Work and the older woman

Ageism in the workplace affects women differently than men because of societal attitudes towards older women.

Mature woman in business clothes looking off into the distance


I read a good article the other day on gendered ageism in the workforce.  The article was by coach Bonnie Marcus and she pointed out that women face an especially tough time as they get older, mainly because of how we view women generally and older women in particular.

Of course, ageing is something everyone has to come to terms with and it can be difficult for men too.

Marcus, however, speaks of ageism as a ‘double whammy’ for women. Not only are they still faced with an uneven playing field because they are women, but they encounter other discrimination as they visibly age due to negative social attitudes towards older women. She says this leads to undervaluing of their experience and judgement and stalled careers. She compares the UK with the US, where the National Bureau of Economic Research says older American women face more discrimination than older men because of the value placed on their physical appearance.

She states: “Researchers have concluded that ageing is a gendered process and that overall women face grave challenges and discrimination during the ageing process, particularly when it comes to financial and work-related matters.”

The looks thing is big. I remember a US law professor, no less, telling me that she was advised to ‘freshen up’ her appearance in order not to look tired and old. Basically she was being told to have a face lift. If that happens in academic life, I’d dread to think what happens elsewhere. Will we all be wheeled into the plastic surgeon in the future if we want to get or keep a senior position?

It’s bad enough just coming to terms with the whole ageing process without thinking that it is not just going to affect how you think about yourself but how it is going to impact you at work.

I was interested in the figures on time usage published earlier this week. They showed that dads spent more time on leisure whereas mums spent more on things like housework and ‘personal care’. How much of that personal care involves just keeping up appearances? This may be for personal pleasure, but personal maintenance for women – all the hours and hours spent on make-up, hair, clothes, exercise [which may be for health reasons too] – is hard work and it is clearly relevant to employment. I often sit and look at women on the tube and I wonder what time they have to get up to do the whole make-up thing. I am exhausted with just getting the kids ready and getting into work. It’s not a criticism, but a question. I just don’t know how to fit any more into my day, but then I have the feeling that I look like a drowned newt most of the time, particularly in the last few years.

If I spent less time on actual work and more time on personal care work maybe I’d feel better about myself. Having never really worn make-up much, I’ve started taking an undue interest in the concealer stuff my kids have, despite the fact that they don’t need it at all. Perhaps I could just paint it everywhere and move around invisibly, safe under the mask. Yet I see my kids’ generation and I think that the mask just makes the problem worse. Social media is also an exacerbating factor. Women I know post really good pictures of themselves looking unchanged, seeking validation about how great they look. Maybe it makes them feel better, even if just for a short while. What’s the harm?

I just know that when I was young part of the motivation behind my eating disorder was that I wanted to disappear. I would avoid mirrors or reflections. I didn’t want to be physically present in large part because of what came with it. That’s clearly an extreme position, but it’s a symptom of a culture which is constantly telling women that it’s not enough to be a decent human being or to be good at what you do if you fail in the looks department. Maybe the 50s is a process of moving beyond this. I hope so.

Understanding the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population is vital if we want to create productive, innovative and inclusive multi-generational teams as we all lead longer working lives. is a job and community site, from the people behind, specially focused on older workers looking for flexibility and improved work-life balance, and the employers who recognise what they have to offer.

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