them to be of you, and be careful of the way you stereotype yourself.

“Don’t say you’re having a senior moment,” she said. “Everybody has memory lapses. Don’t attribute any of that stuff to age. Likewise, don’t stereotype millennials.”

Recognize what you have to offer, precisely because of your maturity and experience, said Barbara Mark, a career and life coach for older women.

A woman in her 50s can serve as a role model and mentor younger workers. She may have broad institutional knowledge that newer hires lack.

Final thoughts

The issue of discrimination against older women is one society ignores at its peril. A quarter of the female labor force is 55 and older, and increasingly, older women are re-entering the workforce and staying, Ventrell-Monsees said.

“All of the old assumptions,” she said, “are getting blown up.”

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