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Women in leadership face widespread ageism at every stage in their careers, study suggests

Researchers surveyed 913 women leaders across various sectors and found that age discrimination is not limited to older women but affects women of almost any age.

Women in leadership face widespread ageism at every stage in their careers, study suggests
Image Source: Pexels | RDNE Stock Project

As women age, they are often undervalued compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, being young or appearing youthful can be used as a means to undermine women, leading to doubts about their maturity and competence. A preliminary study featured in Harvard Business Review claims that age discrimination was not just happening to older women. Researchers Amy Diehl, Leanne M. Dzubinski and Amber L. Stephenson based the conclusions on surveying 913 women leaders who work in higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law and health care.



 

The findings are currently undergoing peer review at a journal and have found that gendered age biases are still present at almost any age. Diehl, Dzubinski and Stephenson noted there is no "prime" working age or "sweet spot" for professional women. Women under 40 were seen as inexperienced, while older women were deemed unworthy of advancement.

"There was always an age-based excuse to not take women seriously, to discount their opinions, or to not hire or promote them," the researchers wrote. "While men become wells of wisdom as they age, older women are seen as outdated, harpy, strident," one physician noted. "Our voices are discounted."

Image Source: Pexels | Karolina Grabowska
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Karolina Grabowska

Many times, there is also discrimination based on one's appearance. One physician discovered that between ages 20 and 40, men focused on a woman's looks in the workplace. One woman claimed that after she gave a scientific presentation that she was very proud of, a male colleague told her that she "looked like a Barbie doll up there!" Younger women— and those who looked young—were called pet names or even patted on the head, as one 39-year-old woman reported.

"Young women also experienced role incredulity," the researchers wrote. "They reported being mistaken for students, interns, trainees, support staff, secretaries, paralegals, and court reporters. Such inaccurate assumptions were especially prevalent for non-White women, such as an Asian higher-education executive who appeared young and was presumed to be in a junior position."

Image Source: Pexels | Tima Miroshnichenko
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Tima Miroshnichenko

Diehl told HuffPost that gendered ageism for younger women can be subtle and cunning. "You think 'It's just me. I'm just not old enough. I haven't served enough time in my career. Maybe my ideas aren't that good, maybe this person, who's older than me, this man that's older than me, do know better,'" Diehl explained. "If it happens to you as a woman, no matter what age you are, do not take it personally, realize it's a larger phenomenon."

Older women have their own set of experiences. One 66-year-old faith-based leader said, "At my age and with the mentality of our organization that they need men at the top, there is not a next professional step." Another woman working in the same industry pointed out that once she turned 60, she was no longer "worth investing in with training or mentoring." What organizations should take into consideration is a person's set of skills rather than gender, age or looks.

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