“I didn’t know ageism was happening to me at first,” says Elizabeth White, a successful nonprofit manager with degrees from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, who suddenly lost her job at the age of 55. She assumed she’d pick up new work in no time, as she had always landed jobs through her networks.
“I didn’t recognize that this time was different, so I did all the usual things—networking, updating my CV, having casual meet-and-greets—and nothing was working,” she says. Two years later, White found herself driving across town so she could use food stamps to fill her pantry. She has made it through the worst and adjusted her lifestyle to meet her new reality, but is not employed full-time and doesn’t think she ever will be again, now that she’s over 60.
White, like so many women, is used to navigating a labyrinth of inequities: pay gap, pink tax, glass ceiling, “maternal wall” bias, broken-rung theory. And if you are a woman of color—and White is—the penalties you pay and the gaps you must bridge are higher, wider and more formidable.
Nevertheless, you persist and get years of experience under your belt; you know who you are and your kids, if you started a family, are older so you have more free space in your mind. That’s when you realize time is now against you. Ageism starts to slow your roll, just when you are ready to fly. And it’s ageism on steroids, because you are female.
Working While Female
Ageism as it relates to women is very much an extension of sexism, an -ism women have been living with their whole lives. And recent research shows that ageism may be the more disruptive force. In a 2023 survey by The Society for Human Resources Management, nearly one third of HR professionals said age plays a part in hiring decisions. Further, 26% of U.S. workers age 50 or older say they’ve experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
And in 2021, a a survey conducted by co-working community The Riveter saw 58% of women say their identities or physical attributes impact their experiences at work—and age was the top factor (25%), garnering many more votes than being female (17%).
It’s no wonder: “As soon as women show visible signs of aging, they are actually perceived as being less competent, having less value,” says executive coach and author Bonnie Marcus, author of Not Done Yet!
Social activist Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, captures the issue more succinctly: “Women are never the right age.” Applewhite points out that when women are young in the workplace, they are considered lightweights and are oversexualized; then when women reach prime childbearing years, they are diminished if they become mothers, earning less and being given fewer promotions or opportunities to thrive at work.
“And then pretty soon after that,” Applewhite says, “when you’re starting to fall away from this grotesque, obscene obsession with extreme youth as being the ideal for women, you are now less attractive as a woman. So you then become less attractive as an employee, even though that is what disqualified you when you were younger and prettier.”
Pamela Norris* is facing the same sinking feeling White had when she reached into her contacts to find work. Pushed out of her job as a creative director at an international nonprofit at the age of 47, Norris has spent two years trying to get back into advertising agency work, where she had built her career at top-drawer agencies working with blue-chip brands. She opted to apply for associate creative director (ACD) roles, as a way to acknowledge that she had been out of the agency world. But nothing.
Then a friend got hired into a senior role at a big PR agency and called to let Norris know there was an ACD position available. “I jumped at it,” Norris recalls. “I had a great conversation with the HR person, who then said she was excited to share me with the team. I was also impressed that their website specifically stated they were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and thought, ‘Well, this bodes well.’”
But the HR contact got back to Norris with a crisp turndown: “Unfortunately, they think you are too senior for the current ACD need.” Norris replied with a full-court press, restating all she had said in her initial interview: She was looking only at ACD roles, she was comfortable with the salary and what mattered most to her was working with a great team. “Might the team reconsider if they were to understand my enthusiasm for the position?” The reply was quick and definite: “I pointed out your perspective to the team and they didn’t budge.”
“It’s possible that this was a nice way to say they just didn’t like my background, but the ageism just seemed so blatant to me,” says Norris, who is quick to point out her “youthful” activities such as running marathons, attending Burning Man and singing in a rock band. “I’ve been looking for over two years now, and it’s really demoralizing. I’m going to be 49 this year and just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
For Wendy Kalogeras*, the ageist attitude was less subtle. Kalogeras has had a string of enviable job titles in her career: chief operating officer, executive vice president, principal managing director. But in 2015, she was interviewing with a high-profile tech-world darling for a COO position and remembers being asked by one of the senior people if she thought she was up for the rigors and how people might perceive her.
