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Woman carrying briefcase thinkstock (Jupiterimages/ThinkStock)
Woman carrying briefcase thinkstock (Jupiterimages/ThinkStock)

WOMEN@WORK

Too young, too old, but never the right age Add to ...

One thing I notice about many of my contemporaries is that we don’t lie about our age. As a child, I recall wondering at what stage women stop counting the years. Perhaps that habit still persists in some circles but, for the most part, I take pride in my age and what I’ve accomplished, as do many of my friends and business acquaintances.

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Yet I worry that at some point I’ll feel the pressure of getting to a certain place by a certain point. And I wonder what role my age will play if I want to move back to a corporate role in my 40s or 50s. (A telling sign is that many LinkedIn profiles of women include no date for their university degree which, if included, would tip people off to their age.)

Until now, I took some solace from the idea that age-related bias – a big problem that needs to be addressed – is the great equalizer, and there remains some comfort in numbers. In Canada, the employment rate for women over the age of 55 nearly doubled between 1997 and 2010.

Long before a woman reaches age 55, age-related bias mixes with gender in complicated ways. Social expectations persist, suggesting that women adhere to norms – getting married, having children and attaining specific career goals by a certain age.

It’s a process social scientists refer to as “adulting,” said Jo Brewis, professor of organization and consumption at the University of Leicester School of Management in England.

Prof. Brewis, along with Kat Riach, a senior lecturer in management at Essex Business School at the University of Essex, conducted research about employees at a hedge fund in London. They found that women at the firm were never the “right age” and faced obstacles from the moment they began their careers through to after having children.

Working for a hedge fund, with its high salaries and the potential for rapid career progression, is a very “adult job,” Prof. Brewis said. When women joined the firm, the research suggested, they were perceived as “too young” for promotion, while men at the firm reported no such bias.

After having children, the women reported entering a “post-career” stage even if they had been considered “less-than-adult” before having children. The same did not apply to men. This resulted in women being considered “both too young and too old pretty much at the same time,” Prof. Brewis said.

“Women appeared to be on an inevitable trajectory to failure in some way – they could not be professionally and socially fertile at the same time, but were almost expected to be.”

How applicable is this research to other industries? The authors say it’s difficult to extrapolate, but say women face difficulties in the workplace – as a result of a complex relationship between gender and age – that men do not.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to many women. Jane Davidson, 62, runs Best Write Communications, an editing and public relations firm in Peterborough, Ont. She recalls her first job interview, at which the hiring manager suggested she was trying to prove a point by applying for a reporter’s job at the rather young age of 23.

She learned afterward that her youth was an issue in the hiring, but a female executive stepped in to quash the concerns and gave her the job. Ms. Davidson went on to build a long and successful career in journalism and PR work.

“I knew when I left that wonderful job, for personal reasons ,that I had said goodbye to my last kick at the can of full-time employment, because of my age,” said Ms. Davidson. She now counts herself among the ranks of “junior seniors” – those who are technically senior citizens, but still very ambitious and career-focused.

Other women experience interviews that are not as subtle as Ms. Davidson’s was. Mihaela Brooks, a criminal profiler, decided to pursue a master’s degree in her late 40s. She recalled one interviewer questioning her decision to return to school, suggesting that a woman nearing 50 should be spending time with her grandchildren instead of hitting the books. Ms. Brooks is now pursuing a doctorate in international relations.

The solution to this interplay of age and gender discrimination remains difficult to find. Add issues of race, sexuality and disabilities into the mix and it becomes even more difficult to parse. The best solution would be to acknowledge biases exist, and tackle them head on. Otherwise, women are hiding a lot more than their ages on LinkedIn.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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