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Ageism is a problem for women of all ages.

Age bias research shows no age is right to be a women leader

No age is the right age to be a woman leader. With an increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce, age bias now occurs across the career life cycle — especially for women, a research report shows.  “There was always an age-based excuse to not take women seriously, to discount their opinions, or to not hire or promote them. Each individual woman may believe she’s just at the wrong age, but the data make the larger pattern clear. Any age can be stigmatized by supervisors and colleagues to claim that the woman is not valued or is not a fit for a leadership role, the researchers write in the Harvard Business Review.

“The research is clear: Any age can be viewed as “the wrong age” for a woman, allowing her capacity to be questioned and her fitness for leadership challenged. But we can stop stigmatizing women’s age — benefitting not just women, but the whole organization.”

“Age diversity in the workplace yields better organizational performance while perceived age discrimination creates lower job satisfaction and engagement. Similarly, gender diversity also matters. Organizations with diverse leadership teams perform better, especially in times of crisis; earn more; and have lower turnover.” 

“The business case is clear — if organizational leaders pay attention. The good news is that there are practical steps for leaders to combat this never-right gendered age bias.”

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To fight gender ageism the researchers propose:

  1. Recognize age bias.

Whereas sexism and racism are the focus of most workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, ageism has been largely neglected. All employees should be trained on gendered age bias, just as they are on other forms of discrimination.

Use interactive case studies that include “gray areas” in age-related assumptions and address false stereotypes that older age reduces an individual’s commitment, agility, and ability to learn. Company social media can also be leveraged to get the word out about ageism using messaging that taps into both emotions and facts. When the problem ceases to be ignored, necessary improvements can be made.

     2. Address “lookism”

Much of gendered ageism is hinged on looks or appearance as a function of societal value. The incessant pressure to look young and attractive is something that typically impacts women more than men. Include lookism in DEI training and ensure that it’s not used as a hidden metric for hiring, promotion, or performance evaluation.

     3. Focus on skills, no matter who has them

Younger women are often limited — whether intentionally or not — by the assumption of lack of experience. Middle-aged women may be thought of as difficult to manage or having too many family responsibilities. Women who are older are often constrained by perceptions that they are no longer invested in the organization, are less productive, or cannot be promoted.

These falsehoods perpetuate the problem. Rather than focusing on age when hiring, making promotion decisions, or bringing on new team members for a growth opportunity, leaders should focus on each woman’s skills, not their tenure or external demands.

     4. Cultivate creative collaborations

Develop intergenerational, mixed-gender teams and professional relationships to encourage learning from each other and collaborating on solutions. Middle-aged and older employees have years of experience, while younger employees have perspectives from growing up in a more recent time.

A recent study of Generation Z’s expectations at work showed that one of their highest desires was for mentoring relationships; they long for connection with older workers who take an interest in them. Too often women lack connections that would help them develop professionally due to exclusion from informal networks and events. Intentionally pairing younger women with older mentors and sponsors will aid their learning and career success and enhance your company’s performance.

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The researchers are

Amy Diehl, PhD, chief information officer at Wilson College and a gender equity researcher and speaker.

Leanne M. Dzubinski, PhD, acting dean of the Cook School of Intercultural Studies and associate professor of intercultural education at Biola University, and a prominent researcher on women in leadership.

Amber L. Stephenson, PhD, associate professor of management in the David D. Reh School of Business at Clarkson University. Her research focuses on how professional identity influences attitudes and behaviours and how women leaders experience gender bias.

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