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Fighting the Double-Whammy of Ageism, Sexism

A woman working on a laptop in an office.

​As they grow older, women face more misperceptions about their dedication and productivity in the workplace. "Gendered ageism" is a type of sexism affecting women in their 40s and beyond. A 2021 academic study found that "if ageism is undoubtedly problematic for older workers' identity processes, ageism and gender-stereotypes represent a double risk for women over 50 in the workplace."

In her new book Not Done Yet!: How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power (Page Two, 2021), Bonnie Marcus, author, podcast host and certified executive coach, talks about the assumptions and fears about aging that hold women back in their career. Bonnie Marcus, author

"We're told that people over 50 aren't promotable, aren't worth investing in, don't have the mental capacity or physical stamina to compete—despite evidence to the contrary," she wrote in the introduction to the book. 

"Workplace practices remain based on these ageist assumptions. Policies about hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation reveal the underlying bias. And women, unfortunately, suffer earlier because of the perceived importance of good looks and the bogus notion that aging women aren't attractive. This has a substantial impact on our career trajectories."

SHRM Online spoke with Marcus about how women can advance their careers and conquer on-the-job gendered ageism. The following comments have been edited for clarity and length.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Older Workers

SHRM Online: Is gendered ageism or sexism more likely to be found in certain industries such as fashion, entertainment and tech than in finance or health care, for example?
Marcus: It is more prevalent in certain industries. Certainly, on TV and in entertainment and film we know about the pressures from Hollywood for women to appear young. The fashion industry is another area where this is prevalent. I also interviewed somebody who was in commercial real estate. She absolutely had to have eyelift surgery to be able to work for the next 10 years; if you didn't have a fresh look, you'd lose business. 

But I don't think there is a rule of thumb by industry. Maybe it has to do with the amount of gender bias in that industry to begin with or that [individual] organization. If you are a woman over 30 in tech, you're considered old. Once you're a mother and in a tech company, you're already an outsider and considered in a different category and class … marginalized. 

But gendered ageism is not necessarily about women in public-facing jobs. It's the interaction happening within the organization; it's the powers that be who make decisions on whether you are advancing, getting a raise or getting pushed out.
SHRM Online: You write in your book about how women surrender their power—such as letting people take credit for ideas they voice during a meeting—and the way that leads to being negatively perceived in the workplace. What are other ways women give up power, and how can they recapture it?
Marcus: The most common way is people taking credit for [your] idea and you don't say anything. We don't want to be confrontational; we are people pleasers. We don't share ideas and opinions that may be important, or we don't challenge the status quo. If our boss gives us some direction and we feel it's not the way to go, we may just go along with it. Other ways we give up our power include not being able to set boundaries and say "no." And then we're viewed as a doormat.

You need to be strategic about what you say yes to and what you say no to. It depends on what the ask is. There are times when it's important to be a team player: "I will help you out on this, but let me train somebody else to be able to do this going forward" so the annual picnic thing doesn't continually fall in [your] lap.

Identify ways you are giving your power away; keep a diary or make a list. … It's important to identify particular situations or triggers where you give up your power—a particular person or situation such as a large meeting or one-on-one with a boss. Once conscious of how and when you do this, put a plan in place. For example, if you let others take credit for your ideas, perhaps you say to the person taking credit that you're pleased to know that he or she recognizes that the idea you shared earlier was a good one, and thank them for their acknowledgment.

SHRM Online: You have a chapter titled "I'm Irrelevant," in which you write that you've heard from a number of women "whose opinions are routinely dismissed, whose workload is redistributed to younger colleagues, who aren't invited to important meetings, who are basically ignored at work. Naturally, they begin to believe they're irrelevant. That's the way they're being treated." What are one or two tips for women to create more visibility and credibility for themselves?
Marcus: I like creating strategic plans. How can I make a plan to demonstrate my relevance? One woman I interviewed said, "I know it's my role to make me an employee they can value. I'll be the one who supports new learning opportunities. I'll be the one who starts a cross-generational networking program in my company."

I love that. Think about ways you can not only show you're visible but also show that you have credibility: volunteering ideas, staying connected with the wisdom and lessons you've learned so you can leverage those and help others in the organization. What value do you bring to the organization that can help not only your business but also your colleagues and your team reach their objectives? Those are things we should be doing our whole career.

SHRM Online: What are some things employers can do to combat workplace ageism and sexism?
Marcus: Leaders in the organization need to reflect and figure out where their bias is, what their ageist beliefs are. … It could be really very subtle. Some companies have changed wording in their job postings because of subtle bias

Leaders need to look at their policies to see what kind of gendered ageism there may be and include this in their unconscious-bias training. Be aware that it exists, and give women a safe environment to talk about some of these issues. Spotlight a senior woman, such as in a company newsletter. It shows the company respects these women. Set up cross-generational networking and mentoring.

My motivation to write the book is to build awareness around gendered ageism and give women the tools to be able understand it, to deal with it and take charge. Gendered ageism and sexism are real; it affects women's job security, and its existence and consequences are under the radar.

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