How Being An Older Woman At The Workplace Could Work Against You

Ageism at work is a major reason for situations in which women lose out in promotions, pay, and holding key positions along with peers.

Men don’t age better than women, they are just allowed to age”Carrie Fisher.

Let me start with a disclaimer: ageism affects everyone, but for women the impact is lot more.




What is it about women and ageism? The society we live in is convinced that women seem to come with some sort of expiry date. As it is, women already face a lot of challenging situations and pressures, especially older women, a lot more so.

In the nineties, Madhuri Dixit was constantly booed when she was just 27 years of age. That was considered old vis – vis the Khans. The entire nation was waiting for her to get married. I still remember one of my colleagues then had passed a comment about how Madhuri was a ‘has been’ compared to the youthful Aishwarya Rai in the Devdas face-off song.

Slow shift –  A decade at a time

Cut to 2018, and we have Deepika Padukone at 32 and Priyanka Chopra at 36, still rocking the game, While this is a positive sign, it has taken a whole lot of effort by the earlier generations to make this paradigm shift happen.

Another example, in the finals of Wimbledon 2018, both finalists – Serena Williams (36) and Angelique Kerber (30) were in their 30s. Where as, in the 90s my favourite Steffi Graff retired at 30. There were only Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert playing their way into their mid 30s and they were the outliers. It was Martina who had said, “The tennis ball does not know the age of the player.”

Thankfully these days players in their 30s are not the exceptions but the general norm itself.

There has been a shift – decade-wise. It is now perfectly fine to do some ‘unsettling’ stuff in your 30s, which was almost unheard of a couple of decades ago, or even in the last decade.  And if you did, then you were the misfit.

That makes me wonder, whether I was born a decade too early!

However, does this shift expand into the workplace? I don’t think so.

Ageism and the Workplace – older woman, where art thou?

Scan on LinkedIn or generally look around your workplace. You rarely find women who are post 45 and are still very actively chasing career aspirations (in whatever form – social sector, corporate sector or entrepreneurial dreams). In fact, I hardly come across such women who are in their late 50s or 60s. Whereas grey haired men in their 60s claiming to walk 10+ kms every day and working in consulting are in bunches.

Talk of paucity of role models for us who are in 40s!

Most of the women drop off the ladder because of child care and other responsibilities. The other few, might have been voluntarily retired for a younger male colleague – like a lady I knew who worked in the PSU.

Changing jobs in 40s and above is a challenge and more so if you are a woman.

Though these days, there is a lot of effort made to get women back into the workforce, my recent interactions with women on break tell me otherwise. I’m not sure how many women in their late 30s and 40s are getting an opportunity to get back. Even though they may have upgraded their skills and are open to work in a role for which they may be over-qualified for, just so that they can get back to a full time role.

Women may be comfortable working with younger peers and bosses, but, are the men around really comfortable with older women as peers or subordinates?

Workplaces are newly getting sensitized to have more women in the workforce but doesn’t seem like we have an increased number of older women in the workplace. Especially those who have returned from a break. We are not yet there.

For that, we’ll have to wait another decade to find out.

Meanwhile we need laws to prevent blatant ageism irrespective of gender. Even in times of AI and in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, we need human resources. Yet, a significant chunk of population is not given the opportunity to contribute actively.

Attitude towards Ageism

As I entered 40s, it took me a while to accept the person I was slowly becoming, and over the period I learnt a few lessons.

Embrace your age: Irrespective of gender, one must embrace age. And yes, for women especially, they have to not only embrace their age but also wrinkles and expanding waist (nothing wrong with these, as men have them too, but women suffer more socially and at the workplace) with all the confidence they have got by being the warriors they are. Society puts pressure to look certain way, but it depends on us to make choices which make us comfortable. While I also wish we would not blend into the crowd by hiding our grey hair, but that is a rant for another day!

Confidence comes with age and experience: Life experience teaches and it teaches well and you know it. As one grows older, one also becomes a lot more self-aware and knows how to cut the crap and focus on the core essential stuff. There is an inherent confidence and one does not need to be defensive about the age. A lot of career experts will recommend not to mention your historic dates in the resume once you cross 50 but that may not be right, we are then just being apologetic about ourselves.

Network across gender and age groups – Diversity helps to get a better perspective and this way, one is more flexible to new ideas and is not fixated. It makes more sense to be more consciously engaged with the world than just sitting on past successes.

Unlearn to learn something new: While there might be a whole backing of experience, one also has to make sure one does not become inflexible. Nothing works better than an open mind with all assumptions wiped off.

Finally, like the author, the late Nora Ephron said “Be the heroine of your life”, ageism notwithstanding.

A version of this was earlier published here.

Image source: shutterstock

A senior IT professional, leadership coach and a travel buff. And I consider cooking therapeutic

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