Older, Wiser, Wanted: Valuing Age Diversity of Women Leaders in Workplace

Accepting age diversity as a workplace culture plus will benefit women leaders.

Accepting age diversity as a workplace culture plus will benefit women leaders.

It seems as if as a culture we are sending and receiving double messages in the workplace for women who have risen to the top in seniority. One is that recruiters are not looking for women over 40 to hire, while the other is that women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are the prime candidates for leading companies.

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, wrote recently in the New York Times, “Age prejudice — assuming that someone is too old or too young to handle a task or take on a responsibility — cramps prospects for everyone, old or young.”

Applewhite writes, “A 2016 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found robust evidence that age discrimination in the workplace starts earlier for women and never relents. The pay gap kicks in at age 32, when women start getting passed over for promotion.

Hiring managers can at times avoid consideration of candidates older than 40, believing they are not tech savvy, well-versed in social media, or flexible in their thinking. But thinking about diversity in the workforce in terms of age as well as other considerations will enrich a culture.

Diversity in the workforce in terms of age as well as other considerations will enrich a culture.

“What is achieving age diversity going to take? The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudice: internalized bias like,’I’m too old for that job,’ and that directed at others, like ‘It’s going to take me forever to bring that old guy up to speed.’”

On the positive side, we celebrate the achievements and vibrant contributions of women through lists such as Fortune’s Most Powerful Women.  Beyonce is the youngest woman on that list at 35 years old, but the closest is Amy Hood, CFO and executive vice president of Microsoft at 44. Forty-six-year-old Marianne Lake is CFO of JP Morgan Chase, while Julie Sweet, 48, holds the spot of Group CEO North America at Accenture. All the other dynamos are in their 50s and 60s.

The increase of women over 40 who are the top is a very good thing and a sign that age and gender diversity in a company culture is expanding.

The increase of women over 40 at the top is a sign that age and gender diversity is expanding.

Twenty-three women now head Fortune 500 companies and hundreds more are in CXO positions, a definite sign of progress,” writes Nuha Masri at Huffington Post.

Not only are women leaders just as capable of deciding between stressful, risky choices, they’re much more likely to be altruistic and empathetic than men. As we’ve seen, many female CXOs make fantastic leadership decisions, even in the face of overwhelming criticism.

“In 2016, only 5 percent of the nation’s top CEO roles belong to women. Hopefully, with the success of trendsetting leaders like Indra Nooyi (Pepsi-Cola; Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook); Mary Barra, (GM); Ursula M. Burns (Xerox);  and Irene Rosenfeld (Kraft/Mondelez), we will see more women lean in to executive roles by 2040, when a third of all CEO seats may be occupied by women,” Masri writes.

With more than 77 million Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), both men and women, they are a huge portion of the workforce.

“They are still some the most motivated and driven members of the workforce, according to a survey by the Futurestep division of Korn Ferry. The survey also revealed that this demographic will be working for far longer following the global recession, and businesses should expect to have them in the workplace for at least five years longer,” according to NACS.

“While many in the Baby Boomer generation are working longer to provide more financial security after seeing their retirement account balances tumble during the Great Recession, their desire to extend their careers is not entirely financially motivated,” said Jeanne MacDonald, Futurestep president of global talent acquisition solutions. “What is often overlooked is the fact the majority of the people in this generation are highly motivated [and] enjoy what they do, and they provide great experience and value within the global workforce.”

Still, many report that ageism is a factor in hiring, promotion and retention.

In Harvard Business Review recently, Lauren Stiller Rikleen wrote that anecdotally and empirically, there appears to be ageism as a stumbling block for women leaders.

“This observation appears to be backed up by recent research. A study that came out last fall by economists at the University of California at Irvine and Tulane University found ‘robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.’ The data show that it is harder for older women to find jobs than it is for older men,” Rikleen writes.

The study involved sending 40,000 applications with different ages and genders. “After monitoring employers’ responses to these dummy applications, the researchers concluded that the evidence shows it is more difficult for older female workers to find jobs,” she writes.

“The authors suggested two possible theories for why older women may suffer from age discrimination more than older men: one is that age discrimination laws do not deal effectively with the situation of older women who face both age and gender bias; the other possibility touches on society’s focus on the physical appearance of women, a scrutiny that does not seem to similarly impact men.”

