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Older Women Are an Under-Utilized Resource. Here’s What We Can Do About That.

The trend away from older workers is a mistake -- but the current crisis could offer us an opportunity to push back against damaging ageist stereotypes and provide a needed talent boost to businesses during the pandemic.

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When marketing veteran Anne Zacharias attempted to restart her career after taking a few years off to spend time with her family, she didn’t expect the process to be so demoralizing. 

On paper, Zacharias was a shoo-in hire for any company. She had over 25 years of experience in the field and prior experience as a regional vice president for a national marketing company. Her work ethic and productivity weren’t anything to pass over, either. Her resume was ironclad, or so she thought. 

Zacharias chose to take a few years off because her hectic work and travel schedules prevented her from spending any real time with her family. When she was ready to return work and began interviewing, she was blown away by the tidal wave of rejections she received. 

Hiring managers told her that she had too little experience — even though she had spent most of her decades-long career working in sales jobs for firms like Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Johnson & Johnson. Eventually, she realized that the hedging was code. 

“The message was, ‘She’s been out of the workforce too long and she’s too old,’” Zacharias told reporters for the Wall Street Journal of her experience. She had been in her fifties at the time. 

Once you start asking around, stories like Zacharias’ aren’t all that hard to find. Despite the fact that countless older women are eager and ready to work — and that employers need to fill the professional gap posed by retiring Baby Boomers — women over 50 often struggle to overcome gender and age discrimination in the interview room. 

Senior activist Ashton Applewhite defines ageism as occurring “when a dominant group uses its power to oppress or exploit or silence or simply ignore people who are much older or significantly younger. We experience ageism any time someone assumes we’re ‘too old’ for something — a task, a relationship, a haircut — instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of.”

At first thought, the kind of assumption Applewhite describes feels too rude and uncomfortable to be common. But the effects are more pervasive than you might think in the job market even though age discrimination is illegal in the United States. According to research conducted by the Urban Institute and shared by the Washington Post, jobless women are 18 percent less likely to find new work at age 50 to 61 than they would be at ages 25 to 34. When they reach 62, they are 52 percent less likely to be rehired. 

Given these statistics, it’s little surprise that NBC reports that 70 percent of surveyed women believe that age discrimination in the workplace is a significant problem, or that 31 percent of surveyed women over 50 have personally experienced age discrimination at the office. 

Studies indicate that this trend has its roots in social stereotypes and stigma; researchers have found that the effects of aging on appearance tend to have a more severe impact on working women than men. As they write: ‘physical appearance matters more for women’ because ‘age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.’ 

To add insult to injury, a recent study from the University of Buffalo found that state age protections often provide women with flimsy coverage. As lead researcher Joanne Song McLaughlin, an assistant professor of economics in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, recapped of her findings: “The evidence indicated that both state age discrimination laws and the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act] ADEA improved the labor market outcomes for older men, but had a far less favorable effect on older women. In some cases, I found that age discrimination laws did not improve the labor market outcomes for older women at all.”

These trends are troubling at the best of times but amid a global pandemic, they are exponentially more so. Right now, workers over 50 — of which there are roughly 54 million in the US — now face job-market challenges only made worse by the current recession. As of the start of September, the unemployment rate for women over 50 hovered at 7.2, 4.6 points higher than reported in September of last year. 

The trend away from older workers is a mistake — but the current crisis could offer us an opportunity to push back against damaging ageist stereotypes and provide a needed talent boost to businesses during the pandemic. 

In June, writers for the Harvard Business Review reported an interesting trend: the pressing demand for certain niche medical and technology professionals has compelled retired medical and technical professionals to return to work. 

“More than ever before, they are being embraced and brought back to work as fast as they can make themselves available,” Carol Fishman Cohen wrote. “Employers are recognizing the strengths this pool of workers has demonstrated all along: institutional knowledge, education, work experience, mature perspective, stable life stage, dedication, loyalty, and an energy and enthusiasm about returning to work.”

I believe that there’s an opportunity here — not just in medicine or technology, but in business in general. This example proves that older workers have valuable talent and experience that could support companies through difficult times; who’s to say that other industries couldn’t make use of senior employees’ skills? 

These women only need a little upskilling and orientation to rejoin the workforce — and thankfully, there’s already a foundation for the re-entry process in place. As I’ve written before, corporate “returnship” programs offer a means for veterans and mothers who have taken time off work to reacclimate to the working world. 

These programs provide mentoring support, professional development sessions, and skills training classes to returning employees, often to notable success. According to statistics provided by the Harvard Business Review, hiring rates post-returnships usually average over 80 percent

Alternatively, older women could upskill independently by taking classes on technical skills such as coding; doing so could help them reframe their existing skills in a more marketable light. 

“One of the big obstacles in a job interview when you’re older is that people think you’re inflexible and can’t learn new things. Coding gave me an edge. I developed a confidence I didn’t have before.” Liz Beigle-Bryant, age 60, once commented for the New York Times.

Beigle-Bryant, who had lost her job as an administrative assistant for Microsoft, began taking coding classes after spending months struggling to find a job. Soon after she completed her courses, she netted her dream job as a document control coordinator for a public transit agency in her home of Seattle. 

Beigle-Bryant’s story — as well as Anne Zacharias’ and so many others’ — demonstrates that her skills weren’t so much the issue as a matter of employer perspective. As business leaders, we need to establish the right upskilling frameworks to help older women return to work and contribute their considerable skills to corporate causes. They are far too valuable to be left underutilized. 

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