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Older Women in the Job Market

As a college student, I often worry about competing in the job market and wonder where to start when you need job experience before you can get job experience. It seems as though the more experience you have, the more likely you should be to get hired; this certainly makes sense. At a certain point, however, the opposite is true, particularly for women.

Older women are significantly less likely to get hired, despite a built up wealth of experience. The effects of this can be particularly damaging since women earn less throughout their lives. Losing a job and then finding difficulty re-entering the workforce in their fifties means that women might have a more difficult time amassing enough savings for retirement.

Several studies have researched this barrier to entry for older women. A study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis examined the effects of the recession on long-term unemployment across age and gender. Their data shows that the long term unemployment-to-unemployment ratio for older women increased from 14% to 50% following the recession. Although the study suggests that the large increase could be due to sampling errors, the general trend is that a higher proportion of unemployed older women have been unemployed for long periods of time. And even as the economy is improving and people are returning to work, older women are nevertheless having a more difficult time when it comes to hiring.

It's possible that companies may be unwilling to hire older workers because they would want an employee to work for a longer period of time. They may also assume they would have to pay an older worker more than a younger worker because of his or her experience. These reasons don't, however, explain the differences noted between older men and older women.

Another recent study done by David Neumark, Ian Burn, and Patrick Button through the National Bureau of Economic Research highlighted this same issue. In the study, summarized in this Forbes article, researchers sent out 40,000 fake applications for jobs across 12 cities in the office administration, retail sales, security guard, and janitor. The applicants were in three age categories. The study found that callback rates were 35 percent lower for older applicants compared to their younger competitors and "robust evidence of age discrimination against older women." When interviewed, Neumark stated that he was “surprised by the weaker evidence of age discrimination towards men.”

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But it’s not really that surprising when you consider social values and expectations that underpin these hiring practices.

Neumark and his coworkers suggest that age discrimination laws don’t sufficiently address the issues that women face, allowing the problem to persist as an explanation for this discrimination. One other reason is that people may assume that women have taken time off to care for children, therefore leaving them with less professional experience than men of their age.

Here are two areas where concrete steps can be taken to solve a visible issue. Currently, only 12 percent of people working in the U.S. private sector are eligible for paid family leave through their work. If companies began offering paid leave for both parents (currently even U.S. paid maternity leave is lacking compared to other countries) once a child is born, this could start shifting societal expectation for responsibility of child care more evenly between men and women. Women wouldn’t face a disadvantage in being expected to take time off from work to care for a child and penalized if they do. Plus, this action would help avoid setting up the choice that many women feel they must make: Between a job and raising children. And we could do more to ensure that age discrimination laws more effectively address the needs of women.

Another reason for this discrimination cited by the study is the role of appearance for women. In our society, we wrongly attribute value to women based on their appearance. We also believe that age detracts from beauty, particularly for women. Thus we devalue women as soon as their appearance is altered in a supposedly unflattering way due to age. The perception of older women as less attractive and appealing and therefore less “good” harms them when looking for a job, whether or not that decision is a conscious thought process on the part of the person hiring. It’s a correlation that we often see reflected in popular culture, and even in a lot of the stories we grew up hearing as children. Old equals ugly equals evil, especially in the context of an old witches.

The issue of discriminatory hiring practices against older women is not one widely discussed, but it is an important one, particularly because there are several problems in our society that interact to culminate in this one larger issue. Truly providing equal opportunities for older women involves examining and addressing the issues that cause and allow these hiring practices to exist.

Mayukha Karnam ‘19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.

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