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5 ways to fight age and gender discrimination in the workplace

Keith MacKenzie
Keith MacKenzie

Passionate about human resources, employment, and business management, and an expert at sharing that expertise.

5 ways to fight age and gender discrimination in the workplace

On 24 January 2019, in Boston, Workable hosted a panel discussion titled Diversity in Gender & Age: The Career Challenges Faced by Women at All Ages, to talk about the specific challenges at the intersection of age and gender discrimination in the workplace. More than 120 people registered for the event to watch five panelists and a moderator discuss this unique topic in Workable’s Boston office.

Presiding were:

Because ageism and gender are already broadly covered topics in the area of diversity and inclusion, this event attempted to shine a light on the unique issues in the area where they cross. A video of the hour-long panel talk is below – meanwhile, read on to learn the key takeaways from the event:

1. Focus on the greater good

The office environment tends to be competitive, especially for women, and Britta called attention to the tension that comparing oneself to another can bring: “As the old saying goes, ‘Show that you’re a leader by your actions, and be outspoken, be yourself.’ That can really help you be perceived that way. But I think in general, I would shy away from any kind of competition or any kind of thinking that ‘I’ve worked for five years, I should be at this position and why am I not at this position’, and so forth.”

She said this was particularly important for women to be aware of themselves:

“This is [an] inherent idea that we have as women to have to look better. We have to perform better. We have to make the best pie. We have to order the best pizza. Be aware of that. Be aware of why you’re doing things. Make sure that you’re doing them for the right reasons. Then as manager, or even as peers, bond with your other female co-workers.”

Britta, as a manager herself, said she took a practical approach:

“If you’re older like me, and you see younger women, is there something that you can give back to these women? Overcome your own way of looking at yourself and who you are, try to reach back and try to pull women in.”

Felicia also noted the urge to compete:

“There’s a sense […] where if someone else gets support or resources, then that takes something away from me. Or I need to hoard everything for myself, so I’m not going to give advice or support.”

Rather, Felicia said, the opposite is what women should strive for:

“What I like to come back to a lot is this idea of a rising tide that lifts all boats – because it’s not just about women competing or supporting with each other.”

“It’s about everyone supporting and not having to be us trying to get our piece of the pie and keep that to ourselves.”

Britta emphasized the importance of not falling into that competitive mindset:

Keeping an eye on the big picture is essential, Kristin added. “This is maintaining the focus on the greater mission, the greater good. The makeup of how you get there and who makes that up should not matter. It should just be the best people that will help you push to that mission. So if that’s someone who is fresh out of college, great. If not, that should be the case.”

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2. Don’t assume or presume

A recent Bright Horizons study found that 41% of working Americans perceived working moms to be less devoted to their work. As a manager with many years of experience under his belt, Jeff warned of the importance of not assuming something about a woman’s contribution when it comes to a life event such as getting married or having children.

“You just can’t make any assumptions about what that is going to mean for them. Because it probably means something, but you don’t know. And you have to ask them, and just talk to them about it, or let them bring it to you. ‘Hey, congratulations on getting married. How can we support you in this transition?’

“And just make it open for them to bring it up. Because they might not bring it up at all, and that’s fine. If nothing ends up impacting their work in anyway, or that you can see, then it’s frankly none of your business to create a big issue where there might be none in advance.”

Jeff noted that it’s not just a ‘woman thing’. “As a manager, I think you have to strip off the gender labels and just say, ‘People are people.’ They have interesting things that happen in their lives. Those things often become very important to them, and there’s consolation of important things, and you have to adapt around that.”

Jeff also noted that just because someone’s at an age that commonly sees marriage or childbirth, that does not necessarily mean this is the only time a life-impacting event could happen. He related other examples, including a death in the family, aging parents, and the like. Ultimately, he suggested, take care not to presume someone’s situation.

Meanwhile, Britta, as a self-admitted GenXer, talked about how aware she was of the types of age discrimination and her own tendencies to prejudge candidates:

“When someone younger comes in, I’m like ‘Ah, they don’t have the experience.’ Or somebody older comes in, and I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re too old. They wouldn’t know how to use a computer anymore.’

