Ageism and the Gender Pay Gap: Why Getting Older Can Be Problematic for Women
Career anxiety is a common problem amongst young and old people alike, but is the level of anxiety the same for women and men?
For a while, it seemed as though things stabilized to a certain degree, but then the pay gap struck again.
It can be traced back directly to the economic instability brought on by the financial crash of 2009 and the subsequent slow recovery of job markets.
For those suffering from career anxiety, the best piece of advice is often to just slow down a bit – you don’t have to jump on every opportunity like it’s the last one you’ll get!
Relax a bit, after all, your career isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon.
The problem with this advice is that, for half of the population, slowing down isn’t as simple of a choice as it might seem.
Most women instinctually know what this is referring to – the career setbacks of pregnancy and motherhood, juggling domestic responsibilities while maintaining your professional reputation as well as some good old fashioned sexism.
Added on to all of this is the passage of time – women are constantly reminded of their “biological clocks ticking” and how “age isn’t doing them any favors”.
BAD NEWS FOR MOTHERHOOD
Women who plan on having a fruitful professional career and starting a family alongside it can’t expect the same pay trajectory as men in the same situation, unfortunately.
A phenomenon called “the motherhood penalty” sees how women’s earnings follow men’s up until the point when they have children and sees them drop afterward, continuing to grow at that lower level and never catching up.
To add insult to injury, the other side of this coin is called “the fatherhood bonus” which results in men with children getting hired more often than childless men and their earnings have increased after their first child.
Men and women are perfectly capable of sharing fostering duties, and many do just that.
The problem is that the wider societal expectation of childcare is placed largely on the backs of women.
This prejudice affects an employer’s decisions in regards to the dependability of women with young children.
Presidential candidate and the United States Senator Elisabeth Warren recently shared her story of losing her public teaching job after becoming visibly pregnant at the age of 22 in 1971.
This prompted many women across the social media space to share their own stories of their more recent experiences similar to Warren’s.
Some of these women were pregnant and fired, some were passed over in job interviews that had previously gone well after disclosing they were pregnant.
Other women that shared their own stories about discrimination weren’t even pregnant – just recently married or “looked like they were planning on starting a family soon”.
The issue of when or whether a woman is planning to start a family is deeply personal and should not be any of her employer’s business.
Many countries around the world guarantee pregnancy leave and although the US doesn’t have the best record on that front, it still guarantees that a woman’s job cannot be given away during the 12 weeks of maternal leave mandated under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
However, this small amount of legal protection doesn’t do enough to cancel out the negative effects on women’s careers.
Women who plan on having ambitious professional lives have to look years ahead to be able to take time off to bear children and not have it negatively impact their earnings and prospects.
They sometimes cannot take on jobs that are more rewarding but don’t provide paid maternity leave or secure work because of this, sometimes limiting themselves from pursuing adventurous and challenging work they might have liked to experience.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE PAY GAP
The prejudice that affects mothers in the workplace seems to expand to all women nearing childbearing age.
Those who deny the existence of the wage gap like to frame the differences in earnings between women and men as a result of personal choices women make.
They say mothers choose lower-paying jobs because they value flexible working hours more than fathers.
What they never seem to address is how choices women make are shaped by the societal pressures and expectations placed on women of a certain age.
So, let’s start with what the pay gap is, on an aggregate level. The pay gap refers to the empirical reality of women earning between 80 and 90 cents to every dollar a man earns in developed countries across the globe.
This compares wages of all people, regardless of age, education level, race or profession. When controlling for all of those the wage gap reduces but remains at about 5 to 7 percent.
Another important fact about the job market of today for all genders is that job stability is no longer what it was 50 years ago.
The average person changes jobs 12 times during their career with the average tenure at one job lasting around 4 years.
One of the most obvious direct consequences of this is that people have to engage in job search and pay negotiations as they get progressively older – this is where ageism comes into play.
