Of a Certain Age: Gender Equality for Women As They Age In (and Out of) the Workplace

The latest from Gender Fair's newsletter

"It was she, more than anyone I’d ever met, who gave me the gift of a vision of a future in which I might be sustained by work, comfortable (if often extremely frustrated) competing with men, in an office full of impatient, profane, curious, demanding, creative people whose company I loved ... If we want the next generation of women to be strong, assertive, and demanding in this environment, we have to give them models that show them how."

Lisa Miller

This newsletter has covered the importance of phase back programs for working mothers returning after maternity leave and how much more effective mentorship programs are when they have women in leadership to champion them. Critical to both of these initiatives is a group of women whose challenges are not being adequately addressed: women over 40.

Getting old has never felt so young

When you hear ageism, you might be thinking it’s happening to employees closer to traditional retirement age. Not quite. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) is meant protect people 40 years and older, but a 2009 Supreme Court decision (Gross vs. FBL Financial Services) has made the burden of proof that much harder for plaintiffs, and the window to file a claim can be narrower in some states. According to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.4 million workers aged 45 and older are either underemployed or can’t find work.

Meanwhile, the peak earning age is 49 for men, and 40 for women. On average wages stop increasing – and begin to decrease – at about age 45.

Women leading on the “wrong side” of 40

For women over 50, getting a job has gotten statistically harder since 2008. In a 2015 study, economists at UC Irvine and Tulane submitted 40,000 fictional job applications in response to online ads in three age brackets and monitored employers’ responses to find “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women” across all industries, and particularly for sales positions. Citing legal standards and sociological research, the authors posited that the disproportion for older women may be due the failure of discrimination laws to protect women and the disparate emphasis on physical appearance women experience.

There is a kind of cruelty for women facing ageist cultural attitudes just as they are freer of the family and social obligations that may have stalled their careers earlier. Men and women enter the workforce with equal ambition (and nearest to pay equality), but Visier’s 2016 Gender Equity report found that starting at age 32, women are underrepresented in manager positions just as the wage gap broadens.

Leaving the workforce to care for a family member can cost a woman as much as $324,000 in lifetime wages and benefits, and yet women are living longer, creating a need to work longer.

Getting back in the game

While multigenerational workforces are more productive with fewer turnovers than those without age diversity, it’s still not time to stop leaving graduation dates off of your résumés. Only 8% of CEOs in a PwC survey (2015) cited age as a specific dimension of diversity and inclusion they are addressing or plan to address in their talent strategy.

Some companies, however, have become more enlightened about the value experience brings with an older labor force. Whether out of a necessity for industries that need talent or by a richer commitment to diversity and inclusion, returnships (paid internships) and job placement programs in financial, STEM, legal and management-consulting sectors are helping build new careers for returning professionals who have been out of work for anywhere from two years to two decades. These reentry programs offer training in the latest tools and technology as well as career coaching and mentoring. Two top-scoring companies on the Gender Fair Index, General Motors and JPMorgan Chase & Co., have been standouts in their efforts.

GM was one of seven global engineering and tech companies that piloted a reentry initiative with iRelaunch and the Society of Women Engineers in 2016, in an industry where women make up only 12% of the workforce. Since the pilot, GM launched Take 2 as a 12-week paid program with an 86% offer rate upon completion and a 99% job acceptance rate.

We knew from the beginning that relaunchers were definitely an untapped source that we typically would not be looking at, and we’ve found that there is a high caliber of women in this group demonstrating excellence in talent, skillset, maturity and drive.

- Jessica Galich, Gender Diversity & Take 2 recruiting lead at GM

Launched in 2013 in New York and now offered globally, JPMorgan’s ReEntry Program is a 14-week training experience for VPs and above who left the workforce and are seeking the support and resources needed to resume their careers. Read the success stories from women like Andrea ChermayeffKeita Young, and Neetu Jhamb.

Let your dollars work for working women - at any age - by supporting companies who share your demand for equality.