Women and the Age Dilemma: When Are We Too Old or Too Young to Be Promoted?

Media coverage and public reaction to the slate of Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election offer a window into a core double bind for women—gendered perceptions of age that women face as they compete for advancement. A double bind is a term describing a situation where a person is caught between two irreconcilable demands or expectations. Jill Filipovic of the New York Times describes the age-based double bind for women represented by the excitement generated by the younger men running for president. She notes that in the world of work, research shows that women are promoted once managers see them perform well, while men are promoted if managers believe in their potential or promise. In other words, women have to prove themselves and men don’t. Filipovic observes that these same beliefs and practices are being played out now in politics.

The age range of the 2020 Democratic candidates is quite large: from 37 to 78 years of age. Filipovic notes that being between 37 and 46 years old and relatively unknown seems to be an advantage for the Democratic men who are generating excitement for being fresh faces and young, but for the women, “unfamiliarity and youth end up being tied to incompetence.” As in the workplace, the young men in the race are generating excitement without having accomplished nearly as much as the older women in the race:

  • Pete Buttigieg, at 37, is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Beto O’Rourke, 46, is the Texas congressman who lost a Senate race to Ted Cruz; Andrew Yang, 44, is a corporate lawyer turned entrepreneur; and Tim Ryan, 45, is known as the congressman who challenged Nancy Pelosi for the speaker role.
  • In contrast, the women in the race, who are in their 50s and 60s, had to prove themselves first. They entered politics later in life after spending years building up accomplishments and legislative and executive experience and recognition to be considered credible. But they are no longer considered “fresh” or exciting by the public or media.

In fact, Filipovic points out, age poses an unsolvable problem for women. She notes that “they are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until the time they are branded too old and tedious,” as is the case for Elizabeth Warren. In her late 60s, she is portrayed in the media as old, along with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, although she is ten years younger than they are. Men running for president in 2020 who are more or less the same age as Warren—Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), and Jay Inslee (68)—are not lumped in with the white-haired candidates.

Filipovic notes that women in their 40s are seen as in a hurry, too ambitious and unwilling to pay their dues; women in their 50s are seen as old news; and women in their 60s are seen as old. She asks, “When, exactly, is a woman supposed to go to the White House?” That is the question that we must keep asking.


Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Five Reasons Why You Should Hire an Older Woman

As a member of the hiring committee of a nonprofit’s board of trustees, I recently worked with an executive search firm to fill a CEO vacancy in the organization. The search firm representative asked us if we wanted to screen out women over fifty from the candidate pool. We were surprised and asked, “Why would we?” The reply was, “Most of our clients won’t consider hiring women over fifty, and we don’t want to waste your time or ours by including them if you want us to screen them out.” Wow! This question was asked quietly, since it is illegal to discriminate based on age, but it was asked because this dynamic is so prevalent. Men are considered to be viable employees at older ages than women. Ashton Applewhite of the New York Times cites a 2016 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that “found ‘robust’ evidence that age discrimination in the workplace starts earlier for women and never relents.” Applewhite explains that ageism, or discrimination based on age, “is the result of a network of attitudes and institutional practices.” In other words, it is baked into our social and workplace cultures that women over fifty are not valued. Sally Koslow, writing for the New York Times, cites a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that nearly half—48.8 percent—of women aged fifty-five to sixty-four are among the long-term unemployed. These numbers reflect the desire of older women to work but their difficulty in getting hired. Many older women want to work not only because they enjoy it but also because they often need to work. Koslow reports that, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security, “women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age sixty-five and older.” Why should you hire a woman over fifty? Applewhite suggests the following considerations:

  • Older workers can bring deep knowledge, well-honed interpersonal skills, better judgment, and a more balanced perspective to the workplace.
  • Older workers represent a wealth of productive and creative potential that is a source of social capital that should not be wasted.
  • Not one negative stereotype about older workers holds up under examination. Research shows that older workers are reliable, handle stress well, master new skills, and are the most engaged workers when offered the chance to grow and advance.
  • Older workers might take longer to do a task, but they make fewer mistakes.
  • It is a myth that older workers crowd out younger ones. Economists have debunked this “lump of labor” fallacy many times.
What changes can we make to open more employment opportunities for older women? Let’s be clear that ageism and an overemphasis on youth culture in our country are deeply engrained. Nonetheless, we can bring about change by not buying into the myth that some women are too old to do certain jobs or learn new skills. We can make friends of all ages and point out age bias when we see it. Most importantly, though, we need to join forces and speak up about the issue of ageism. We need to challenge the assumptions about older women as workers and hire older women when we are managers. Our board of trustees hired a woman over fifty for our vacant CEO position, and she brought a wide range of experience and contacts to our organization that proved to be quite valuable. What ways can you influence the hiring of an older woman worker?  What successes have you experienced with older workers?  Let us hear from you. Photo courtesy of shooterple.    ]]>