What to Do About the Double Whammy of Being an Older Woman at Work
Photo credit: Canadian Film Centre / Foter / CC BY
We wrote this guide because some of our members have remarked that ageism is worse than sexism at their companies. Regardless of whether that's true at your employer, the double-whammy of being both older and a woman can make the workplace especially lonely. Middle-aged women face unique issues in the workplace.
Compared to men, we can experience discrimination and be seen as "older" at a younger age. Studies show that some employees feel that they have failed if they don't reach the senior management ranks by the time they are in their mid-40's. This is particularly difficult for women, who may have taken on less ambitious roles at work in their 30's and 40's to focus more on care-taking responsibilities at home.
While its always difficult to generalize, women approaching 50 or beyond may want to deploy some specific tactics when it comes to applying to a new job, negotiating for a different position or promotion, or simply changing the way you are perceived in the workplace. Here is some of the best advice we've gathered from recruiters, experts, and our conversations with working women:
1. Confront stereotypes head-on by refusing to be "underemployed."
One article we love (because its titled “Why We Need Older Women in the Workplace's describes 40+ women as one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce but also a segment of the workforce that is largely "underemployed". That is to say, they are either stuck in jobs where they are not being promoted, or in roles where their abilities aren't recognized.
Just because you are middle-aged doesn't mean you don't have any appetite for risk, are tired, have burdensome caretaker responsibilities, are not engaged with the world, or have any less ambition than you did at 35. The problem is that many people will make these types of hurtful assumptions. Even people who believe those things will not typically say them to your face.
Which is why surprise may sometimes be your best weapon. Bridging the gap between expectations and results is something that typically gets you noticed (in a good way). This may require you to go above and beyond the call of duty. Is there something that needs to be done at work but nobody wants to volunteer for? Consider taking that assignment.
To demonstrate you're a good candidate for more responsibility, you can also volunteer for extracurricular activities (i.e. things that don't relate to your basic, day-to-day responsibilities). You can lead an event to improve morale at the office. You can volunteer to analyze a process you think could improve at work. Or even better, just fix it and then tell everyone about it. Sometimes the only way to get more responsibility is to simply take it on. Having to exert this effort and work more (for no extra pay) may seem unfair. But if you really want to change your situation, prepare yourself and be proactive. Consider it an investment. If you're worried about layoffs or you're struggling to improve your performance reviews, this might even save your job.
2. Make sure your resume (both offline and online) are up-to-date, and disclose dates selectively.
Create a LinkedIn profile if you don't already have one and avoid dates such as your graduation year from college or high school unless you have a good reason to include them. Remove your birthday from various places on the internet (e.g. on Facebook), or change your privacy settings so it does not appear. While your age is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s also not necessarily anyone's business. College graduation dates are very revealing since almost everyone graduates around the age of 22. Along these same lines, there's nothing wrong with putting less than 100% of your work history on your resume. In fact, some recruiters suggest that older candidates only put the last 10 (or maximum 15 years) of work experience on their resumes because anything beyond that time will probably be considered irrelevant.
3. If you're not comfortable with technology, get more comfortable in baby steps.
Even if technology is on the periphery of your current (or future) job, technology is disrupting many jobs and industries. Not being aware of that can be professionally negligent.
4. We're not saying you have to drastically change your everyday behavior.
Simply reading the headlines of major newspapers about technology trends and taking the time to check out a few new websites or products that pique your interest are easy things to do. And depending on what you do for a living, it may be sufficient. Not only will you feel more connected to the world online, you'll simply be more comfortable and conversant in it.
Other things you can do are to share a new workflow tool you've discovered online with your team. You can keep on top of the news and events related to your industry and send relevant information to your manager. All of these things add up to present a picture of someone who is thoughtfully engaged with the latest developments in the world and not sitting on laurels of their "experience".
5. If you're interviewing or negotiating a promotion, place emphasis on what you've done recently.
Even if you think some of the accomplishments earlier in your career were more meaningful, others will likely view it as irrelevant history. People are predominantly interested in the things you've worked on most recently. If this is hard for you because you work in a role that doesn't require the full engagement of your talents, consider volunteering for additional work or projects.
6. Consider things from others' perspectives.
If you're job searching, or someone who has been at the same company for a long time, it might be hard for a younger interviewer or department manager who's changed jobs every few years to understand where you're coming from. You need to accept that there may be certain negative perceptions about you that are legal (e.g. perceptions about your work ethic and energy levels). Actively counteract those ideas by doing things on a daily basis to show that you're filled with enthusiasm and excitement about new challenges and responsibilities - rather than lean on your "experience" to speak for itself.
7. Know your rights.
While age discrimination is of course, illegal, in practice its difficult to prove. A federal law called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects people who are 40 years and older from age-based employment discrimination. This law prohibits discriminating against a person because of her age with respect to any term, or condition of employment, including promotions, compensation, benefits, assignments, training and of course, hiring itself. For more information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, click here. In an interview context, asking for your age is probably rude and almost always irrelevant, which is why its a negative factor if you do end up in a lawsuit situation. However, realize that an employer (or prospective employer) does actually have the right to ask.
8. Get comfortable with younger managers and interviewers.
The reality is that the older you get, the more likely it is that the managers and interviewers that you encounter will be younger than you. If you are uncomfortable with this, they will almost certainly sense it. Remember that seniority has to do with many things other than tenure and years in the workforce so don't reverse age-discriminate! If you respect your interviewer or manager based on their qualities and performance, you will be starting off on much better footing.
9. Don't act unnaturally to fit in.
If you can't understand why someone would want to send disappearing chats or Selfies every day, that's perfectly fine. You don't have to use Snapchat or the latest online dating app. However, you also don't have to openly judge or marvel at that behavior. Be yourself, but remember that you don't need to share your personal opinions (or life) at work at all in order to do a good job and be a valued member of the team.
10. Take advantage of your tenure and seniority.
If you're an older woman in the workforce who's been at the same company for a while, you probably understand your office or work environment better than many of your younger colleagues. Take advantage of this fact! Nurture your existing history and relationships. But also don't forget to be confident and inclusive of other, newer (including younger) colleagues. Doing so will endear you to them, and help them see you as very relevant in the work environment. They may start to realize that you may be the key to the way they are perceived and promoted.
11. Project confidence and humor.
You have accumulated wisdom and experience over the years, and these things are greatly beneficial in any workplace. If you are confident in yourself, others will have a much easier time placing confidence in you. Believing that your perspective is valuable is something that shows. Sometimes humor "at your own expense" is the most effective and easy way to project your comfort with your whole self.
12. Find a like-minded (or similarly-aged) community.
You aren't alone. The internet has made it easier than ever to find online communities if you don't have any personal networks to rely on. Some career-oriented communities focused on older workers include: Worforce50 and Quintessential Careers, which has a long list of job and career resources for baby boomers here.
Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.
Join us by reviewing your employer!