The executive said, “I mean, I’m 35 and they think I’m old. What are they going to think of someone in their 40s?” Kalogeras recalls she was actually 51 at the time, though didn’t engage. Instead, “I thought: ‘asshat,’” pulled out of the running and watched that company’s ensuing dissolution with pleasure, she admits.
She had been warned. A prominent tech investor had told her “point-blank” in 2014, as she was turning 50, that while sexism was rampant in the New York City startup community, “ageism was even worse” and would make it hard for her to find a job. “And he was right,” she says.
Ageism is a bias that will eventually touch us all, yet somehow it is still accepted in our society. “Age discrimination is as much an open secret as sexual harassment was,” says Victoria Lipnic, the former acting head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal body that oversees enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. “It just hasn’t had the same profile yet.”
The landmark legislation meant to protect older workers was passed more than 50 years ago—the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)—but the EEOC has seen an upswing in complaints, with those by women, Blacks, Asians and workers over the age of 65 nearly doubling in the past few years. The combination of ageism and sexism is called “sex-plus” discrimination; add in race and it’s a choking intersectionality.
“I wasn’t in the frame of mind to even think about ageism,” Elizabeth White says, because as a Black woman she had already experienced sexism and racism. Also “when you’re still in your 50s, you sort of feel the same and can even look more or less the same, so you’re not expecting [ageism] to kick in with the force that the data says it kicks in.”
The data White is referring to is staggering: 56% of workers are pushed out of their jobs once they pass the age of 50, according to a 24-year data analysis of long-term employed American workers conducted by Pro Publica and The Urban Institute. An additional 13% retire under circumstances that suggest their departures were not voluntary.
Geraldine Levey* is one of those workers. She spent most of her career in one of the country’s top financial services firms. She was paid well, promoted often and never felt any discrimination, even as an out gay woman in the 1990s, when that wasn’t so common. “I felt really heard and valued and respected,” she says. “In my job I was expected to have opinions.”
She was “very shocked” the first time she felt a relationship go sideways. “I noticed I went from being part of an inner circle to experiencing a sort of aloofness I couldn’t name.” It was with a client who headed up a division she was working with. It all came to “sort of a bitter end” a few months later, and the only explanation Levey got was that “we didn’t click.”
She was assigned a new client, a man whom she had worked with twice before, and in the span of two months, he stopped taking meetings with her and stopped answering her emails. “I had to send a friend—another white guy of a similar rank—to find out what happened,” she says. “And he told me the client said, ‘we just didn’t have good chemistry.’”
Levey decided then that she would raise her hand the next time layoffs came around. “I certainly wasn’t less skilled as I aged,” she says. “If anything, I was more skilled! But I was probably less pliant than a woman with less power.”
When she left the company, the CEO asked her to come to his office to say goodbye, as they had worked together closely for many years. “In the interest of candor, I decided to tell him why I was leaving,” Levey recalls. She shared her experiences, including her rejection of words like “clicking” and “chemistry” as “language of dating, not the language of business.” The CEO apologized, but Levey wasn’t looking for that. She wanted him to know that younger women in the company were watching and saying to themselves, if she can be dismissed like this, after years of accomplishments, what should I expect?
What many older female workers can expect is a subtle freeze-out like Levey experienced. “Women are being pushed into the shadows,” says Marcus, who has done career coaching with dozens of women facing ageism in the workplace. “And there are a lot of women suffering in silence around this issue. Ageism—especially gendered ageism—is so ingrained in our society that we have absorbed and internalized it.”
Debra Whitman, executive vice president and chief public policy officer at AARP, agrees. “Ageism is sneaky. It will affect every single one of us, but we also put it on ourselves,” she says. “We say negative things about aging all the time. So it’s really part of our culture and our mindset—and that’s damaging.” In other words, we reinforce the very stereotypes that hurt us even after we become part of the affected group.
Older Workers and the Economy
Along with age comes experience, a deep bench of connections and hard-earned problem-solving skills. Right? What happens when employers usher that knowledge out the door?
“If we addressed age discrimination—people leaving the workforce or having long periods of unemployment—the uplift to our economy would be about 6.3% of gross domestic product by 2050, or $850 billion to the U.S. economy,” Whitman says. No Social Security net will be able to support two entire generations of women who find themselves ending their earning lifecycle 10, 20 or 30 years earlier than they expected. So the best economic solution is simple, and costs nothing: Get these workers back into the workforce.
