Facing Gendered Ageism: How to Retain Senior Women Leaders
Older women in leadership roles can help fill the talent shortage, provide mentorship and sponsorship, serve as role models for other women within organizations interested in improving gender diversity and retention in leadership, and support higher profitability. Yet they often face an uphill battle with gendered ageism, a problem that is often not included in organizational DEI initiatives.
In my last post on how organizations can transform leadership development for women, I shared that I would be interviewing women leaders as well as allies and specialists (e.g., HR, executives, DEI experts) who could offer different perspectives of women’s lived experiences, how women are navigating, what is currently being done, and where gaps remain.
For this post, I am sharing LA Glassford’s journey. LA had a corporate career spanning global fashion brands, start-up telecommunication companies, and global multi-billion dollar real estate development. As the founder and President of The Glassford Group Ltd., she now provides advisory consulting and coaching services specializing in women in leadership and ageism.
Her experiences can help highlight gendered ageism concerns at multiple levels: the individual, organizational, and societal.
Being devalued after early career success is confusing, though perhaps not surprising. Women receive a lifetime of overt messages about the value of youth. They also receive subtle messages about their value being connected to their service and subservience to others. When they visibly age and begin to gain more influence and decision-making power, many experience a double backlash. LA shared from her experience:
“Even when women are encouraged and supported for their work early in their career, as they get older and more confident on the inside, drive revenue for their companies successfully, and have higher level decision-making power and influence, once their bodies reflect those years, they experience their work being devalued.”
As a result of these experiences, LA has seen women feel like they then need to “chase youth to combat this psychological warfare with needles, facelifts, hair color, etc., even though these changes have nothing to do with their intelligence, ability to navigate roadblocks, lead a team, or lead a company.” This phenomenon, called lookism by some, occurs when older women face marginalization based on gendered beauty standards and feel compelled to change their looks. According to LA:
“Women get to that point in their career where they finally find their voice and suddenly find themselves battling self-doubt for a different reason: because decisions are made about their value. It erodes confidence, increases self-doubt, and affects our mental health.”
More research is coming out about these experiences, including women reporting concealing their age during interviews, being weeded out by job description jargon, being told they would not be a good fit because they would be “bored” due to being “overqualified,” and receiving lower compensation for senior roles and titles which reduces their financial security over time.
LA noted, “When a woman is ousted, restructured, fired, asked to retire early, or pushed out with other euphemisms, her career prospects can be challenging.”
Losing high-level women in leadership at the organizational level doesn’t only impact the individuals. It also has a ripple effect on the organizational culture. LA explains:
“Other younger women in the organization lose the scaffolding available for mentorship and sponsorship that was previously there and instead get ongoing messages about what it means to age as a woman. Employees are watching how you hire, who you hire, who you fire, who you’re restructuring, and who’s getting promotions, and they wonder if they can see themselves at that organization and whether there is a path for them.”
When you either don’t see yourself in the available mentors or role models in an organization or you see most of them leave, it affects your evaluation of the organization and culture. It causes you to wonder whether you are a good fit.
Women receive more messages about demonstrating “confidence” and “ambition” to be promoted. Still, it’s hard to feel confident in a culture that doesn’t seem to value women in higher leadership roles.
It’s self-perpetuating. When you lose mentors within an organization, regardless of gender or age, it’s a loss of talent in the system. But when you lose more women than men mentors, it causes a different kind of loss because you perpetuate the cycle of gender inequality—in leadership styles, in who is promoted, etc.
Collective Societal Level
LA provided a great example of lookism at the societal level:
“When the ‘Sex and the City’ movie came out, there was a meme that went around of a picture of the three stars of ‘Sex in the City,’ next to the picture of the three stars of ‘Golden Girls’ and it said, ‘Wow, 55 looks a lot different now, huh?’ While it was meant to be a comment about how great they look, it was an insult. The Golden Girls were of no less consequence, worth, or contribution because of their vessel (i.e., body appearance). Similarly, these same messages can have a toppling effect in an organization.”
Gendered messages at the societal level seep into organizational cultures. The end result is that decisions about hiring, retention, and promotion will match who we deem societally as “having value.”
What Can Companies Do to Minimize the Effects of Gendered Ageism?
LA states: “If a company wanted to change, it’s very easy to change,” and offered these suggestions:
- Take a deeper dive into the HR turnover report data. LA suggests, “Look at the data beyond the company level and into the department and leadership level. The red flags will be more apparent if you have an ageism problem because you will see no older women in leadership positions.”
- Mandate it. Have a meeting with your leaders to explain the policy or mandates around acceptable hiring, firing, and promotion behaviors. State the expectations clearly. LA says, “You cannot expect people to follow a rule or expectation that has not been stated. Compliance will remain fluid unless there is a mandate.”
- Measure what you mandate. You cannot expect people to follow a policy that is not enforced or tracked.
- Manage recession fears. During a recession, companies might be more inclined to cut what might be considered “ancillary” to the business, such as programs focused on DEI and other human-centered training. However, according to LA, these should not be considered “trends.” These help a company differentiate itself as a preferred workplace—not only because they support all employees but also because they yield higher profits (see also the Peterson Institute for International Economics research here).
- Become a good mentor and sponsor. LA recalls an impactful female mentor she had in her first role in fashion which provided her with the advice she still uses today: “The moment you get a role, you need to identify what is required to get to the next level from the person who makes that decision if you want that.” She recalls that in later jobs, the absence of that kind of adequate mentorship by a role model that focused on career drivers led to greater difficulties in navigating the system and meeting career aspirations, especially in male-dominated spaces. “There was all this new ambiguity about how to get a promotion. I’ve always been a bit of a disruptor, but now I feared raising concerns—that if I spoke up, I wouldn’t get a promotion or be considered for that important trip. I now spend my energy speaking louder for women and helping them extinguish that fear.”