The Goldilocks Dilemma and Age Bias

by | May 20, 2018

Women encounter age bias at every point in their careers

Too young and too old, is age bias women hear all the time. But what age is just right? 

The "Goldilocks Dilemma" (too much/not enough/just right) that women face on an everyday level is never more apparent when it comes to age. Is there ever a right age for a woman? Women face age bias at every stage of their lives. The reality there is no ideal age for women in business or industry. Women encounter complex challenges at many points in their careers around issues such as their appearance, whether or not they are ambitions, their smile, how much makeup they wear or  being received abrasive or aggressive or too soft.

Too young

Reverse age bias is discrimination against young people because of a perceived lack of experience in a sector or function. Young professional women in particular fight bias in their twenties compared to men of a similar age. Young women are considered to pose potential flight or pregnancy risks if they are in relationships. In the 21st century we still have women concealing the fact that they have a partner or have children. Compare and contrast this to the way men of a similar age are idealized as being high energy forward thinking and dynamic makes for a stark contrast. The fact is that a  twenty something or even teen male tech geek wearing a hoodie and sneakers, will still be taken seriously for what he can do rather than the way he looks. A woman risks being doubted.

Culturally age is a driving force. Young women are idealized for being beautiful and sexy. At a primal level this means fertile. We are obsessed with a need to be youthful.  The anti-aging industry for both products and procedures is a multi-million dollar business. Whether this is full on plastic surgery, or non invasive processes  and cosmetics a whole industry sector relies on women feeling insecure for success. Yet good looks and sex appeal equate with having babies which is something that is not appreciated in a business context.

So the message it seems is that it is fine to be young and beautiful as long as you don't want to be professionally successful.

Missing potential

 Venture Capital  published research in July 2017 which suggests that all-male teams who seek venture capital are 4 times more likely to get it than teams with even one woman on them. The numbers decline as women become more prominent in the groups seeking funding: 97% of all the venture capital given out in the United States between 2011 and 2013 was presented to a company with a male CEO. Women even claim to have a male co-founder to allay concerns that they are female run organisations to beat sexism and age bias.

Sweden which is top ranked for gender parity, reports disappointing findings   Research between 2009 -2010 in venture capital applications in Sweden between 2009 and 2010, found that men's applications were described by VC investors as "young and promising" and "cautious but level-headed," while women's were described as "too cautious" and "young and inexperienced."

The perception and age bias had financial impact: On average, women run start-ups received 25% of  requested financing with 53% of applications dismissed totally, while male entrepreneurs received double at 52% with only 38% of rejections. The loss in terms of creativity and innovation is un-measurable.

Caught in the middle

Age bias hits the thirty somethings with concerns about their reproduction. Will they or won't they? I have never heard of a man being asked if he intends to start a family.  If women do have children their bosses question their attitudes to male coded presence cultures and their leadership commitment and ambitions are called into question. Many opt to leave organisations at this point or decide to stay put in roles where their potential is unrealized. Male leaders scratch their heads and look confused. Why they ask? The answers should be obvious .....but they are not. It really isn't complicated.

Too old

And as I'm writing this I hear cries from women over 45 who feel the clock ticking against them with intensifying age bias They are already outraged that they are excluded more and more frequently or feel blocked in their careers. Maybe they have taken career gaps or have caring responsibilities. They worry about their appearance and their hair going grey.  Notice how we talk of father time. Women are caught at another stage in their lives in an impossible bind, particularly professionally.

In a recent interview, Ben Broadbent, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England told the Daily Telegraph that the British economy is “menopausal”. That means, he elaborated, “you’re past your productive peak, you’re no longer potent”. Mr. Broadbent has clearly never heard of "menopausal zest" a period in her life when released from motherhood obligations she can throw herself into new ventures and projects with higher energy than her male counterparts.

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Pension poverty

In the US research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco indicates that older workers, particularly women, face an increasingly difficult time getting jobs, according to a new report in

In the largest study of its kind, 3 economists created 40,000 fictitious applications and submitted them online for some 13,000 lower-skilled jobs as sales people, administrative assistants, security guards and janitors. The experiment highlighted “compelling evidence” that women experience age discrimination in hiring, and the inequity intensifies with age. The older the woman, the less likely she was to hear back from potential employers.

The EU describes the aging female population with insufficient retirement funds as a "ticking time bomb" as a result of being caught low paid work, part-time or with career gaps.

When is just right?

So when is it a good age to be a professional woman? There will also be a contingent of women who say they have never had a problem. Perhaps they haven't. But there are many hidden downsides of being part of a non-inclusive workplace culture.  Research from Deloitte suggests that when individual employee adopt strategies to fit into a organisations where the culture is not in alignment with their goals and values, in itself creates invisible problems: 16%  are less committed to the organisation, 14% lower sense of belonging to the organisation, 15% less likely to perceive having opportunities to advance, and 27% more likely to have considered leaving the organisation in the past twelve months.

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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