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Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal
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SocietyMarch 13, 2023

Is ageism the last acceptable bastion of workplace prejudice?

Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal
Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal

The subtle and invisible bias against being older still has huge consequences for women in the workplace, writes Angela Barnett. 

All week on The Spinoff we are delving into our relationship with the world of work in Aotearoa. For more Work Week stories, click here.

Margo Timmins, lead singer with the veteran band Cowboy Junkies, tells a story about a young male journalist, 20-ish, approaching her after a gig in Canada. She was in her early 50s and when they met he spluttered out: “I didn’t realise you were so old.” Timmins laughs, remembering how he was not only disappointed but visibly upset. How dare she be old! And how is it possible that she still be talented and command presence on stage? Admittedly, Timmins’ job as a band-fronting touring musician is associated with youth, but ageism is rife in many fields.

And when sexism and ageism combine, it’s a potent combination. Add to the mix any other marginalisation – ethnicity, gender identification, sexual orientation – and being older and non-male just gets even harder. It all becomes a subtle concoction of microaggressions – tiny slights and oversights – that might not seem like much individually, but over time can add up to death (or unemployment, or less pay) by a thousand cuts.

But here’s the freaky thing about ageism in the workplace – or anywhere. When you’re an elder (I claim this descriptor as I was born in 1970, you do the math**) and you begin to experience ageism, it’s like bumping into your younger self. You see in people’s faces the same thoughts you used to have. When in a meeting, you sense eyes wandering away as you struggle to make a point or share an idea, when you feel yourself being overlooked for projects or promotions, when people assume you know nothing about tech, when you can tell people are judging you for being at a gig or wearing the clothes you want to wear – you recognise yourself in those reactions. Younger you thought disparaging things about older people. You know now that your judgment back then came from a place of blindness, and yet you know there’s little point trying to argue against ageism. It’s a powerful force as old as time.

Prejudice towards a group of people, othering, relies on seeing them as different from yourself. But anyone who is ageist – and that’s most people who have lungs and live in western society – is othering against their future self. Unlike targets of prejudice due to ethnicity, sexual or gender orientation, abilities, religious beliefs or any other difference, those who experience ageism have been where you are. If you’re young (let’s say under 45), shedding your ageist prejudices now and changing the culture will benefit you in the future.

Of course, if you’re male, there’s possibly slightly less to fear. Ageism exists for men too – but it tends to be delayed and different. Our culture has a long history of equating male age with power – the trope of the old male magnate, politician, CEO, wise professor, or even  silver-haired sex symbol is a well-worn one. As for the powerful older female? She is less familiar to us.

Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies on stage in 2021. (Photo: Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

Is this just Karen complaining again?

If you’re reading this and you’re under 45, I’d like to congratulate you on getting past the headline. Age-related sexism? Pfffft. Older women, sometimes white-privileged older women, complaining about not being everybody’s top priority.

But it’s more complicated than that. In a 2021 report, the World Health Organisation issued warnings about ageism, finding that it leads to social isolation, earlier deaths and costs economies billions. Last year, the UN was more gender specific in a report entitled old-age poverty has a female face. While gender equity at work, in terms of both promotions and pay, has been under the spotlight for years, only a handful of New Zealand CEOs are women. So at some point, between thriving at university and retiring, women in certain jobs tend to fall behind.

In some industries women face age discrimination at similar levels as gender discrimination; this is evident in the Global Women in PR’s recently published annual index. Global initiatives, including from the World Health Organisation, have called for swift action to implement anti-ageism strategies. However, it’s a big job, fighting stereotypes that are fed to us as cartoon-watching six-year-olds, when old people, especially women, are depicted as ugly, stupid, doddery, evil. Not to mention invisible: half of New Zealand’s population is over 50 but older adults are only shown in 15%of images in movies and advertisements.

Cindy Mitchener, an Auckland-based executive recruiter at Mitchener & Associates, frequently witnesses ageist reactions towards women in a professional context. Sometimes it’s direct: a candidate will be dismissed as “too old” for a role, or a client will ask Mitchener (off the record) how old a candidate is and specify that they “can’t look old”. She finds herself reassuring clients that a candidate in her late 40s “looks younger and is very well presented. I hate myself for doing it but I’m trying to get them a job.”

Wendy* has a specialist role in marketing. Last year she went job-hunting at the outset of the Great Resignation, when employers were wringing their hands over a dearth of job applicants. Wendy’s CV outlined her experience and qualifications but omitted her age. “I went for a relatively senior job and got through two interviews with them, you could see I ticked every box, but as soon as I walked in to meet the main boss I knew immediately I was crossed off the list because of my age. Not interested.” She was 55.

