Women Speaking Out About Ageism
[Editor’s note: The women interviewed for this article all preferred to remain anonymous. The author uses only first name pseudonyms for them, by request.]
“Ageism and sexism come together in an ugly place,” says Lee, a 62-year-old Nashua real estate agent. There is a fine line between ageism and sexism in the workplace and even though the #MeToo movement has helped to define that line, not much has improved for the treatment of older workers. Lee talks about age discrimination as if it was a usual part of her day.
For more than 25 years, Lee worked in banking, what she calls a “traditionally male-dominated business.” After years of working her way up, Lee noticed changes in how she was treated by her superiors. “Banking is one of the last Brahman strongholds,” she said. “They were always looking for young people coming out of school; the MBAs that are willing to work for less money, and by MBAs they meant younger men.” Lee’s skills and experience far surpassed those of her younger, male coworkers, who were quickly promoted while Lee struggled to be recognized.
“When they felt it was time for me to go, I was walked into a meeting with an HR rep. [My boss] had invented problems with my performance, but HR caught on.” Lee successfully challenged every concern and continued working in what became a hostile environment. She took on difficult assignments — extra hours, extensive travel, or working with little or no assistance. “It was three days after I’d completed an extensive training assignment, and my mother had recently passed away. It involved a lot of travel and it was a very difficult time for me, but I did it. They let me go anyway.” After her dismissal, Lee had to hire an attorney to get her promised severance package.
Companies sometimes rely on a “mixed motives” defense when faced with age discrimination work termination cases. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that if a company can prove their decision for termination has non-discriminatory motives, such as cutbacks, older workers with a long company history are likely the first to go since they’re usually earning more. The burden rests on the employee to prove that age was the motivation for dismissal.
Lee believes that sexism continues under another name as women age. “Sexism fades and you become just an old person. It becomes age discrimination.” She eventually changed careers, shifting to real estate, a more independent type of employment.
The Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the department responsible for enforcing federal laws that prevent age discrimination, states that it is illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of the person’s race, color, religions, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Workers are also protected against retaliation for complaints to the agency. The Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) passed in 1967, showing that ageism in the workplace has been a long-standing and pervasive issue.
Ageism has long been considered inappropriate, but tolerated behavior persists in a changing world. Demeaning comments about older people are often disguised as humor.
“Part of the problem,” says Barbara, a 65-year-old massage therapist from Lawrence, “… is that people feel allowed to say things and joke because everyone knows that growing old is inevitable. With luck, we’ll all grow old. It may seem far off, but it’s just around the corner and it’s scary. They feel like they have a right to laugh at their future rather than face it.”
Many blame the media for normalizing the humor behind aging, and advertising offers a barrage of mixed messages, saying the signs of aging are beautiful, but here’s a face cream to make you look younger.
Outside the workplace, ageism can take subtle forms. Janet, a 63-year-old freelance marketing manager from North Andover, explained her recent experience as both hurtful and perplexing.
“I was on the phone with a younger male rep from my telecom company. I gave my name and account number and the conversation was cordial and professional. When he asked for my date of birth as identification, he immediately started speaking more slowly and increased his volume.” Janet said that the shift is his demeanor was likely the result of age bias. “He asked if I knew how to use a computer. Suddenly, it was as if he was talking to a child.”
Age discrimination isn’t just about mature workers. Younger workers entering the workforce experience discrimination. Coworkers may look down on new hires because many people equate inexperience with a lack of intelligence. Seasoned workers see young people as training burdens or even a danger to their own status.
When asked if she felt things would ever change, Lee added, “The funny thing is that as you get older you’re less and less willing to tolerate it.” If enough people feel the same way, things will change.