Gender and Age Bias in the Workforce
Gender and age bias in the workforce is incredibly common. Women fight it their entire careers and once you reach 50 – male or female – work opportunities diminish and the possibility of dismissal increases. Sad but true!
As recently as 2019, the New York Times reported:
The shadow of age bias in hiring, though, is long. Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old.
In February 2021, Harvard Business Review reported:
It’s no secret that certain industries are dominated by men, especially in top leadership positions. A classic example is the tech industry, where only 10% of executive-level roles were held by women in 2020. Although organizations acknowledge gender diversity issues and express intentions to do better, progress toward gender equity has been incremental at best.
Educated, intelligent, articulate, professional, confident, experienced — unemployed. Not an uncommon description of mature, professional women searching for positions in the current job market.
Bias in hiring for any reason is wrong, but when you are a woman and older, you get a double dose of bias and finding meaningful work that values your experience is almost impossible.
This is my story of dealing with bias in the workplace. Although it happened years ago, it could have been written yesterday.
Personal Experience with Gender Bias – The Beginning
In the late 80’s, I sold my interior design business in California and moved to Japan to work as a trainer for a Japanese company. After two years, it was time to come home. I happily returned to my home state of Arizona ready to find a good job and settle down.
Even though I had a college degree, 10 years as a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, plus the amazing international work experience I had just completed, job hunting was a nightmare. I was either “overqualified” or told again and again, “Sorry, this position requires an advanced degree.”
I decided it was time to solve that problem and earn an MBA.
In January 1992, I began my graduate studies at Thunderbird International School of Business in Glendale, AZ (a suburb of Phoenix). I attended classes during the week and traveled on weekends facilitating training workshops. Halfway through my course of study, my training supervisor (a man) called to let me know my services were no longer needed.
He had unilaterally decided my studies were interfering with my work and abruptly canceled my contract one week before Christmas in 1992. This was particularly startling because I had been with the company for four years (18 months were spent at company headquarters in Japan) and I had stacks of “rave reviews” from the evaluations completed by the participants at the end of every workshop.
His decision was a shock, but not a surprise. When I accepted the position and realized who my “boss” would be, I knew that problems were almost inevitable and it could turn into a difficult situation, but I hoped for the best.
From the moment we began working together, there were signals that if it were possible, he would let me go. He saw his chance and took it.
With nine months remaining until I earned my degree and suddenly no income to pay tuition and to support my family, I was faced with a dreadful decision.
- Should I take out student loans and finish what I had started?
- OR — Should I quit school and look for another job?
I chose to complete what I had started.
I graduated with distinction in August 1993, earning an MBA with an emphasis in International Management.
The Double Whammy – Gender and Age Bias
I found a job almost immediately after graduation as CEO of a small family-owned consulting firm in Phoenix. It seemed ideal, but sadly, it was not. After a year of struggling with family politics and having every decision I made overridden by the “head of the family” (a man, of course). I decided it would be wise to move on.
Once again, I was unemployed but confident that with an MBA and years of experience I would quickly find a job. That was not the case, which put me in dire straits financially. I had a mountain of debt and faced the dilemma of rapidly dwindling funds, which meant losing my apartment.
Fortunately, I had a good friend in Salt Lake City who offered a “rent-free” room while I was looking for my next opportunity. Unfortunately, it meant moving to Utah, away from my family, friends, and social support system. But, since I thought it was temporary, it didn’t seem like a bad choice.
To my dismay, the planned six-week “temporary” living arrangement stretched into several months and my stress-level increased daily. I knew I couldn’t continue to impose on my friend indefinitely.
I worked temporary jobs that kept me afloat financially, but I desperately needed something permanent. I didn’t understand why I was still unemployed. I was an articulate, experienced businesswoman with an MBA who presented well — what was the problem? I didn’t realize that regardless of my experience and credentials, I was a 58-year-old woman. Apparently that was a deadly combination.
The temporary work and job-search continued for nine months. Each day seemed worse than the day before. They were filled with continuous networking events, a horrendous monthly phone bill, resumes sent with few responses, and constantly following leads from friends, local newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.
The Almost Scenarios
During those nine months, I had four promising interviews. In each case, the interview went very well and I thought I had the job — but, none of them worked out.
A Fortune 500 company headquartered in NYC said, “Sorry, we would love to hire you, but we have decided to eliminate that position.”
Another Fortune 1000 company in the Mid-West said, “You would be a great asset to our team, but we are in the process of restructuring and the new plan doesn’t have a position which fits your skill set.”
