4 Ways Women Can Address Ageism in the Workplace

Katie Brenneman

The workplace is supposed to be an environment in which you’re recognized and respected for your professional merits. However, this isn’t always the case for older women. You may have found that you are treated differently from workers who are younger or male. Perhaps you have been declined a job or a promotion for reasons that you suspect to be age-related.

This situation should not be ignored. Primarily, age bias is unfair to you and ignores the vast amount of value you have to offer. It is also disruptive to the business landscape, as it means the economy is deprived of experienced and knowledgeable women in key positions of company leadership. 

Let’s dive into 4 ways women can approach addressing ageism in the workplace.

Recognize the Biases

It’s difficult to address ageism in the workplace if you’re unclear as to what it looks like. In fact, this is something people exhibiting discriminatory behavior may use against you. Uncertainty can leave the door open for gaslighting behavior claiming you’ve misconstrued “harmless” actions as ageism. Having clarity here can help you confidently respond to such destructive behavior. 

There are, of course, more obvious forms of bias, such as insults or “jokes” related to your age. You may also find yourself repeatedly getting turned down for promotions or interesting work assignments that younger and less experienced employees are repeatedly given. However, there can also be microaggressions. These can take the form of seemingly well-intentioned but patronizing comments about your appearance or abilities “in spite of” your age.

As a woman in the workplace, it is also not unusual to find ageism combined with sexism. Particularly in sales, women commonly experience cliches and disparities related to their gender. It’s not unusual for women’s professional abilities to be underestimated or be expected to do more than their male counterparts. Understanding that gender and age biases for women often go hand-in-hand can make it easier to recognize and, therefore, address them.

Know Your Rights

One of the difficult things about addressing any kind of discrimination is that it’s not always clear where you stand legally. Certainly, your employer and colleagues have moral obligations to treat you with the fairness and respect you deserve, without consideration of when you happen to have been born. But clarity on the legal elements helps you understand the imperatives your business has to respond to, such as instances of bias you experience.

The good news is that age is a protected characteristic in the workplace. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes it unlawful for organizations to discriminate against workers that are aged 40 and older. This includes age-based bias concerning hiring, firing, and promotions. It also forbids forms of harassment, such as offensive or derogatory  remarks. Though, the act doesn’t extend to making isolated, less serious incidents illegal.  

Immediately addressing ageism with threats of legal action is rarely the best first approach for anyone involved. However, it should provide you with the confidence to state that your expectations of fair treatment are enshrined in law. Not to mention that it provides you with a clear route to recourse should the actions be serious enough to take the issue to human resources (HR) and beyond.

Keep Communicating

Often, one of the most powerful tools in addressing ageism in the workplace is communication. In the best-case scenarios, your skills in communicating your perspectives to others in the workplace can be a route to positive change. Not to mention that your efforts here can contribute to a more inclusive company culture. This helps you and other women in the workplace for years to come.

This tends to begin with communicating with colleagues or managers that exhibit or fail to act on age bias in the workplace. Especially in the case of microaggressions, other staff members may not be aware that their actions, language, or opinions are discriminatory in nature. While it shouldn’t be your responsibility to educate others, your insights may well be invaluable.

Have conversations with staff and managers about the behavior you experienced. Talk about the specific elements that showed bias. If you feel comfortable doing so, explain how this makes you feel and the larger impact it has on you both professionally and personally. Similarly, highlight the value older workers provide as a result of their experiences, expertise, and unique viewpoints.

Seek Support and Resources

Age discrimination can be a distressing and exhausting experience. It’s important not to approach the situation alone wherever possible. Seeking out support systems and resources can ensure you not only effectively address discrimination but do so in a mentally healthy way.

Women’s advocacy groups can be a positive resource here. If you work for a large organization, there may be an internal group that provides support, advice, and representation for female employees experiencing discrimination. If not, there may be one in your local area that you can share your experiences with and gain assistance from.

From a personal perspective, it’s also wise to establish effective mental health resources. Age discrimination can be stressful and take a significant toll on your wellness. Sensory focus techniques can help manage the symptoms of anxiety you experience. This involves actions that help you recognize triggering stimuli and use each of your senses to achieve calmness. However, in some instances, it can be sensible to work with a psychiatrist to address symptoms of depression or other conditions as you work through discrimination challenges.

Conclusion

Age discrimination is something many women face in the workplace. It’s important to address this behavior at the earliest opportunity. Get to know the types of bias related to age and gender, alongside gaining clarity on your rights to recourse. Communicating clearly with your colleagues and managers can both counter issues and highlight the value of older women at work. In stressful situations, seeking support from advocacy groups and using mental health resources can be key to navigating the situation healthily and effectively.

This blog was contributed to Workplace Fairness. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, and education When she isn’t writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.