Most women are not ready for the silent form of gender discrimination that awaits them.
We know about the highly publicized forms of it. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we are painfully aware of sexual harassment, pay disparity and objectification in the corporate world. Many of us feel comfortable speaking out about the more popular issues.
Although women have a long way to go, I am proud of the progress I have seen in my 40 years in the job market.
Early in my business career, I experienced bias when employers made unfair judgements about my willingness to sacrifice starting a family and “fully commit” to the company. Executives didn’t take me seriously.
As a 20-something, a bank vice-president cornered me in the restroom while at a business dinner. My boss was more concerned I may have cost us a business relationship than a man had tried to attack me. It wasn’t the only encounter like that, either from drunk or sober customers, business owners or coworkers. None of this will shock or surprise my peers.
Eventually the worst of it subsided once I reached 30.
But now that I am heading into the final stretch of my career, the prejudice is more pronounced.
Almost every female in the workforce will experience bias twice — once at the beginning of her career and a much more potent form toward the end. While widely recognized, labor officials have not addressed the rampant problem of age bias among female workers.
AARP reports that six out of 10 older workers — both male and female — have witnessed or experienced age discrimination and 90 percent feel it is common. The figure from women respondents is even higher.
While labor officials acknowledge the problem of ageism, statistics show the EEOC doesn’t find merit in a majority of complaints filed with the agency.
The older I get, the more I am passed over for promotions in favor of younger and less knowledgeable coworkers. I have been refused raises and treated with disrespect simply because of my age. More recently, a hiring manager would not grant me an interview even though I scored higher than any other applicant on their job assessment — because they do not hire anyone over 35.
The amount of abuse by bosses has increased on par with the number of candles on my birthday cake.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 40 percent of those over 55 are working and another 2.5 million are looking. It isn’t just to “keep busy”, but a means of accessing health insurance or daily survival for many. Older workers find themselves unceremoniously pushed out of the market.
According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, 60 percent who experience involuntary job loss end up giving up paying work altogether and retiring. A significant percentage of older workers who remain employed report that pay, hours, work locations or treatment they received deteriorated.
Economists claim older workers are not participating in the job market on a voluntary basis, but research shows that significant obstacles exist to landing a job. Others argue that seniors aren’t as adept at negotiating the interview process, or they have not kept their skills relevant. Studies do not bear this out.
The key to getting a job starts with an interview and that is where discrimination begins.
Because many employers are wary of potential lawsuits, they may avoid the issue altogether by focusing on younger candidates. Hiring managers have become more efficient in their discrimination by not considering older candidates based on clues from resumes such as longer job history, social media participation or graduation dates. Surprisingly, it is not illegal to ask your age during an interview.
A Journal of Human Resources study found a shocking trend that demonstrates age discrimination is particularly harsh for females. Research showed that younger women were over 40 percent more likely to be offered an interview than equally-skilled, older counterparts.
Instead of addressing the bias, many in the industry simply accept it as unfortunate. They talk about how older women should color their hair and dress younger. These types of suggestions are rarely made to men who are usually steered toward honing new relevant skills.
I have rarely experienced an older woman in a business office who wasn’t the most capable and responsible member of the staff.
And let’s just be blunt. The unstated message is that older women should make themselves more attractive because it isn’t about skills or reliability, but their perceived worth from a sexual perspective.
If that wasn’t bleak enough, there are more older women competing for the few jobs with employers who may be willing to consider them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that in five years, there will be twice as many women over 55 in the labor force as those ages 16 to 24.
Proving Age was the “But-For” Cause
Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to protect workers over 40. The law recognizes “older workers find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment, and especially to regain employment when displaced from jobs.”
According to the EEOC, when the law was first passed, age-bias complaints numbered between 1,000 and 5,000 annually. In 2017, the agency received more than 18,000 complaints. Labor officials ruled there was no reasonable cause in over 70 percent of the cases.
The EEOC does little to enforce the ADEA, a point that has not escaped the notice of many employers. In 2016, 23 percent of all charges alleged age discrimination but constituted only two percent of its merit resolutions.
The number of complaints may be artificially low. Those older workers struggling to find a position may feel alleging hiring bias is risky to future job prospects. Discrimination suits are expensive, so most victims are reluctant to pursue the matter civilly.
A 2009 US Supreme Court ruling, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., made proving age discrimination more difficult. Complainants bear the full burden of proof and must show that age discrimination was the primary motivation for demotion or dismissal.
Courts may find that employers didn’t discriminate but made decisions based on “reasonable factors other than age.” This means that a reduction in force of the highest paid employees, even if all are over 40, may be a justifiable business decision for financial reasons and not age bias.
Protecting Older Workers
After a few false starts, Congress seems ready to consider a partial measure to rescue discrimination victims from behind the legal eight ball.
A bipartisan bill may begin to address the burden of proof imposed by the Gross ruling.
Originally introduced in 2009, Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act is a legislative fix to the US Supreme Court ruling. In 2015, the Senate made another attempt, but the bill languished.
This year, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, with co-sponsors Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) re-introduced the bill for the third time. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor introduced a companion bill (H.R. 1230) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
AARP supports passage of the bipartisan measure. “We commend these lawmakers for sponsoring this crucial legislation,” said Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer. “Too many older workers have been victims of unfair age discrimination and are denied a fair shake in our justice system. The time for Congress to act is now.”
While the proposed legislation is an initial step, it will do little to close the gender gap for older women. We will continue to be forced into no-win situations.
If we are to make strides for equality, we would do well to address this form of silent discrimination. Advocates for women’s rights should gather together and march with this banner, because ageism is waiting for every female in the labor force.