NUMBERS SHOW THAT AGE ISN’T JUST A NUMBER
Ageism in the workplace consists of negative attitudes of employers towards older workers and the discrimination driven by those attitudes.
Older workers are not necessarily less healthy, skilled, educated or productive than those younger than them yet they face a barrage of negative stereotypes that make it difficult for them to find new or better-paid work later in life.
Women are more vulnerable to ageism than men and face gender-specific stereotypes related to age in addition to the ones faced by all genders.
These include beauty standards that relate to their appearance in the workplace and the prejudice-based perceptions that women will abandon work to prioritize caregiving in their homes.
Some of the mentioned stereotypes even include a prejudice that women are more fragile and will be retiring earlier than their male peers.
According to The State of Wage Inequality in the Workplace Report, the more work experience women have a variable that naturally parallels age, the bigger the gender-based pay gap seems to get.
Women who are just starting (have up to 2 years of experience) earn about 98 cents on the dollar their male counterparts earn.
This group has the narrowest difference in earnings. As they get more experienced, women earn less and less than men in the same group, bottoming out at 92 cents on the dollar for those with 13-14 years of experience.
However, it’s not all bad news – the pay gap is largely shrinking in 2019, for women belonging to almost all age groups, the same report states.
The only exceptions were women with over 15 years of work experience. The compounded effects of ageism and gender discrimination hit women over 46 the hardest, leading them to earn only 87 cents to the dollar a man makes.
Another report conducted by the job comparison website Glassdoor finds that the gender pay gap gets wider as the age groups get older and that it is widest for workers aged 55-64, amounting to 12.3% or twice the US national average.
All of the research signals that progress on the front of pay equity is happening but older working women are being largely left out.
Older women perform more unpaid labor than men, mostly caring for grandchildren and elders over 75 years of age.
This affects their ability to negotiate wages in full time and part-time jobs, and could be one of the factors leading to the 33% gap in part-time wages for women between 55 and 65 years old compared to men of the same age group in the same positions, according to Eurostat data from 2016 pertaining to EU countries.
As job changes become commonplace, people spend more time applying for jobs and go through the selection and interview process more than a few times at different stages of their lives and careers.
Older women have to contend with the problems of the application and job search processes every few years.
Alongside these, they have to deal with the wider societal pressures placed on aging women, such as staying young-looking and attractive.
Job interviews depend very much on the preconceived notions the interviewer has as well as first impressions, which rely on visual cues informed by stereotypes.
They place too much scrutiny on female appearances while claiming to value assertiveness and confidence in applicants, both of which can be perceived as off-putting in female interviewees.
Research conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that both female and male managers are more likely to hire a man than a woman for any given position.
The given research also states that a strong preference exists in favor of more aggressive, masculine leadership styles.
SOME OF THE SYMPTOMS SHOW EARLY ON
Attitudes about spending money start to differ by gender from adolescence. The Charles Schwab foundation conducted a survey of people aged 16 to 25 on the subject of financial literacy.
They found that young women have excellent spending and earning instincts – more women than men have second jobs and more women practice delayed spending to save up for specific items.
Young women are trying their best but preconceived notions about their frivolity – i.e. any shopaholic or sugar baby stereotype in pop culture – are making access to information and encouragement difficult.
The result is that young women have 40% less savings than young men and 50% fewer women than men had investment accounts.
Girls are being raised to do more unpaid housework while boys are being paid more for the chores they perform around the house.
This teaches women that some of their labor is not profitable and they carry this behavior on to the workplace – women are more likely to perform vital tasks that don’t get recognized by bosses while men tend to only do the sort of work that earns them recognition and promotions.
When women reject this unpaid “invisible work” they are perceived as difficult to work with and asocial, leading to more indirect penalties to their careers.
Another thing children are taught, that negatively affects women, later on, is that investing, or any type of financially risky behavior is more suited towards men, the “natural risk-takers”.
Girls are steered to lower risk and lower yield money management such as saving and budgeting, teaching them to be risk-averse.