Companies large and small are looking to invite older women into new jobs and possibly career shifts with the reinvention of internships programs. Though often unpaid, the slots can lead to more lucrative opportunities.

“IBM (IBM), General Motors (GM) and Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), along with four other global companies, recently teamed up with the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch to create reentry internships. iRelaunch provides coaching and other services to people seeking to break back into the workforce,” writes Anna Robaton in MoneyWatch.

“Over the last couple years, A.T. Kearney and UBS (UBS) have rolled out reentry programs for experienced professionals, and hundreds of people have participated in such programs at Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS) and other financial services firms,” Robaton writes.

Older employers, and particularly experience women employees, should be valued and re-energized, according to Jeanne M. Sullivan, cofounder of StarVest Partners and chief inspiration officer of Sullivan Adventures, who recently spoke at Entrepreneur Roundtable 97, according to Paul Palumbo of Alley Watch.

“While millennials are familiar with social media, have tech knowledge, a creative drive and are entrepreneurial, they definitely need to be more open to the voices of the baby boomer generation in order to gain proper experience and ultimately achieve success,” Sullivan said. She added that the phrase should be to “Refire, do not say: retire,” meaning to re-engage baby boomer employees. “The goal is to change the stigma by updating your thinking. You are not too old to find a connection leading to employment,” Sullivan said.

In tech specifically, many women leaders report that ageism and sexism are in play, and two innovators recently announced the development of three games aimed at changing cultures in the workplace and addressing these issues.

In tech specifically, many women leaders report that ageism and sexism are in play.

Suzanne Stein, associate professor and director of the Super Ordinary Lab at OCAD University, and Prateeksha Singh is a graduate research assistant at the lab, write about why designers considered these innovative approaches in The Globe and Mail.

“That stereotyping of society at all levels seems to be at play, with gender segregation and sexism present in each stage of the model. We all know about the glass ceiling in corporate life, but we found that its support pillars extend down through career and entrepreneurial aspirations, all the way to early upbringing and education,” Stein and Singh write.

“It begins with rebuking little girls who assert their viewpoints and escalates to disregarding, silencing or humiliating female colleagues. At the model’s higher stages, sexism and ageism fuel many women’s exits from the corporate leadership for which they had long been paying the dues,” they write.

Their design thinking lab produced solutions and opportunities that include these three strategic games:

  • Ceilings and Ladders, by Mithula Naik, is a playful engagement strategy promoting discussions about challenges facing female entrepreneurs. Players in government, financing institutions and business incubators can learn to rethink opening opportunities for women in the entrepreneurial space.

  • Fem-LED’s Grow-A-Game, by Emma Westecott and Paula Gardner with Suzanne Stein, is an expansion kit to Mary Flanagan’s Grow-a-Game deck. It’s a brainstorming tool that can help organizations develop their own supports and solutions to female exclusion. It lays out common challenges and asks players to match values with actions as a way to generate solutions for the various scenarios.

  • The Feminist Theorist Card Game, by the same three women, expands the Theory.uk.org card set, which depicts famous cultural theorists and artists as game-card characters (similar to Pokemon cards). This set includes prominent feminists and critical theorists, including technologist Lucy Suchman and writer bell hooks. The players, each in the persona of one of these diverse theorists, practice non-confrontational, generative and empathetic solution finding to given problems.

These playful approaches may or may not shift a culture to be more inclusive of older workers, but discussion needs to shift away from the negatives of older workers to the positives, particularly for women.

While ageism in Hollywood has been a topic of discussion for decades, Renee Zellweger recently expressed her disdain for questions about it in a recent Hollywood Reporterinterview about her role in “Bridget Jones’ Baby,” according to Heather Saul of The Independent.

“I’ve never seen the maturation of a woman as a negative thing,” she said. “I’ve never seen a woman stepping into her more powerful self as a negative,” Zellweger reportedly said.

“But this conversation perpetuates the problem. Why are we talking about how women look? Why do we value beauty over contribution? We don’t seem to value beauty over contribution for men. It’s simply not a conversation.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com