Gendered Ageism by Mollie Wood of Janikin
In recent years there has been a rise in outreach programs, training schemes and platforms focused on educating, inspiring and attracting young women to the field of Engineering. Examples of such efforts include social media platforms like Engineer girl, training schemes like the Engineering Summer School run by Imperial College London for year 9 girls and outreach days organised by several universities including Southampton and Birmingham. Much of the support developed for girls in STEM is a result of the hard work from older women who came before them. Yet these women who have led the way need to be supported too. Gendered Ageism- the double jeopardy of being marginalised due to gender and age- is a pervasive problem across all occupations, yet its severity differs depending on the profession. The term was originated in 1993 by Itzin and Phillipson during their study on age barriers at work. When attempting to understand the deterioration of an older woman’s status, they concluded that both society’s fixation on youth and presiding patriarchal norms must be considered. As a historically male dominated industry, Engineering still harbours remnants of the “boys club” mentality. In such environments gender stereotypes are amplified and the female body is more heavily stigmatised and silenced. 40% of women who earn an engineering degree either quit or never enter the profession. The Engineering industry’s endeavours to build a pipeline of female talent will be unsuccessful if these leaks, further down the line, are not fixed. Adjustments need to be made, and this disempowered cohort must be heard.
The problem of Gendered Ageism in Engineering
Statistics from the charity Age UK highlight ageism as the most common form of discrimination in Europe. And yet ageing is a fate that awaits us all. Ageism reveals society’s stereotypical construction of the elderly. Negative labels typically include adjectives like rigid, weak, slow, unproductive and grumpy. Such assumptions not only impact our treatment of older generations but, also establish the lens through which we view our own ageing body. Unsurprisingly much of the discourse around ageism has concentrated on the early retirement and exit of male workers. Despite this focus, women are more likely to experience ageism during their professional lives and it is probable that such discrimination will begin earlier than it does for men. Older women constitute a growing demographic within the labour market as current statistics reveal that 4.3 million women aged 50 and over are employed in the UK. Between 1994 and 2014, this cohort accounted for 72% of the growth in women’s employment. Yet the perspectives of older women remain unheard and unexplored.
Challenging Beauty Norms: When I’m Bold and Grey
The preservation of youth is an ageist beauty norm that has reigned over Western societies for centuries. Internalised beauty ideals become more pronounced and anxiety inducing as we enter the later stages of life. Physical changes can become the source of troubled identities as the chasm between our external appearance and inner self perception grow. In ageing literature, social invisibility is a recurrent theme, a sense of erasure more commonly expressed by women than men. When men age, they are often seen as more distinguished and attractive. The “George Clooney Effect”- a term used by psychologists to explain the scenario of younger women being drawn to older men- supports this notion. Comparatively, female attractiveness tends to be depicted as a deteriorating asset that must be protected through various forms of beauty work such as buying “younger” clothes, applying anti-aging cream, wearing make-up, dyeing hair, or getting plastic surgery. Society encourages women to conceal stigmatised attributes of ageing whilst cautioning them to also “age gracefully”: such a double bind creates a difficult tightrope for older women to walk. A study by Marjut Jyrkinen (2014), found that female managers felt obliged to “keep up their looks” in order to be successful in their careers. Accustomed to being reduced to an aesthetic object, it is unsurprising then, that women feel more defined by their ageing body than men. Just consider the cliched social rule, “Never ask a woman her age” which negatively codes age as if it’s a dirty secret that should be hidden. The result of this gender ageist conception of growing old is to erode a woman’s self-confidence and sense of self. Easy steps employers can take to counteract the feeling of social invisibility and exclusion include challenging their own age-related assumptions, ensuring they listen rather than interrupting female employees and acknowledging their ideas.
Phrases such as “when I’m old and grey” reveal a potent and universal symbol of age that is often the site of beauty work: grey hair. An emerging trend after lockdown and the temporary closure of hair salons, finds women embracing their natural hair colour. As women move to challenge their internalised gender-ageist notions, society must do so also. Employers should recognise these women for who they truly are: bold and grey.
Menopause within the Workplace
Increased rates of employment among women aged 50 and above means that more employees than ever will experience symptoms of menopause during work. Within industrialised countries, the average age of menopause is 51 and the median age for moving into perimenopause is 47.5. However, menopause remains a taboo and silent issue within businesses. In fact, the stigmatisation of menopause extends beyond the workplace as there is a lack of scientific and academic research, insufficient coverage within the media and an absence of government legislation: the working lives of this cohort, their experiences and aspirations, go unrecognised. Men hold the majority of positions in power around the world. In the UK, women hold 24% of all board seats in the energy sector and only 14% of executive director roles. It comes as no shock then, that policies and educating measures are non-existent in most organisations as menopause falls outside of the male realm of experience. Such policies are clearly needed as between 2018 and 2017, there were 37 Employment Tribunal cases, that referenced menopause as the central issue in their unfair dismissal and sex discrimination claims.
It is important to note that menopause affects women in various ways with differing levels of severity. However common symptoms include fatigue, hot flushes, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Although symptoms can be debilitating, many undergoing menopause suffer in silence. Research shows that 3 in 5 (60%) menopausal women are affected by the symptoms of menopause at work and that globally menopause related productivity losses amount to $810 billion a year. One reason for this loss is the proportion of women who take extensive periods of sick leave or resign as a result of experiencing severe menopause symptoms at work. This outcome leads to organisations losing knowledge, talent, experience and a significant perspective.
Women may adopt a range of coping strategies for navigating menopause symptoms
in a professional setting from leaving their profession, to concealing and managing symptoms or disclosing difficulties to others at work. A UK study by Reynolds (1999) found that 28% of her mid-life respondents had told no one at work about their hot flushes. She also discovered that those reporting the highest levels of distress were the least likely to disclose their symptoms to a colleague due to embarrassment or fear of being stereotyped.