Whitman ticks off a few simple solutions that can move the needle: age-blind hiring, ensuring that artificial intelligence hiring systems don’t embed ageism in their algorithms, creating intergenerational work groups to foster both knowledge-sharing (to benefit the younger generation) and relationship-building (to keep the older employees better tethered to their organization), universal training and learning programs for all employees, and ensuring all kinds of diversity in all levels of an organization.
Currently only 8% of American companies include ageism in their DEI initiatives. “The ageism conversation hasn’t really hit the world in the same way that some of the other -isms have been popping up over the last five years,” Whitman says. “But we are pushing to make sure that age is a part of DEI and were able to get that into the World Economic Forum this year, so we’re pleased with that.”
Right now, a bill is moving through Congress—the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act—to strengthen the ADEA’s ability to protect workers who suffer job loss caused by ageism. It would restore some of the protections lost in a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard of proof required for ageism claims, putting the burden fully onto the employees and limiting claims to age only, when “age-plus” claims are the norm. There are other federal regulations that can be strengthened—such as those surrounding age-based inquiries during job interviews—that can protect job applicants as well as employed workers.
What’s Left? Us.
“What we need to do, especially as women, is stop thinking of [ageism] as a personal problem,” Applewhite says. “We need to zoom out—zoom out and see the systems that are screwing us.
It’s not your fault that you somehow made the mistake of growing old. The problem is being discriminated against on the basis of it.”
Levey says young women need to be clear about what their own security plan is by their mid-40s. “Where do you need to land in the next five to 10 years? Is it your job’s location that matters? More money? Climbing a rung? Options narrow and your runway shortens after 50.” Her point is, be ready.
“We need to be vigilant and understand our track record won’t necessarily take us all the way to retirement,” says executive coach Marcus, who herself thought she would be with her company until she retired but was forced out at age 49. “So we need to not only keep up on our skills and learning, but also build some critical strong relationships with allies and champions who can advocate for us.”
Elizabeth White has learned a lot about what she needed in order to thrive in the years since she was laid off. When she reached a moment of “real despair,” she wrote an essay called “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal.” “She has entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be and isn’t sure anymore where she belongs,” White wrote of her own experiences.
The reaction to the article was instantaneous and loud, as women came forward to share their own grief and anger. And while it didn’t open the floodgates to stable, high-paying employment, it did lead to a TED talk, a book and a new role as a social critic, writer and activist. White now has a “casserole” of work and has carved out a “richly textured life” on a more modest income. (She also recommends Fiverr as a great place to pick up short-term gigs to fill income gaps.)
And she has some advice for billionaire Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm. He’s been focused on solving the coming retirement crisis—people living longer without sufficient savings—by teaching young employees financial literacy.
But White proposes a different idea: Fink should start focusing his massive portfolio of companies on older workers. “What we really need is to work and not be pushed out of our jobs,” she says. “Then we can make the most of our independence, experience and hard-earned wisdom.”
*These women have requested the use of a pseudonym.
Women & Work: Just the Facts
For the first time in American history, there are five generations active in the workforce, with older workers (aged 65 and up) the fastest growing segment. But then: COVID-19. Here are facts and stats about the pandemic’s continued impact on employment, as well as societal and other pressures that can reduce women’s lifelong earnings.
- When the pandemic hit, the unemployment rate for women older than 55 skyrocketed from 3.3% to 15.5% between March and April of 2020, the largest increase reported by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Older workers are also out of work longer than other age groups, and when they do land a new position, 90% of them end up working at a lower salary.
- For women, staying employed is critical for more than just a strong sense of self: Women’s earning power is limited at every step of her work life due to the wage gap—whether she is blue-collar, in the service industry or a C-suite executive.
- Women’s work trajectories are typically nonlinear due to caregiving or child-rearing responsibilities, which limit both earnings and Social Security payouts.
- Women head solo households more than men do, which makes it harder for them to save for retirement. And because they live longer, those reduced savings must stretch to last more years.
Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.
Stacy Morrison is a writer, author and content consultant. She is also the founder of Koi Beads.
Illustration: Sol Cotti