The other two possibilities, a firm in Portland, Oregon and the other in Ft. Collins, Colorado, both told me I was hired and all that was necessary was to draw up the employment contract. Both said they would call me within the week to finalize the process, but I never heard from either of them again.
I was disappointed and confused with no idea of what to do next.
Smiling Faces with Black Hearts
Finally, I found an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune for a trainer/consultant, which was a perfect match for my experience. Without thinking twice, I quickly typed up an application letter and sent it to the company with my resume.
There was a pool of 160 applicants which was narrowed down to 25, then to the final 4, based on videotapes, resumes, and letters of introduction.
During the interview with three men for whom I would be working, a founding partner, and the managing partner, I told them I was looking for a company that was based on integrity and felt that I had found it – an impression that was soon dispelled. The hiring process had gone well without any apparent bias involved until we started discussing salary.
I was offered the position and accepted (not happily, but I was desperate) a salary of $8,000/year less than what I felt was appropriate based on my salary history. I was told it was non-negotiable at that point because I was an “unknown entity.”
I agreed to the salary because I needed a job and was told that we could discuss a raise after six months if I met their expectations. Having complete confidence in my ability and based on my trust in their integrity at the time, I believed I would easily earn the raise they had promised. Unfortunately, I had no idea what a powerful force gender and age bias was within the company structure.
The six months passed. My performance appraisal was high. I had done everything they expected me to do. I had billed more than three times my salary and was now working independently on a regular basis, but there was no raise. Not only did I not get the raise, but I was also told it was non-negotiable, again.
I was assured the company policy was to be fair in these matters. In this case, the definition of fair certainly depended on your perspective. I was the lowest paid consultant in the firm, three of whom were young women, hired fresh out of MBA Programs with no business experience hired at the salary I had originally requested.
Two men were hired shortly after I was hired at a 33% higher salary — same titles, same responsibilities. The explanation was that I had a steeper hill to climb because other members of the firm had known the men for years.
My years of training experience and my business background plus my MBA seemed to have minimal value. Furthermore, I was told that I would have to prove myself as a valuable contributor over the next six months and we would discuss a raise at that time — a message with a familiar ring. Naturally, I was somewhat skeptical.
Had I not already proven myself as a valuable contributor in the first six months? Now I was required to do it again before a raise could be discussed? I left the meeting feeling undervalued, discounted as a contributor, and deceived.
What happened? I’m sure you can write the ending without my help — I did not get the raise.
This is only one piece of a much larger horrifying story of bias in that particular workplace.
I should have known that equality for an older woman in a company of partners and consultants — all white, predominantly male, college buddies, and returned missionaries would be a lot to expect — regardless of my credentials. But, I was trusting and naive.
At the time, 25 years ago, I assumed that both the gender and age bias I faced in that situation were unique to Utah.
Sadly, the next two decades during which I worked for several years in New York City; then, later in Sedona, and Phoenix have proven that to be an erroneous assumption.
Gender and Age Bias Are Still at Work
I can testify that it is has never been easy for professional business women over 50. It wasn’t easy in the 1990’s — and it still isn’t easy today. It is a sad truth that is frustrating, discouraging, and disturbing.
There have been some changes over the past 25 years. And, as women, we tell ourselves that things are changing for the better — and I believe they are, but slowly.
There is a lot of dialogue about equality and a level playing field in business. There are even laws, such as, “Protected Classes under Anti-Discrimination Laws: These groups include men and women on the basis of sex; any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin; people over 40; and people with physical or mental handicaps.
But, in spite of the laws, there are deeply-ingrained biases that are still very much alive and widely accepted in the business world. What makes it worse is that people are completely unaware of their biases and would swear they have none.
Two attitudes that are still prevalent (but never openly acknowledged) in hiring practices throughout the U.S. are:
- It is reasonable and fair to pay men more than women.
- Age and experience are not valuable commodities in business because young, fresh minds are better and have more to offer.
Will the day ever come when everyone regardless of age or gender will be treated equally in business?
When we will just be human beings hired to do a job without all the biases, when. . .
- Gender and age are no longer factors in the process
- Everyone receives equal pay and equal opportunities
- Women won’t be forced to be better more qualified and work harder in order to receive the same pay and opportunities
- Age and experience will be valued rather than discounted or ignored completely
- People will be able to live highly productive lives well into their senior years rather than being put out to pasture as mindless, useless beings
None of this will happen my lifetime, maybe not even in my daughter’s lifetime; but hopefully before my granddaughters enter the workforce.
Occasionally there are glimmers of such a world, but often in despair, I wonder if any of those things are possible. I hope so!