Her solution? “Give everybody a chance,” she said. “You know, you’re aware of what your own thought process is. Try to get out of it, right?”

Likewise, Kristin warned of the tendency to go with “culture fit” – a term she admitted that she hated:

“If someone comes across your desk [who has] 20 years of experience, it can be easy to [think]; ‘I don’t know if they’ll fit in with the crowd here.’”

Another assumption is the tendency to recognize a gap in a resume as a blank space in one’s overall work experience, whether that’s due to children, health, or otherwise. Felicia called attention to this, reminding us to recognize personal experiences as well as professional:

“There’s a lot of really great programs out there, now. […] Programs that are out there specifically that are designed to re-ramp people up to get back up to speed. So, whether it’s a part-time internship, or a part-time job, or other ways of getting people back into the workforce. On the other side of the fence, if you’re in a company’s standpoint, looking at projects that people are working on and not dismissing it because it’s a personal thing.

“I don’t have children, but […] seeing friends and family who are in this position, [I can tell you], running things like a PTA meeting is no joke.”

Allison highlighted why it’s important to be aware of the possibility that some people may need to step back for awhile, and to utilize creative measures to maintain their work performance, by sharing another life experience:

“I know I had to be a caregiver and I had to work remotely for awhile, and you can get on to a team Slack group and still get up to date on all the meetings and all the team notes and some funny gifs and still feel like you’re part of the team.”

3. Be aware of self and others

Awareness was a common theme throughout the evening; being mindful of how you’re acting around others and how others are acting in the workplace. Allison touched on the importance of this:

“[Pay] attention to how others on the team are treating those that you’re managing, and how the employees are responding. [… ] Quite often we’re only subconsciously acting without realizing that we’re actually actively acting, etc. [Likewise], becoming aware of your own thoughts and actions and how they affect your direct team and overall company is really important.”

Felicia recognized that in herself and in others, sharing an anecdote about a time when, during a diversity training session, there was a discussion around whether women are more likely to step up and do the cleaning and other duties in the work environment. A woman had raised her hand and explained that this doesn’t actually happen – but then, later in the cafeteria, Felicia and other colleagues noticed that she was cleaning the tables and taking out the trash.

Felicia explained, in other words, that: “It’s so deep in us. Part of the work is being here at talks like this, but also not putting the burden of the work of dealing with the effects of emotional labor on the people who are in it.”

Sometimes you have to fight that urge to step in and do something, especially if you’re so accustomed to feeling the need to step up and prove yourself, as Kristin said. It’s all about, she says, “… just allowing yourself to sit in the discomfort for just an extra second to see how it plays out.”

She added that we are “subconsciously wired in certain ways to just operate.”

You don’t even know you’re doing it, but you’re bearing all this extra work, and you’re not compensated for it, you’re not really recognized for it.

Kristin went into detail about how some women subconsciously just take on the emotional management tasks in a given situation:

“We’re able to sort of subdue ourselves or do something else that helps the overall group flow in a way that feels better for everyone. … I do think a subconscious thing that women can do both professionally and socially is keep yourself in check, so that you don’t come off in a way that feels too much.”

Allison suggested that mindfulness practice could be a very useful tool in overcoming this challenge of the ‘subconscious urge’. “It’s a practice that I think is helping everyone learn to observe themselves, how they like to work and how they like to work with others as well.”

4. Maintain the balance

Balance was another major theme, in several different ways. For example, Kristin relayed her own feelings about being an expectant mother, referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative that made her feel like she had to push herself in her career despite feeling the opposite:

“Everything about you is saying, ‘Bring it back a few notches.’ So that was very good for me, to kind of say, ‘OK, I don’t actually have to operate in this formula that I somehow created because I thought that’s just the way to do it.’”

Kristin reminded us about the role of men in childbearing and childrearing:

“There are so many interesting articles around the concept of paternity leave, and how, really, so much of the family leave stuff is geared towards women, but men that take paternity leave are often sort-of punished, whether it’s out in the open, or not, for taking that time to go be with their family too, and so, there is a whole other set of stigma that exists for men.”