There are a number of ways employers can support female employees, during this stage in their life. An important step is creating a conducive work environment by offering flexible working hours to menopausal employees, improving ventilation in the workplace and providing comfortable hygiene facilities equipped with sanitary products. Employers should provide training to employees and line managers on menopause and its symptoms as without a basic understanding, it is difficult to gauge the further adjustments that could be necessary. World Menopause Day (18th October 2022) provides a great opportunity for organising educational events. Last year the Royal Academy of Engineering utilised this international day by holding a session called “Menopause at work-let’s start the conversation,” in addition to introducing a menopause policy. Open discussions such as this allow women to build a support network by finding strength in the colleagues who share their experience, and allies in the colleagues attempting to understand this life event.
No Right Age: Gendered Ageism throughout the Female Career
Entry as well as exit from the labour market can be impacted by gendered ageism. Women beginning their careers may experience the “Girling phenomenon” where female employees, despite being adults, are referred to as “girls” by their male colleagues and superiors. In work contexts, the use of “girl” is derogatory and likely reveals gender-ageist assumptions associated with young women such a lack of skills, knowledge, and experience.
On a study exploring the gender ageism experienced by Women Managers, Jyrkinen uncovered a feeling of “always being the wrong age” amongst the female respondents. Susan, a 56-year-old business owner, explained that female managers are always placed under a microscope in the workplace. She pinpointed the “best age” as between 38 and 40 years. Another female manager echoed Susan’s thoughts, commenting, “When one gets to her 40s then she is already too old. Whatever age you are there is always something negative”. A woman beginning her career is just a naive girl, a woman mid-career may be confined by motherhood and soon after this she becomes invisible.
Research by RAE suggests that female engineers tend to leave their profession before reaching the menopausal stage of their lives as 57% of women drop off the register before the age of 45, compared with just 175 of male engineers. Further evidence illustrates that two thirds of female engineers do not resume their engineering career after taking maternity leave. Reasons given for leaving the profession include having to sacrifice one’s work- life balance due 40+ hour weeks, a lack of flexibility and the scarcity of part time roles. Sanj Sood, the Managing Director of Janikin Energy, is keen to add a working mother to his recruitment team stating:
“I watched my mother bring up 3 children single-handedly whilst maintaining a full-time job – she is an example of the calibre of individual the world is missing out on. This was an era without technology – no mobiles / laptops etc. so there was an extra pressure involved in managing daily pressures. The skills of parenting – day to day organisation, planning, guidance, role modelling and sheer hard work -are so valuable in today’s modern workplace. We should all tap into this talent”.
Sanj Sood is not the only one who sees the value of hiring employees furnished with a toolkit of life skills. The STEM Returners program, run by Marine People, helps experienced candidates restart their career and encourages employers to interpret CV gaps differently. Instead of connoting a deterioration of skills a career break should be reconceived as an experience that allows candidates to develop new abilities, renew their energy and refresh their perspective.
A report entitled “Stemming the Tide: Why women leave Engineering” found that women were less likely to leave their profession and organisation if they had supportive co-workers and supervisors, their training and development was invested in, and they had clarity regarding their role expectations and career trajectory. Engineering has been irrevocably changed by the work of female engineers, from historical figures like Alice H. Parker, responsible for revolutionising the home heating system, to current figures like Danielle Merfeld who is spearheading GE’s broad renewable energy portfolio. Now it is the industry’s turn to adapt in order to retain the talented, pioneering female engineers who have led the way.
Adams, Rebecca. 2014. 40 Percent Of Female Engineers Are Leaving The Field. This Might Be Why. August 12. Accessed March 2022. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/female-engineers_n_5668504.
Ayalon, Clemens Tesch-Romer and Liat. 2018. Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. SpringerOpen.
Bloomberg. 2022. Confronting the taboo surrounding menopause in the workplace. January 28. Accessed March 18, 2022.
Fairweather, Liz. 2011. Age UK shows age discrimination is rife in Europe. March 3rd. Accessed Febuary 2022. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/latest-press/archive/age-uk-research-shows-age-discrimination-is-rife-in-europe/#:~:text=New%20research%20commissioned%20by%20Age,discrimination%20as%20a%20serious%20problem.
Joanna Brewis, Vanesa Beck, Andrea Daves and Jesse Matheson. 2017. The efects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK. University of Leicester.
Jyrkinen, Marjut. 2014. “Women managers, careers and gendered ageism.” Scandinavian Journal of Management 175-185.
Nadya A. Fouad, Romila Singh. n.d. “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave y.”
POWERful Women. 2021. Powerful Women Board Statistics 2021 Launch. Accessed February 18, 2022. https://powerfulwomen.org.uk/2021/05/19/powerful-women-board-statistics-2021-launch/.
Singh, Nadya A. Fouad and Romila. 2011. Stemming the Tide: Why women leave Engineering . University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Stephenson Harwood. 2021. Menopause and the workplace: what do employers need to know? September 30 . Accessed February 20, 2022.
Vanessa Cecil, Louisa F Pendry and Jessica Salvatore. 2021. “Gendered Ageism and Gray Hair: Must Older Women Choose between feeling authentic and Looking Competent? .” Women and Aging 16.
 (Ayalon 2018)
 (Adams 2014)
 (Fairweather 2011)
 (Joanna Brewis 2017)
 (Jyrkinen 2014)
 (Joanna Brewis 2017)
 (POWERful Women 2021)
 (Stephenson Harwood 2021)
 (Bloomberg 2022)
 (Joanna Brewis 2017)
 (Jyrkinen 2014)
 (Jyrkinen 2014)
 (Singh 2011)