Academic journal article Generations

Ageism and Sexism in the Workplace

Academic journal article Generations

Ageism and Sexism in the Workplace

Article excerpt

Increased longevity and economic necessity.

A merica is gracing. The signs are unmistakable, and they are everywhere. Even our compulsively youth-driven culture is coming to terms with this new reality. The "older demographic" is squarely in the sights of poliq' makers, advertisers, and the media. Pharmaceutical companies bombard us with endless claims about the benefits of potions for erectile dysfunction, arthritic pain, and diabetes. The 60-year-old actress-model Lauren Hutton still graces magazine covers, as does 70-year-old Sophia Loren. The cover story of the March/April 2005 issue of AARP featured seven of "Hollywood's hottest," all stunning female Oscar winners, four of whom are in their 70s. And older women now play feature roles in movies, even in sexy roles. Witness Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, in which she plays the mother of a 20-something daughter who is having a fling with an aging Jack Nicholson. In one of the most memorable scenes, Nicholson sees Keaton coming out of the shower nude and is shocked because he has never seen an older woman's body before. He gets over his shock and develops a mature relationship with this age-appropriate woman. And Clint Eastwood, a 70-something actor and director, plays the lead role in Million Dollar Baby, arguably a modern-day classic. Yet, as we all know, issues of aging are in many ways women's issues, partly because American women on average outlive men by about seven years.

For most women, attitudinal and structural factors in the workplace put them at a tremendous disadvantage and render them more vulnerable than men to hardship as they age. Much has been made of the great sacrifices American women make for their families at home and in the workforce. These sacrifices are not limited to their disproportionate share of child-rearing. Because women outlive their husbands, they are more likely than men to care for their ill and dying parents, in-laws, and spouses, and they are often left widowed and impoverished at the end of their lives. Indeed, the problem of poverty in old age is mainly a women's problem. In general, it is fair to say that as a result of ageism and sexism, women as a group are in double jeopardy as they grow older.


Families are growing vertically and shrinking horizontally. For example, the four-generation family is now our current reality: The 85-year-old mother is cared for by her 60-year-old daughter or son, who may be supporting a 40-year-old child and that child's teenage children. Overall, there are fewer adults available to care for their dependents, both older and younger. The dramatic demographic movement in the U.S. population distribution, as well as that of most other developed countries, has been referred to as a shift from a pyramid to a pillar (ILO, 1989), a shift attributable to decreased fertility and increased longevity.

These demographic trends create a new context for employment and caregiving. Today, the impact of caregiving on women's employment is not limited to the child-rearing years. A recent survey reported by the National Academy on an Aging Society found that women represent nearly three-quarters of those providing informal, uncompensated care for people age 50 and older (Entmacher, 1999). Not surprisingly, elder-caregiving responsibilities affect the caregivers. Some 49 percent of these women have had to change their work schedules, 11 percent have had to take a leave of absence, 7 percent have had to take a less demanding job, and some have had to leave the workforce entirely (National Women's Law Center, 2000). Recently, employed men have also been joining the ranks of the caregivers (Bond, Galinsky, and Swanberg, 1998). However, the double whammy of sexism and ageism in the workplace makes the price of caregiving much greater for women than for men.

Several studies indicate how large a price women pay for interrupting their careers. Initially, when women return to work after an interruption, their average wages are some 30 percent lower than their wages prior to the career hiatus. …

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