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Majority of Women Face Ageism in the Workplace

Women of Influence+, a leading global organization committed to advancing gender equity in the workplace, has released findings from its survey, “Exploring the Impact of Ageism on Women in the Workplace.”  

Ageism is overwhelmingly present in workplaces across the globe. According to the findings, 77.8% of women have encountered age-related discrimination in their careers, underscoring ageism as a critical yet often overlooked barrier to professional growth. Ageism is a form of discrimination and prejudice directed towards individuals or groups based on their age. This social construct often leads to stereotyping and generalizing people based on their chronological age, regardless of their individual capabilities, experiences, or personal attributes. It can negatively impact individuals at all stages of their careers, leading to unfair treatment, limited opportunities, and marginalization.  

“Nearly 80% of women encountering ageism in the workplace is not just a statistic; it’s a clear indication that we are facing a pervasive and systemic issue,” says Dr. Rumeet Billan, CEO of Women of Influence+. “Our survey sheds light on the hidden barriers many self-identifying women face, that not only hinder their career progression but also impact their confidence and well-being.”  

Conducted between January and February 2023, the survey received responses from more than 1,250 women across 46 countries, spanning various industries. The survey explores the nuances of ageism and its impact on women in the workplace.  

Not only does ageism exist, but it is also more visible than people may want to believe.  

  • More than 80% have witnessed women in the workplace being treated differently because of their age.  
  • Almost half (46.2%) report it to be an ongoing issue.  

“I have never heard comments about male colleagues being too young or too old for their work,” says one respondent. “Women are either too young, too old, or may be in the age range of having children. All are viewed as negative.”  

While many think of ageism as something that impacts people in the latter years of their careers, the reality is that ageism can have negative implications at all ages and stages. The data reveals notable peaks in the initial decade of work and later years.  

  • Approximately 40.7% of respondents experienced age-based discrimination within the first decade of their professional journey.  
  • More than half (55.9%) encountered ageism after surpassing 21 years in their career.  

Survey participants expressed the belief that age is often inappropriately correlated with perceived performance and success, a bias that disproportionately affects women. Highlighting this gender disparity, one respondent observes, “Women are never the right age. We are either ‘going to get pregnant’ or ‘too old.’” This reflects a societal tendency to place undue expectations on women.  

According to respondents, the disparity is further emphasized in contrast to older men, who respondents say are often viewed as “distinguished” or “very experienced.” In comparison, older women may be unfairly seen as “past their prime” or occupying opportunities “better suited to others.” This observation feeds into the broader narrative that workplaces perpetuate ageism, especially against women. “Workplaces were built for men,” says one respondent. Another shares, “The old boys’ network still exists.” And a third adds, “It is a carryover from the age-old believe that women should not be in the workplace.”  

Furthermore, the survey reveals that the perpetrators of ageism span all levels of seniority, implicating the HR department, co-workers, clients, managers, and executives. Respondents highlight recruiters as another group frequently engaging in age-based discrimination. 

Ageism in the workplace manifests in various forms. 

  • Nearly three-quarters (74.8%) report experiencing age-based stereotypes or assumptions.  
  • Just over half (50.1%) say they are shown a lack of respect from colleagues.  
  • Almost half (49%) of respondents report unfair treatment in promotion processes. 

“I have white hair and I have been advised to color my hair to make me look younger as it may help me secure employment,” says one respondent. “This comment came from an HR professional.”  

Women also face stereotypical assumptions about their capabilities with technology and adaptability. Beyond these tangible impacts, ageism can be detrimental to a woman’s overall sense of self and well-being and can have significant personal repercussions. Whether it’s taking steps to appear younger or older, women are often forced to make changes to themselves to look like they’re the “right age” for the job. This is often referred to as the “pink tax,” referring to the money and time women spend on physical enhancements to meet societal expectations.  

Personally, women experience the following.  

  • Increased stress because of experiencing ageism has been reported by 62.2% of respondents. 
  • Second-guessing capabilities were reported by 61.8% of respondents.  
  • Approximately 59.3% share they overcompensated or worked harder to prove their worth.  
  • More than half (55%) say they experience lower self-confidence due to age-based discrimination.  

Professionally, women also report significant impacts when it comes to ageism.  

  • Approximately 57.7% report impaired career progression. 
  • More than half (52.1%) report a lack of belonging at work. 
  • More than half (50.9%) report experiencing dissatisfaction with their employer. 

The impact of age intersects with other facets of a person’s identity, such as race, ability, and gender. Intersectionality can compound the negative effects of ageism, and respondents are noticing this in their workplaces. Nearly 70% (69.2%) believe ageism disproportionately affects women. One respondent shares, “Ageism is so intertwined with sexism, so it is hard to separate the two.”  

Ageism also disproportionately affects women of color. One respondent comments, “Ageism is proportionally much higher for racialized women.” Another says, “The perfect age in the workplace for a woman is a perpetual 34-years-old. But that’s too young to be in the C-suite or in a senior position. Women of color need to be older, but still look full of vitality.”  

“The findings of our survey are a call to action, and it’s time for a systemic change,” says Dr. Billan. “We must collectively work towards creating environments where age does not define capability or limit opportunity. Our commitment is to continue advocating for and supporting these necessary changes.” 

The actionable steps below have been compiled using information gathered in the survey. When asked what support or resources would be helpful for those experiencing ageism in the workplace, respondents weighed in. With these five recommendations, change in the workplace can begin.  

  • Raise awareness and provide training and education. The first step is to accept that ageism is a real issue and is having more of a significant impact than we think.  
  • Implement preventative policies and hold people accountable. Armed with the knowledge that ageism exists, the next step is to put policies into place and adhere to them. A good policy is only as good as the action that follows.  
  • Develop reciprocal mentorship programs. A call for mentorship as a solution to ageism came through loud and clear. The key “is connecting on a human level to learn about different experiences,” according to a respondent. 
  • Focus on competencies over age when recruiting and hiring. Respondents repeatedly report that professionals want to be recognized for their abilities rather than their age or years of experience. It’s time to look past these distracting numbers and seek out examples of success instead. 
  • Include ageism as part of DEI strategy, initiatives, and programs. The need for ageism to be included as a pillar of DEI was agreed upon by respondents across the board, with some saying it can be as damaging as racism or sexism.  
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