Allison also noted the tendency for work and life to mix together in unhealthy ways:

“Our personal lives do bleed into our professional lives. Especially when you are working so much of the time anyway that they really do blend.”

Felicia offered perspective on another area of balance: youth and experience, and the importance of bringing both together into the workplace.

“We need to value both youth and experience on a level playing field. A lot of times, especially in growing startups, we get a lot of young people who’ve never worked anywhere else. It doesn’t even matter how old they are, but they’ve never even had any experience working elsewhere.“

A slight tangent, for those who wonder why startups hire young people with little work experience: startups usually place tremendous value on adaptability, agility and creativity skill sets in a high-energy, fast-changing environment – which is tailor-made for younger people to thrive and build their skills in. Nevertheless, this can be one example of the types of age discrimination in the workplace.

To avoid falling into that monocultural trap, Felicia recommends looking at where you’re posting your job ads, and diversifying your outreach:

5. Humility goes a long way

A sense of humility and respect is essential, especially in recognizing what older colleagues can bring to the table.

Jeff shared a humorous but self-aware analogy about losing a doubles tennis match to older competitors:

“we were focused on power and serve, and they were focused on finesse and control.” He learned something important from that wakeup call: “The power game is not the same as the finesse game. I’ve seen so many times in workplace that we value activity and energy more than we value outcomes.

“They’re not the same. I would rather have outcomes every single day, and you’ll find that a lot of the older employees often will know how to achieve outcomes, and a lot of the younger employees will be more inclined to have a lot of activity because they don’t know things.”

“Humble yourself and ask things from people that are out there. You’ll just learn some things. I’ve had employees that were unbelievably just wise about how to do things.”

Allison reminded us that Jeff’s humbling experience doesn’t necessarily imply young versus old, but rather, suggests being open to the experience that others can bring to the table:

“People [at the same job level] can be more experienced than you; who might just have a different specialty or expertise. And I think that’s important to understand as well. But, remaining humble and not being afraid to ask questions to those within your organization, also taking advantage of your communities’ networks.“

This humble and open-minded approach means colleagues will be more receptive to feedback and more willing to incorporate that feedback into their own processes to do a better job overall. The added bonus that Felicia pointed out – a rising tide lifts all ships – applies here in that collaborative spirit between colleagues irrespective of age and gender.

Be open and philosophical

The event raised numerous discussions around age and gender discrimination in the workplace: notably, how easy it is to fall into the trap of presumption and prejudgement, and moreover, how easily that happens without our conscious awareness of it happening. Being cognizant of this is the first step to overcoming this challenge.

Jeff accounted for this, speaking to his own experience:

“The mistake that we often make as managers, and as men, frankly, is that you like to make certain assumptions. We’re like little machine-learning models in our head. We take patterns that we think we’ve seen, and then we try to apply those to generic data that’s lying across to make predictions about what the outcomes will be. And that’s where we’re [in] trouble. Because, just like in machine learning, you use limited amounts of data, and so your model will be off, and then you’ll come up with suboptimal outcomes for people.”

To really break down those barriers, ensure that your interactions with others is a two-way street, and recognize how important it is to keep those channels of communication open. Let people know that your door is open. Britta explained this:

“It takes a ton to get to that place, and you can try to progress it a little bit by talking about building a safe container and just be straight up with people and tell them, ‘if anything ever comes up, I’m here for you.”

Jeff attested to this, too:

“If you’re kind of clueless as a manager because you’re new and you just don’t have enough business experience before. You just don’t have enough experience. It’s super helpful to have somebody come to you as an employee and be like, ‘here’s what I need you to do for me.’”

Many office environments are quite diverse, particularly in terms of age and gender. Whether you’re young or old, male or female, there’s something to be learned and something you can offer to foster the building of a healthy environment free of age and gender discrimination in the workplace.

This sort of holistic approach was driven home by Britta, who took a moment to remind attendees of the importance of bringing your best self: “No matter where you are in your career, no matter where you are in your social life, believe in yourself, because that will come out, and you will shine and rise.

“I know this is all very philosophical […]. I have my Buddhist hat on today.”

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