In an era of record labour shortages, with the rate of unfilled vacancies having risen 63 percent since 2020, many employers may be ignoring a rich pool of talent due to a form of double-barreled bias: gendered ageism, a type of sexism that affects women in their 40s and beyond.
“Women experience more ageism [in the workplace], and they experience it at earlier ages than men,” says ageism researcher Ellie Berger, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., and author of Ageism at Work: Deconstructing Age and Gender in the Discriminating Labour Market.
Dr. Berger spoke to older job-hunters as part of a study – women who earned degrees later in life and thus had graduated recently. They reported being dropped from consideration as soon as employers learned their age, she says.
“[The women] said they were getting first interviews but, ‘When the employer sees me, I would never get called back,’” Dr. Berger says. Research shows that older women are also subject to “lookism,” meaning that they’re judged far more harshly than men if their physical appearance isn’t deemed youthful; what’s more, women are deemed to be ‘older’ at younger ages than men.
Dr. Berger conducted a second study where she interviewed employers and human resources professionals. Many confirmed they would be reluctant to hire someone older than 45 and routinely discarded resumes based on (too many) years of experience or graduation year.
Dean Lucrezi handles hiring for some of the clients at his London, Ont., business consulting firm, Core Business Intelligence. He says that older job seekers, including women over 45, “have been beat up” on the job-search front, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many employers, Mr. Lucrezi says, “the general thought is that [such individuals] are more expensive, they’re not up on technology, they’re not going to fit in with a younger group – and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
‘Overqualified’ and underestimated
When Paula Schuck began applying for jobs after more than a decade of running her own successful digital media consulting and social media marketing business, she thought she’d have no problem finding a plum position.
“Multiple times, I got to the stage of being interviewed and looked at seriously, and then… nothing,” she says. The reason? While she can’t prove it, Ms. Schuck believes the answer is her age – then over 45 – combined with her gender.
“It’s very subtle – no one’s going to come out and say it, but they will use buzzwords like ‘overqualified,’” she says. (Dr. Berger notes in her book that employers will often use an “ageist discourse” with older job candidates, telling them they would not “fit in” with the “fast-paced” organizational culture.)
Ms. Schuck’s story is echoed by Lisa Hartford, a Toronto-based accredited communications professional who has been trying to leave the gig economy for a permanent position since early in the pandemic.
“My cohort is all of the same opinion. We had no idea it would be this difficult to find work after a certain age because we were growing up in a very empowered age for women in the workplace, and that hasn’t really proven to play out in our favour,” says Ms. Hartford.
According to Dr. Berger’s work, another disadvantage some women face is a caregiving-related career gap. Ms. Schuck says she has friends who left the job market to care for kids with special needs. Now that their children are older, they have begun looking for work but are finding difficulty overcoming the long gap with no work experience.
“It’s really disillusioning – it’s another hurdle for women over 45 who were trying to do the best by kids with unique needs,” says Ms. Schuck.
Benefits for employers
Dean Lucrezi says some employers and recruiters are catching on to what women 45 and over have to offer. He notes that he has tailored a number of job postings to target women looking for positions that fit around school drop-offs and pick-ups or those 50+ who don’t necessarily want to work 40 hours a week.
“Employers have to look at the opportunity that exists there,” Mr. Lucrezi says. It’s not just a wealth of expertise – women 45 and up typically come equipped with a different set of people skills than younger peers who’ve grown up glued to their phones, he notes.
“Coaches are being parachuted in [to companies] now to talk about emotional intelligence, but that’s part of a natural skill set that seasoned and experienced people developed in the old business world,” Mr. Lucrezi says.
As well, for many younger individuals, “a nine month to year and a half [turnover] is becoming the norm,” he says. Women job-seekers over 45, on the other hand, are often looking for something more long-term.
“There’s huge value there. It is a big time-saver and money-saver [for employers],” he says.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, older candidates aren’t necessarily looking for outsized salaries, he adds, and many don’t want to or can’t afford to consider retiring in the near future. After all, the average 45-year-old Canadian woman expect to live nearly another 40 years.
“People are working longer, and differently,” notes Ms. Schuck.
A year into her own job search, Ms. Schuck finally encountered an employer who recognized the skills and experience she had to offer: 31st Line Strategic Communications, in Embro, Ont. (She has since moved to Milestone Integrated Marketing in Cambridge, Ont., to become their social media lead.)
“I got in on my own merit, but thankfully, my employer – who was a female over 50 – could see past age,” she says. “We can all do better in that regard.”
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