Lydia* (51) has worked in media throughout a 25-year career. In her 40s she could see age-related sexism brewing around her. While working for a large organisation in Wellington she had a male boss who would refer disparagingly to middle-aged women as if they were out of touch, even though they were younger than he was. “Watching this created a sense of dread. I felt like I was going to be written off before I was ready,” she says. Also, advanced years seemed to lend her boss a certain gravitas that she felt was uniquely male. “Being in his 50s, he held so much power. It felt to me, about six years younger, that that power wasn’t available to me, partly because he was reluctant to share it.”

And she’d seen this before. In her 30s, at a different media company, the CEO had a long history of cutting off the careers of talented women, “getting rid of them when he no longer found them charming”. Lydia, not quite old enough to be in his line of attack, confronted him about it and he said he wasn’t being ageist but that they worked in a cut-throat industry. “He was blind to his own prejudice, and there he was, already past 60 – a woman his own age wouldn’t have stood a chance with him.”

As you age in the workplace, Lydia says, you need either to be the boss or to have colleagues above you who view you as invaluable either to themselves or to the company as a whole. “There has to be somebody powerful who rates you or you’re fucked. You become timid, afraid to be bold, apologetic, a bit of a wallflower – that’s what prejudice does to people, it warps them.”

PR agency owner Kirsten Matthews at home. (Photo: Helen Bankers/supplied)

Kirsten Matthew (51) runs her own Auckland-based PR agency, Mabel Maguire, and says that if she were made redundant now she would worry about how employable she’d be, though she’s not sure if that’s due to being female or 50-something. “I have friends who managed to get into positions that are very senior while still having a vagina, it’s the ageism that worries them more than gender discrimination,” she says. “They’re too nervous to leave their jobs, even if they want to, for fear of finding something else.”

Not that Matthew doesn’t consider sexism at work to be real. “I’ve spent a lot of time in my career being talked to in a less-than-ideal way by men, and I used to moan about it but I really believe you have to show people how you expect them to treat you. I think my age and the experience I have demands respect.”

But that’s probably easier when you run your own agency, and therefore don’t depend on others for promotions, new projects and pay-rises. As with all forms of prejudice, there are exceptions – people in the target group whose power or privilege enables them to be cushioned from its impact.

Dellwyn Stuart, from Aotearoa’s non-profit Gender At Work, believes ageism in the workplace is a real phenomenon for women in their 50s. “Like with gender discrimination, ageism is generally based on outdated or unfounded bias and stereotypes and can be harder to challenge, with many instances being invisible, which affects confidence, wellbeing and being happy at work.”

Dellwyn Stuart, co-founder of the Mind the Gap campaign for pay equity. (Photo: Supplied)

While age-related sexism may feel like an intangible presence in the office, there are practical steps organisations can take to deal with it, says Stuart. “Education is key, as well as having initiatives like a menopause policy, flexible working and leave policies, access to wellbeing services, and conversation guides for line managers.”

Ah yes, the ’pause. That inevitable physical phase that affects over half of us at an average age of 52 (sometimes severely, sometimes for years) has no doubt played a role in this scenario. Four out of five women experience adverse effects from menopause, ranging from awkward hard-to-disguise flushes to sleeplessness. The experience can feed into a woman’s professional self-doubt: Is this just my brain fog or sweaty outbursts, rather than larger systems working against me?

It’s also, until very recently, been utterly taboo as a topic. The recent menopause media burst, from locals like Niki Bezzant to global names like Michelle Obama and Naomi Watts, have shed light but, at least at work, a stigma lingers. Stuart says 39% of women in Aotearoa do not feel comfortable talking about menopause with their managers at work, for fear of it being used against them.

Kirsten Matthew makes the point that in the space of one generation, menopausal women have entered the workforce. “As a child of the early 70s, my mother wasn’t working when she was 51. In her generation, when they hit menopause they were out of the workplace, so they could suffer at home. Whereas now we’re all working in our 50s… and so we’re more present [at this age] than previous generations.”

Racism comes before ageism

Perhaps those most acutely aware of age-related sexism – people like me who work in industries where appearance and influence has currency: media, entertainment, comms, PR, tech, finance, law, financial services or HR – need to check our privilege.

Karina Nepia (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, Rongowhakaata), chief of marketing and global partnerships at Au Consulting NZ, works with big corporations and says she doesn’t come across many people who look like her at work. “For most wāhine Māori, from 40 up, we’re not exposed to ageism in the same way Pākehā or Asian women are because the people who face the kind of threat of ageism are in elite positions, in influential roles. Very few Māori are in consultancy or corporate, outward-facing, roles. We’re facing racism before ageism.” Nepia says ageism isn’t a word that exists in te ao Māori.

