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Women are still being held back at work by ageism and sexism

23 Mar 2013

The Weekend Australian


Despite legislation outlawing age and gender related discrimination, a combination of ageism and sexism continues to present a formidable barrier to older women's career progression, argues Associate Professor Leanne Cutcher.

The Diversity Council of Australia's 2010 Working for the Future survey says age discrimination was the most common type, reported at 14 per cent, followed by gender discrimination at 8 per cent. Combined, they create a double jeopardy for older women in organisations and those wanting to return to work.

This is in part because attitudes towards life and career cycles still dominate most workplaces and hinder women's progression within organisations. The advent of the corporation in the early 20th century created a prototypical career-life cycle.

Individuals were and are largely expected to complete their education when young, enter the workforce and proceed in a linear procession along a career path until retiring. This model has served corporations well as it provides them with order. It does not serve women well.

The careers of most women (and a rising number of men) fail to follow a neat chronological trajectory. Women do different things at different ages as they move in and out of the workforce to combine careers with family duties.

Yet, the Australian Research Council funded study I have undertaken with a large global engineering firm shows employees feel they have failed if they haven't reached the senior management ranks by their mid-40s. In reality, many women may only be hitting their stride in their 50s when the organisation views them as past it.

The focus on career cycles as moving through distinct phases has also led to the construction of age norms. These dictate times and ages for particular achievements, roles or transitions in life, such as finishing university, entering the workforce, getting married, becoming a parent and retiring.

These sanctions are especially corrosive for women, who experience age discrimination at a younger age than men and are seen as "older" at an earlier age.
Traversing these sanctions is not easy. My focus group research with older working women shows that they feel pressure to look younger than their age and that it is important to do this without seeming to try.

Such body work is hard work and it has fed a multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry. The reach of this industry is extensive because it capitalises on cultural fears about ageing.

The greater pressure on older women to look younger in order to hold on to a job, or to re-enter the workforce, is also a result of the fact that they are largely invisible in public life. We see few images of older women in public life and even fewer in business.

This is not surprising given that only three per cent of companies listed on the ASX 200 are headed by women. In the workforce, participation rates of older women aged 56-74 were only 12.6 per cent compared with 24.5 per cent for men. Yet is it older women more than men who may need to continue working to bridge the large gap between their superannuation savings and those of men.

The average super payout for women is a third of the payout for men: $37,000 against $110,000.

This gender gap in retirement savings is the result of the fact that women continue to earn less than men (women working full time earn 16 per cent less than men) and because their careers often do not follow the linear career cycle that dominates organisations.

The focus on diversity today in many organisations is on diversity of minds, with research showing that diverse teams get the best results.

Yet many Australian organisations are failing to benefit from the experience and insights of their older workers. A Mercer survey of 355 employers in the Asia-Pacific says only 39 per cent have any kind of focus on age.

Women's and men's lives are less and less likely to follow a predictable rhythm, gender roles are more fluid and the meaning of old age is shifting as people live longer, healthier lives.

Organisations need to move with these trends to a view of ageing and careers where older people cease to be invisible and their potential continues to be tapped well past their 50th birthday.

Leanne Cutcher is associate professor, work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney Business School. 

First published in The Weekend Australian

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