The Invisibility Cloak: The Working World for Women As They Age

Young women starting out on their career journeys know you have to be determined, figure out how to handle discrimination, sexism and harassment, and progress your career in the face of all of this. This is not the case in every career path, or for every woman, but there is extensive data which shows this is the case for most, with over half of women saying their workplace is sexist. 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, women still earn less money than men during their careers. Take a look at the gender pay gap reporting to see how wide that disparity can be, with Covid-19 widening that gap even further.

Add to that the fact that, when families decide to have children, it is almost always the woman who is required to take time away from work to care for their family until the children are older. Fewer than 1 in 3 fathers take paternity leave, largely due to financial constraints.  Not all women have children, but many do, and it means a further hurdle for them on the route to career progression and higher earnings.

After all this, however, after breaking through sexist cultures and pushing to keep pace with male colleagues for promotion, after sacrificing years of their careers to create and raise the next generation, after battling to get back into work and be taken seriously, what then? Are we celebrating older women for the huge strides they’ve made in the face of adversity and the rich life experiences they’ve accumulated? Sadly, not so much. It seems, instead, there is an invisibility cloak that means older women are overlooked to an even greater degree than they were as young women starting out.

The Cloak

A woman I spoke to talked about her life as a young woman as she progressed her career. She had a company car, an assistant, and was the top sales person in her company, driving around the country living a seemingly glamorous life and feeling confident and successful. Sure, there were sexist comments and behaviour to endure, but she knew how to handle them as she lived her Soho life and enjoyed her success.

She took a break to have two children, and in those intervening years did the roles she describes as ‘Mummy jobs’. She worked at a call centre in the evening, then she worked for a friend; roles which fitted in around her children’s school times and allowed her husband to work full-time, as she fitted in her life around her family.

As her children grew up, she decided to go back into the workplace full-time. She secured a role at a global corporation – in a much more junior role than she held before having children, but she figured she would soon work her way up. The first inkling she had of a change in people’s perception of her was on a night out, when she heard men in the bar saying to her colleagues, “oh, out with your Mum are you?” It seemed she was an affront to them in some way, as an older woman having a good time in the same bar as them.

She realised that, whilst many people want to see young, attractive women on a work evening out, older women, likely to be wives and mothers, raise unconscious thoughts of “shouldn’t she be at home?”

Is this perhaps what causes many women to adapt their behaviour to overcome this? Perhaps becoming more strident, or pushy, which then gets them labelled as bossy or difficult?

Acting Your Age

It’s not just in companies that this is a problem. Mary Clark’s ‘Acting Your Age’ campaign in film and TV highlights how men can play any roles they want as they age, but, for women, finding roles becomes harder and harder. She writes:

“I’m 51 and over the last few years I became aware that I have a superpower. I always wanted a superpower but strength, speed, the capacity to fly and x ray vision is nothing, when compared to the middle-aged woman’s ability to be invisible.”

She goes onto say:

“Men still get to play romantic leads, women over 40 if featured at all, are seemingly cast as supportive ex-wives, bitter ex-wives or therapists.”

This discrimination appears everywhere. The BBC reported that women hold less than one-third of all top jobs across all sectors, jobs that are mostly filled by older men. In the charity sector, whilst the average age of trustees is 62, 1 in 12 of those trustees are called either John or David. In FTSE 100 companies, there are more people called David or Steve leading the companies than there are women or ethnic minorities, underscoring the extent to which corporate Britain is still dominated by white men. They still occupy most leadership and board positions, whereas mature and experienced women, whether they have children or not, struggle to reach those senior levels of employment as they are masked by a cloak of invisibility.

Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women charts the extent to which women are invisible in so many things already; add age to that and it seems that, to many people, they vanish altogether. Oh, except for caring for elderly relatives: the data shows that it is disproportionately women who take on those caring responsibilities for parents and relatives as they age.

Revealing

So it seems that instead of valuing the life experiences women have as they grow older, they are made to feel that they don’t count at all. The woman I spoke to said, “we feel the pressure to remain young and attractive to stay employed”. Women face bias in the workplace, and feel pressured to look as young as possible to minimise the discrimination.

Ageism, as defined by author and activist Ashton Applewhite, “occurs when a dominant group uses its power to oppress or exploit or silence or simply ignore people who are much older or significantly younger.”  Of course, there will be the usual ‘whataboutery’ about this. Yes, what about men; yes, they do experience ageism too, but it does not hold back their careers to the same degree­.

Finding Yourself

There are ways for women to find a place for themselves as they age. The woman I interviewed tried different types of roles as she came back to the workplace after having children. She left the global corporation as she struggled to progress beyond a junior level there. She tried several trendy software companies where she was asked things like “aren’t you ashamed to be in such a junior role?”, a comment which still stings, making her want to say “don’t you know who I am? I used to be a top sales exec in Soho!”

On work evenings out, she always felt awkward; her colleagues were young enough to be her sons. She was one of them, in the same team, but didn’t feel like one of them at all. She struggled with understanding where she was in that team and realised she would always be overlooked for promotion. She didn’t fit the lad’s office culture of talking about football, girls and nights out. So she ditched the office culture completely and began studying instead. Now she’s in a new career path where her age and gender are an advantage.

It’s no coincidence that a growing number of women are starting their own businesses; the proportion of female-founded start-ups has doubled over the last decade, but women are still only 1 in 3 of UK entrepreneurs. There are factors at play here which are holding women back again. For example, venture capital firms are still largely male-dominated, with women gaining just 1.6% of start-up funding. Despite this, more and more women are starting their own businesses. And why not? It’s better than trying to fit into these strange company cultures or live a life with that invisibility cloak on.

What does it say about our society though? As pensions are delayed, and women are continuing to work later in life, are we allowing workplace culture to be dictated by too many of the same type of people? Are we missing out on the benefits of a diverse workforce? Older women with varied life experiences can offer things like insightful mentoring, are likely to make brilliant team managers, offer different perspectives and can be wonderful representatives for your company to the world.

It’s time to fling away the invisibility cloak and shine the spotlight on the skills these highly experienced people can bring to your workplace.

Can we help you reimagine your workplace to include everyone? Contact us to find out more.

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