As parenting becomes more gender-neutral and younger, more progressive people start to have children and the effects of negative stereotypes imposed on young girls get weaker (however they do not disappear entirely).
However, the older generations still face the aftereffects of a different time and you can really see those accumulate in the wages of workers of older generations.
OUTDATED VIEWS STILL PRESENT IN OLDER GENERATIONS
Part of the blame for the wide gender pay gap amongst older generations could fall within the old fashioned attitudes that the older generations formed in their youth.
Their time imposed much lower participation of women in the workforce as well as a time without gender discrimination laws.
Older women had to work alongside superiors with more traditional views on women’s professional work for a more significant part of their careers than younger ones.
Having said that, older women couldn’t have benefited from the same legal protections and support systems for raising their families.
What can be said for certain is that it isn’t yet known how the gender age gap will behave in the times ahead.
Perhaps the lower gender pay gap for people in their 20s and 30s will follow them throughout their careers.
This could mean the disappearing of old discriminatory practices and backward attitudes along with the exiting of older generations from the workforce.
It could also happen as a consequence of society at large being more aware of the gap and implementing policy to narrow it.
On the other hand, the wage gap for those now in their 20s could widen over time as attitudes about ageism take influence on the careers and earnings of aging professional women.
If action isn’t taken today to influence the outcomes of tomorrow, society could be fighting an uphill battle with time, much like women are often told they are.
THE OPPORTUNITY GAP ADDS UP OVER TIME
With higher-level positions come higher earnings. Women tend to get fewer opportunities to advance in their jobs compared to their male counterparts.
This lower level of job progression for women is referred to as the “opportunity gap”.
Similar proportions of men and women commence their careers with junior or individual contributor positions – 75% and 74% respectively.
However, the rates of women in mid-management positions in the middle of their careers are around 40% and remain there while men are both initially higher at 47% and they grow 10 percentage points until the end of their careers.
The number of female CEOs or female billionaires might not have any actual impact on the majority of working women across the globe.
However, the fact that only 3% of women rise to an executive position by the end of their careers is alarming as it shows that women’s career progression really does stagnate and then taper off from age 30 onwards.
SOLUTIONS CAN COME FROM MANY DIFFERENT ANGLES
Armed with research and experience, projects have popped up that highlight these injustices faced by women in the workplace and aim to reduce them as well as inform people of initiatives to counter the negative effects of sexism and ageism on women’s careers.
One of these projects is How We’ll Win, started in 2019 by the Quartz online newspaper.
In the section Closing The Gap, Quartz highlights stories about efforts being made to further representation and achieve gender parity in different professions.
At the same time, the Life at Home section deals with achieving work-life balance along with issues like parental leave and the misbalance of unpaid work women and men do in their homes.
Strides have recently been made for pay parity in the entertainment industry, brought on by people like Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams discussing the unfair wages they had previously been paid compared to their male costars, as well as comedians like Wanda Sykes and Mo’Nique walking away from offers that attempted to undercut them for comedy specials.
Society has yet to do the work needed to correct centuries of discrimination, but women shouldn’t be discouraged.
Perceptions about women and older women in the workplace are changing. As long as people’s professional lives and overall life expectancy are increasing, so is the number of women coming to deal with these issues – as long as they are vocal, they’ll have strength in their numbers.
What were the realities of old age a hundred years ago aren’t the realities of old age today – strides in medicine, healthcare, life quality, and accessibility have made older people feel more capable and more productive than ever.
If you’re a woman facing your career prospects in the future, you don’t need to fall into fatalism or despair about your position.
Times are changing and the deciding factors in job trajectory are still your professionalism, expertise and hard work. Make sure to fight the good fight and do not let yourself be discouraged;
If you’re a man in a position of power wondering how you can help your female colleagues, just be aware of all of the facts and don’t let them stop you from hiring the best person for the job – even if she has a bit of grey in her hair!
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