“When you’re young you have a valued opinion, and same when you’re old. In my own whānau, wāhine are never ashamed to talk about their age as age is never something to define who you are, and it’s an honour to reach kuia status.”

Karina Nepia of Au Consulting (Photo: Supplied)

Phylesha Brown-Acton (Fineone Hakupu, Atua – Niue) identifies as fakafifine (the Niuean equivalent of fa’afafine) and is the executive director of F’INE Pasifika Aotearoa, serving the Pasifika Rainbow community, and challenging the systems that have oppressed and marginalised her communities. She sees ageism as being part of a wider problem of colonised thinking.

“We get called individuals but we go through life with people. I’m raised on the concept of a village, not defined as the traditional concept of a village but meaning people who are involved in our lives, who journey with us,” she says. “It’s been an interesting journey to still find my tūrangawaewae, my footing within the kaupapa of my work, not being pushed left or right. For me, it’s about feeling connected rather than irrelevant, then I remain firmly planted to work, and let the work speak for itself.”

We’ve been brainwashed

Ashton Applewhite, an American age activist and author, said in a 2019 speech that nobody’s born ageist but we’re fed stereotypes about elders from every direction, starting with cartoons and children’s books. “Negative messages about late life come at us incessantly. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. We olders can be the most ageist of all because we have had a lifetime of hearing those messages… it becomes part of our identity and that’s internalised ageism.”

Ageism feeds capitalism, she says. “All prejudice – ageism, sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism – are socially constructed ideas. We make them up,” she said. “They serve a social and economic purpose. Prejudice is not about how we look, it’s about what people in power want our appearance to mean.” All of this is fantastic for the appearance medicine industry, but not a whole lot else.

An undervalued resource

Kaye Avery, director of Career EQ – whom I went to see when I was made redundant in my mid-40s, suspecting I was being replaced by someone younger/cheaper (I was) – has nothing but great things to say about older women in a work context. “People do their best work after 50 because they’ve most likely integrated life’s lessons and matured their personality traits, which means they tend to be more effective. That’s if they’ve done their inner work – self-development. Carl Jung had a term for this, individuation: when the personality is clearer and more true.”

Kaye Avery of Career EQ (Photo: Supplied)

Things worked out for Wendy, the marketing job-hunter. She’s now working somewhere where they value experience. She sees the jobs she didn’t get due to her 50-something appearance as bullets dodged. “I don’t want to work somewhere that has those views. If they’re ageist they’ll be something-else-ist.”

Brown-Acton of F’INE Pasifika Aotearoa says she’s going to stay relevant by being of service to people, “because I’ve gained so much over the years. It’s important to retain people who have aged and not just treat them like it’s time to give up and move on.”

Consulting NZ’s Nepia points me back to te ao Māori and tuakana-teina. “It’s not restricted by age. The older (tuakana) doesn’t mean the wisest, nor does the youngest (teina) mean they have the most to learn. It means a reciprocal relationship. Learn and unlearn from each other.”

So, is it time to start cancelling ageists? But how can we, when most of us are or have been ageist on some level? Solutions need to be more conscious and compassionate, checking assumptions. We elders tend to have a sense of humour. Applewhite, the US age activist, says that two things can be true. “We can laugh about ageing all we want while getting serious about stamping out ageism.”

On the last Friday night of January in Auckland, when anybody wise stayed home, an audience of middle-aged people gathered at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna to see the Cowboy Junkies. A friend who was there told me about Margo Timmins pacing the stage like a true rock star, but with a regularly refreshed mug of herbal tea in her hand, complete with the teabag tag hanging out. “She was howling and rocking out while dipping the teabag in and out to the rhythm,” she says.

That night was Timmins’ 62nd birthday and her approach is the future I want for all 60-something women at work. Cool, commanding, and not afraid to laugh at herself and celebrate her true age.

How not to exhibit age-related sexism

  • Don’t feel the need to feign surprise when someone says their age or praise them for their youthful outlook. You’re confirming your prejudice and, as they’re probably older than you, your feeling of superiority.
  • Don’t step around age with exaggerated tact or refer to a woman as being “of a certain age”. You’re implying that her age is unspeakable.
  • Don’t refer non-specifically to “older women”, grouping 50-year-olds with 75-year-olds. Just like the jump from age 10 to 20 and 20 to 30, every decade is different, even post-50.

* some names have been changed to protect privacy

** Applewhite suggests, to reduce ageism, don’t say your age but the year you were born as this tells someone all the times you’ve lived through. You’ve had a life. You’re not just a number.

Keep going!