When it comes to being a woman in the workplace, there is “no right age” for promotion.

Ageism is often thought of as a bias that impacts older workers, but new findings published in the Harvard Business Review reveal that women face age bias whether they are young, middle-aged or older. Younger women faced barriers to promotion because their superiors viewed them as too inexperienced, while those in middle-age were often thought to have too many family burdens. Older women were viewed as unworthy of a promotion, the analysis found.

“No matter what age the women were, it was ‘never quite right’ for leadership,” Amy Diehl, chief information officer at Wilson College and a gender bias expert who co-authored the study, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The findings have implications for the career trajectories of millions of professional women, who are still less likely than men to run Fortune 500 companies or hold leadership roles within corporations, with only 1 in 4 C-suite positions held by women. Such age bias, no matter how young or old a woman might be, points to the unspoken barriers that may prevent many of them from reaching the same career heights as equally credentialed men.

“So many young and middle-aged women are being kept from professional advancement,” Diehl added. “Their careers get stalled at the entry and mid-levels.”

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That impacts the ability for women to save for retirement at the same level as their male counterparts, she noted, since they have generally earned less than men. That’s borne out by new retirement savings data, which finds that the average 401(k) balance for men is 50% higher than that of women, at $89,000 versus $59,000.

“Everyone suffers”

The ageism that women face also hurts the broader economy, noted Leanne Dzubinski, a professor at Biola University and a co-author of the study.

“Any time half (or more) of the workforce is limited in their ability to contribute to organizations and society, that loss impacts everyone and the broader economy,” Dzubinski said. “When women — young, middle aged, or older — are discriminated against, everyone suffers.”

The study, which surveyed more than 900 women in professional roles ranging from higher education executives to attorneys and physicians, found that many reported facing discrimination at every step of their careers. Younger women, and those who appeared younger, were given pet names, patted on the head, and faced “role incredulity,” with others mistaking them for interns, trainees, administrative assistants or other paralegals, the study found.

Middle-aged women, meanwhile, also faced ageism, with one college executive recounting that some search committees opt against hiring women in their late 40s due to the perception of “too much family responsibility and impending menopause,” the authors wrote at the Harvard Business Review. 

While older male workers are viewed as authoritative, older women are often discounted in the workplace, the authors found. 

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Broader efforts needed

Ageism is often overlooked and even accepted socially, with the issue lacking attention from human resources or diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, said Amber Stephenson, a professor at Clarkson University and a co-author of the study.

“When you are told or treated like you’re not the right age, it can be incredibly diminishing,” she noted. “Know that you are valuable and don’t be afraid to communicate the positive ways that you contribute to your organization.”

Bringing women of all ages together can help if they can “elevate each other and openly challenge biases associated with age,” she noted.

But broader efforts may be needed to combat the ageism facing women, the authors noted in the Harvard Business Review. For instance, hiring and promotion decisions should be based on skills, no matter who has them, as well as adding “lookism” to the issues that DEI efforts work to correct. But simply acknowledging that this bias exists can be the first step to countering it, they added.

“If you look back just five years ago, the notion of gendered ageism was only beginning to enter the conversation,” Stephenson added. “It has since gained traction and this type of bias is finally being acknowledged.”


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