Gender and age bias continue to plague us in every day society. Here’s what we can do to make sure we’re being presented in the best possible way…every day.
Our perception of our own chronological age is flawed. While our aging bodies might be experiencing the natural entropy of the years and decades, our minds often fall behind in perceiving that ongoing event. To a man, everyone I’ve ever asked, “How old do you feel?” answered by stating that their minds were quite young, even though their bodies might be in its fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties.
“I feel like I’m still in my twenties some days,” one man, Robert, responded as a hand shaking with palsy attempted to light a cigarette. He was unsuccessful. I took his matches and held the flame to hear the crackle of the tobacco as it burned. “But then I try to get out of bed and have this new pain in my shoulder or hip or neck, and I remember that I’m nearing ninety pretty fast.”
“In what ways do you feel younger?” I inquired.
“Oh, you know…I don’t think anyone understands that just because our bodies show signs of aging, our minds often have much younger thoughts and ideas. My body belies my mind, because it’s still quite fertile.”
We sat in silence watching traffic pass on the street before us. An SUV with a young mom – kids peering like curious owls from their car seats in the back – pulled up to one of the gas pumps and she climbed out in revealing stretch pants and cropped workout top. She was fit and moved with confidence.
“Now see there…it would take me five minutes to climb from that vehicle,” he continued. “I would have to consciously tell my limbs what to do and wait while the communication made its journey. But then, I wouldn’t be in a vehicle because my eyesight is pretty shot.” He gestured at the thick-lensed eyeglasses perched on his substantial nose.
I remembered my grandfather whose ears, nose and hands grew disproportionately larger as he aged. My middle school biology teacher told me that it was because our hair and certain things continued to grow while others stopped after a certain amount of time. Fingernails, toe nails, all these items continue on for weeks and months even after death. I dreamed of him once, months after he’d passed, lying in the ground with ears and a nose the size of Dumbo’s. I imagined him being able to enfold his entire head in his ears, like some strange bat-like creature.
Some years ago, I was laid off from my government job. With an impeccable resume, I began scouting for a new direction in my career. At the time, I was nearing my late forties, with fifty staring at me from just around the bend. Diligent in my search, I did the legwork for months. And months. And months. True, this was just after the economic downturn, and unemployment rates were quite high. Still, with such a strong pedigree, I felt it would be fairly easy to land a new position. A year passed, and I was getting the interviews, but once I met with the team of potential employers, I never heard from them again. So I resorted to staffing agencies, and had much better luck there, for they placed only short-term help into suitable positions.
I continued to send out resumes while working these contract positions, and landed interviews time and again. But still, nothing solid took hold. Being of analytical temperament, I began examining some of the subtle ways in which employers were able to harvest information about age. When filling out online applications, they might request your educational background, and ask when you attended school, or graduated. They would tell you that it’s so that they could verify your background. But I learned that it was a “legal” way of determining the age of an applicant without coming right out and asking. So I stopped filling in those boxes, listing simply the school and the degree and that was it. That increased my marketability, it seemed, for then the phone rang numerous times daily with invitations to interview. The increase in interest was nearly 60%. So I began to understand that perhaps age did have something to do with it.
I made a list and began calling various corporate Human Resource departments, requesting interviews, claiming I was writing a paper for school. My voice still sounded young. Several agreed on the basis of anonymity. Then I asked the questions that no one seemed to be asking.
What demographic was the bulk of their employee base?
Is there a bias when considering age?
Do men or women fare better in interviews or in the hiring process?
The answers were surprising. The companies I spoke with admitted that they were afraid of hiring someone too old or too experienced, for that meant a higher salary would be expected. Also, older applicants tended to be more resistant to change, meaning learning new processes and ways to perform tasks resulted in conflict. Women fared better in interviews if the interviewing panel was made primarily of men, and the opposite was true if the panel were women. Age and gender bias were definitely present, as was racial profiling. The interviewers, one woman said, have a very specific perception and idea of what image they want to project for their company, and often, gender, age, race, and socio-economic status play a large part in the decision making process. Government agencies held less bias than private companies.
By a wide margin. All companies – government and private – balked at the idea of hiring a man for what might be perceived as a “woman’s” position (secretary, administrative assistant, and so on), or vice versa. Men were perceived to be of greater value than women except within positions that required a nurturing spirit (nursing, day care, etc.). Despite the fact that we as a society pay lip service to equality and understanding, we still perpetrate bias on a daily basis, as long as we can do it on the periphery of perceived legality.
So despite the fact that I was willing to perform even the more menial jobs despite my extensive background, I was passed over because companies seemed to be more interested in hiring younger employees, pay them less, and be able to better manage them. Using this information, I tweaked my resume and sent it out once more. Removing all information about age, socio-economic status, and other references to my position in society, I achieved a 98% success rate in interview invitations. I even declined to provide the requisite EOE (Equal Opportunity Employer) information tacked on to many online application sites. That way race and cultural differences were removed as well. My theory was to entice an employer into interviewing me and, despite the fact that I appeared as my actual age, I leveled the playing field in being able to express in person my knowledge, willingness to adapt, and most of all, my youthful energy.
Only in this way was I able to control some of the bias that might’ve been leveraged without interviewers ever having met me. Has it worked? Yes. I have been able to more accurately target the industries and companies in which these biases were used to a much lesser degree. Also, I learned better ways of presenting myself both on paper and in person that helps alleviate the potential for being overlooked due to any of these biases. And I learned that, at my age, I don’t really want to work for a company who continues to perpetuate such biases in the 21st century.
In competing in this atmosphere of bias of many kinds, we older adults must play a better game than the younger generations. Eventually, I began using my age as a strong selling point. I used words like “maturity,” “reliable and dependable,” and “highly experienced.” And in each interview, I made sure I addressed the age bias. Where once I hid from exposing my true age, I began putting it on the table right away, asking the interviewers how they felt about having a more mature but equally energetic person on their team. To a person, the answer was always, Oh, that’s never a problem. This removes the bias factor later in the process.
Because let’s face it: we choose to work until a much later age than our predecessors. Some of that choice is based our individual financial pictures, and some of it’s based on health. That, and our life expectancy has increased from the age of 25 (in 1000 A.D.) to nearly 80 (2000 A.D.).*
Jody Holtzman, Senior Vice President of AARP states:
“Only 25% of Boomers are financially prepared for retirement.
Biggest concerns for Boomers:
1) losing mind
2) restricted mobility
3) running out of money
60% of personal bankruptcies are due to a health crisis.”
AARP also performed a survey among different age demographics, with the following results:
Survey: What is the one thing you would not give up?
* 50+ year olds: my car
• 18-49 year olds: my cell phone
I’m happy to state that in changing the approach used in marketing myself, I was able to find a good job, one that I was highly qualified for, and the interviewers seemed to appreciate that I broached the topic of age first, so it could be a discussion rather than a “dirty little secret.”
When we embrace our age and all the positives that come with it, we tend to disarm those who may not even know they were being biased. There’s not a lot we can do about our gender, but that’s a discussion for another day.
*Boomer Venture Summit, 2009
Photo: Thomas Leuthard/Flickr