Learning from the Older Women in Your Workforce

Last week was International Women’s Day, and I was surprised and pleased at how much recognition the day got, from hours of videos devoted to women musicians on MTV Classic to demonstrations, and even some publications, like the Village Voice, devoting the bulk of space on its Website to the women who helped build the newspaper.

But in corporate America, there hasn’t been nearly as much recognition of the contributions of women. In my own experience, older women are not viewed with the same level of professional respect that men are. For instance, within the last seven years, I noticed at my own full-time publication, a health-care trade publication, the hesitancy to run videotaped interviews of women doctors, whom my editor didn’t feel looked their best. I pointed out to him that he didn’t make the same considerations for our male subjects, and he suggested in defense that women are generally more concerned about appearance, and so would give us grief for running a video in which they didn’t look great (in his opinion). He noted that high-definition often wasn’t kind to “women of a certain age,” and commended me on “passing the high-definition test” when trying out his new high-definition video camera on me.

I’ve joked (about myself as a woman in her forties) that, reproductively speaking, women age in dog years compared to men. Whenever I said that, I always made sure to emphasize that I only meant reproductively, but now that I think about it, I believe there are still perceptions that make it harder for middle-aged, and older women to attain the same level of professional gravitas men of the same age enjoy.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, MarketWatch published “It’s time to celebrate what older women bring to the workplace,” pointing out just what I was concerned about—the challenges that still exist for older women, compared to younger, in the corporate world. The piece, by Kejal MacDonald, notes that while companies are investing more in developing younger women, many of those same companies still lack a significant representation on the company’s executive boards. The impact of that lack of representation is young women at the company don’t have role models to aspire to, creating a medium-is-the-message problem. The medium—the company itself—is undercutting its message of inclusion. “If companies are to invest in their younger women on any level, they must create a ramp for them to climb. Otherwise, these investments will go to waste, as class after class of young women leave the company over time,” MacDonald writes. “Women can see the odds. According to Accenture’s 2018 Getting to Equal report, women are three times more likely to move into senior leadership roles where at least one woman is already a senior executive.”

In addition to mentoring, development programs can try to weed out antiquated perceptions of, not just older women, but all women. The question is how to do that. I’ve noted on this blog before that I’ve found men still seem to have higher expectations set for them by managers. When I accomplish something, there still is a sense of surprise from our department head, while there’s a sense of surprise, and a frenzy to explain away and rationalize, when my tall, booming-voiced, male boss fails or proves disappointing.

Maybe an assessment that shows how employees perceive gender would be valuable. Do you know of a good resource that does this? I discovered this free gender perceptions assessment from SurveyMonkey: “SurveyMonkey and LeanIn.Org developed the Gender in the Workplace Survey, designed to help companies assess gender inclusivity at work. Use this template to capture employee attitudes toward the opportunities they’re given to succeed. You can even compare your results against the Women in the Workplace study to see how you measure up against peers.”

You might be surprised at how even men (and some women) who consider themselves enlightened, progressive people still hold damaging stereotypes about women in the workplace. The perception of women as bossy and shrill when asserting themselves still exists, as I’ve experienced myself, accused by my boss of “creating a department of one” instead of commended for showing leadership and getting the job done. I’m sure my story isn’t unusual.

Do you feel you have a good sense of the perceptions of women, both young and older, in your company’s workforce? What can you do as Learning professionals to bring those perceptions to light, and, when necessary, change them?

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