The dilemma for older women in the workplace

Where age and gender collide: The dilemma for older women in the workplace


When it comes to discrimination, there is one “-ism” that most of us are likely to encounter in our lifetime – ageism. And yet, it’s also one of the least discussed. Unfortunately, it also has a disproportionate impact on women. 

Ageism in the workplace (and against women) may not be a high-profile part of the national conversation on diversity and inclusion, however that doesn’t mean there’s no impact. 

In Australia alone, it is estimated that if 5% more people aged 55 or older were employed, the national economy would benefit by as much as AU$48 billion annually (source: World Health Organization). It’s a sobering statistic at a time when productivity and economic disruption is at the top of the national agenda.

Women over 55 are particularly vulnerable. They are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness, according to data from the most recent Census. They are also underrepresented in terms of workforce participation, with AtWork Australia finding just one in seven women over 55 who are jobseekers are likely to find employment. Workforce participation also drops off rapidly for women over the age of 50 (for men there is a similar trend over age 60).

There are numerous reasons for these figures, including the gender pay gap, reduced opportunity for career progression due to taking time out to raise children and workplace bias, and the fact women frequently take on caring responsibilities (including elderly parents and grandchildren). 

Younger women are not immune from this either. Many take some time away from their careers to raise a family, with the associated impact on their superannuation. On their return to the workforce, many find themselves facing an uphill battle as they move into the later years of their career. It’s a constant battle that sees women stepping back or out of the workforce completely, before they even have the chance to move into an executive role. 

As Australia’s population continues to age, it’s a challenge that is only going to deepen in the decades to come. Yet most Australian organisations are not doing enough to encourage the participation of older women in the workforce. In fact, 18% of leaders admit they would be open to recruiting people aged over 50 only to a small extent, or not at all. 

Concerningly, a further 18% say they simply wouldn’t hire a person aged 65 or above (source: Australian Human Resources Institute).


The benefits of diversity in the workplace

Those employers who are opposed to bringing older workers into the workforce – and older women in particular – are missing a significant opportunity. 

Firstly, there are the headline benefits that come alongside greater diversity in the workplace in general. These include better business performance, enhanced innovation and creativity, and access to a broader skills pool during a time of shortages across most industries. 

However, there are also benefits specific to older workers. OECD research concludes that organisations with 10% more older workers than the average have 1.1% greater productivity. This could represent the equivalent of several billion dollars’ worth of benefits to the Australian economy on an annual basis. They also bring levels of experience and knowledge that younger workers simply haven’t had the time to develop. 

Finally, anecdotal evidence from our network also suggests that older women in particular tend to bring numerous interpersonal qualities that are beneficial for those around them; including the fact they tend to be more loyal to their employer and less likely to “job hop” – if you’ve created the right environment in which they can flourish (more on that below).

“Many mature female employees are vital, vibrant, interesting and interested women who have a lot of wisdom and experience to share,” according to Melissa Richardson, founder of Art of Mentoring. “And yet, the evidence suggests they are being completely under-utilised.”


What employers can do about it

Employers should consider taking action on this important issue, but that doesn’t mean starting from scratch. According to Jenny Fagg, an experienced senior executive who currently sits on the board of Bank of Queensland and the National Breast Council Foundation, the interventions should not be fundamentally different from what you may already be doing in other areas of gender diversity. 

“A key recommendation is to revisit the tried and tested routes and precedents to address other forms of discrimination in the workplace, and then apply them to the older women cohort,” said Jenny. 

Consider applying the following strategies to your workplace: 

  1. Review your diversity and inclusion agenda. Most organisations have a diversity and inclusion agenda in some form – but how broad is yours? Are you focused on one or two groups and neglecting others? A truly robust diversity and inclusion agenda will aim to encourage participation across multiple groups, by gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, national origin and yes – age.
  2. Align your agenda with your policies. Once you have an agreed diversity and inclusion agenda at the leadership level, ownership  accountability is the next critical step. This means drafting or updating policies and guidelines, ensuring there is specific mention of each group, and publishing them on your website and social media channels.
  3. Review your recruitment experience. The next consideration is whether your recruitment experience is designed to attract interest from a range of candidates – including older workers. Nikki Beaumont, CEO of Beaumont People recommends that  recruitment specialists, hiring managers and leadership teams should consider the following:
    – How are you representing your employee experience to candidates on your website and other external channels?
    – Are you using inclusive language in your recruitment communications?
    – Do you have diverse representation, including older workers, on each recruitment panel to ensure considered hiring decisions?
  4. Offer employees flexible working practices and open communication. Flexible working practices appeal to most people – and that includes older people. Ensure you have a clear position on flexible working and that your people managers are empowered to act on it. Likewise, encourage your people managers to have open and honest conversations with older workers about the journey to retirement and whether or not a staged or flexible retirement might be possible.
  5. Invest in training and mentoring. Many people assume that older workers will not be successful in a particular role because of a perceived skills gap, often technological. This is a dangerous assumption. Technological proficiency very much depends on the individual and we see a wide range of abilities across all age groups. In any case, if a skills gap does exist, it can usually be bridged with a reasonable amount of training.

    Another option to consider is the implementation of a formal or informal mentoring program to encourage knowledge transfer between team members, or even the broader workforce. Technical skills acquired via training courses can be amplified through lived-experience shared in mentoring conversations.

Mentoring programs can be undertaken in a range of formats, including peer-to-peer, reverse, reciprocal and group. The observable benefits of a formalised program include tapping into deep knowledge and experience within your workforce; as well as breaking down intergenerational barriers.


A call to action

Art of Mentoring supports Chief Executive Women‘s call for all Australian companies to build more inclusive, flexible and respectful workplaces, with gender-balanced workforces and leadership teams.

We also call on employers to pay particular attention to their policies and practices when it comes to including older Australians in the workforce, especially women, who face a unique set of challenges due to the intersection of gender and age bias.

An investment in age and gender equality will prove beneficial for employers looking to hire and retain the best talent, as well as boosting productivity and innovation across the broader economy.

©Laura Butler
Chief Growth Officer, Art of Mentoring 2023

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