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Age Discrimination: Proof It’s Worse for Women

What researchers learned after submitting 40,000 job applications


Many boomers hope to keep working into their 60s or beyond, perhaps part-time during retirement. But new research suggests this might prove especially challenging for women. The National Bureau of Economic Research study, Is It Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? , offers “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.”

I’ll fill you in on the findings and then provide experts’ advice for older women who are either looking for work or plan to do so.

To conduct the study, economists David Neumark and Ian Burn of University of California-Irvine and Patrick Button of Tulane University submitted more than 40,000 mock applications for jobs in 12 cities that were advertised online in four job categories: office administration, retail sales, security guard and janitor. The “applicants” fell into three age groups, younger (29 to 31); middle-aged (49 to 51) and older (64 to 66) and all the “older” resumes were for people with more than five years of work experience.

Highlights From the Study

The researchers found that female applicants in their mid-60s were much less likely to be called back for job interviews when applying for low-skilled jobs than men that age were.

In sales, “we find considerably stronger evidence of discrimination against older women than older men,” the study said.

In addition, the employers were less likely to call in older applicants overall for interviews in three categories — office administration, retail sales and security guard. Among all four categories, callback rates were about 35 percent lower for older workers than for younger workers.

“Most of our evidence indicates that discrimination against job applicants near the retirement age (64-66) is stronger than for middle-aged workers (49-51),” the study said.

For the sales jobs, younger applicants were more likely than older ones to be asked in for interviews, but the gap was twice as large among women over 60 than men over 60. In sales, “we find considerably stronger evidence of discrimination against older women than older men,” the study said.

For administrative jobs, ranging from receptionist to office manager, older women were less likely to be called in for interviews, too.

Although the study did reveal age discrimination against men over 60 for some of the occupations, the bias against them was less than the authors expected.

“I was surprised by the weaker evidence of age discrimination towards men, Neumark told me. “It was not nearly as strong as past studies would indicate.”

The study’s authors suggest two possible reasons why older female job seekers face more age discrimination than males: Age discrimination laws do less to protect older women who may suffer from both age and sex discrimination and, based on earlier research, they say “physical appearance matters more for women” since “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.”

Clearly, for the millions of boomer women who hope to keep working full-time or transition into part-time or “bridge jobs” during retirement, this study offers a sobering reminder that age discrimination is, sadly, very much alive and well.

My Next Avenue colleague Kerry Hannon has written about ways women job seekers can beat age discrimination, and I encourage you to read this article by her.

Advice For Women 60+ From One of the Study’s Authors

For even more advice, I asked Neumark how he thought women 60+ could counter age bias in their job searches. He shared three insights:

Consider phasing into retirement at the job where you currently work, rather than looking for a new employer. Changing jobs after 60 isn’t easy, Neumark noted. So it might make more sense to talk with your manager about ways you could work differently there: reduced hours, a flexible schedule or shifting into a role that is less demanding physically.

If you want a new job, plan on a long search. “Anticipate that there may be a lack of interest in your application,” said Neumark. The more attempts you make, the more you’ll increase the odds of success.

Leverage your network to find a new job. Neumark emphasized that this study only evaluated lower-skilled jobs that are typically filled through online applications. But older professionals may be able to find fulfilling retirement jobs, consulting assignments and project gigs through their network of colleagues and clients.

A Career Counselor’s Advice For Women 60+

I also asked Mary Eileen Williams, a career counselor and author of Land the Job You Love! 10 Surefire Strategies for Jobseekers Over 50 , for her thoughts. She offered these three tips:

Use powerful words on your resumé that highlight your accomplishments and stress the results you are capable of achieving. Such words include: Exceeded, Expanded, Increased, Maximized and Saved. Then follow these words with percentages or other quantitative markers of your success.

You also want to underscore your leadership abilities and your demonstrated initiative using words like: developed, drove, eliminated, implemented, launched, turned around, managed, produced and spearheaded.

In job interviews, dispel any perception that you lack energy or enthusiasm due to your age. Hiring managers want to employ can-do workers who will add positive energy and value to their team and who’ll make their organization look good. A few ways Williams suggests to counter age discrimination:

Project energy and confidence through your posture, handshake, eye contact, vocal tone and smile.

Present a youthful appearance. Yes, this may seem silly and perhaps even a little offensive, but it’s also the reality. Be certain your outfit is stylish and is similar to what the employer’s staff wears. If you wear glasses, make sure they’re contemporary. If necessary, whiten your teeth. And if gray hair is not your friend, consider coloring it.

Avoid using weak words and phrases such as I feel, I hope, I was wondering, my opinion and sort of.

By this point in your life, you probably have loads of business contacts, so use some for job referrals. When you spot an interesting job opportunity, the first question you should ask yourself is: “Who do I know who might work there or who might have ties to someone who works there?” Then, use social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) to arrange a face-to-face meeting.

If you’re recommended by a friend of a friend of a friend (a down-the-line contact), make an effort to build a personal relationship. Nothing beats an enthusiastic nod to get you through the door.

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