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Gendered Ageism: The Unaddressed Discrimination Practice

Five ways organizations can improve their DEI initiatives to address ageism.

Key points

  • Ageism affects all genders but is often excluded from diversity initiatives.
  • Women face gendered ageism, impacting their career opportunities.
  • Internalized ageism and sexism can add to the problem.
  • Organizations can combat gendered ageism with education, mentorship, equal opportunities, and resource groups.
Helen Hirsh Spence/ CEO, Top Sixty Over Sixty
Helen Hirsh Spence/ CEO, Top Sixty Over Sixty

This post is part of a series.

I explore age diversity and gendered ageism with Helen Hirsh Spence in this interview.

Spence is the CEO of Top Sixty Over Sixty, a social enterprise that addresses age equity in the workplace. It also provides programs on establishing high-functioning multigenerational teams and offers insights for connecting organizational goals to their aging customer segments.

She also advocates, writes, and speaks about age diversity in the workforce, intergenerational connections, and how to mitigate the damaging impacts of ageism on individuals, society, and economies.

On a personal level, as she transitioned from her late 50s into her mid-60s, Spence noticed a diminishing sense of confidence among her peers, all of whom had impressive leadership experience. They questioned whether they were still relevant, noticed, or valued, which ultimately led her to realize that internalized ageism was taking a toll on their lives. She recalls,

I wanted the narrative about aging to be reframed positively, which is why I named my business Top Sixty Over Sixty. My intention has been to raise the profile of older adults by showcasing inspirational, older role models.

Cultural Shift: When Ageism Meets Healthy Longevity

Now that people are living longer and healthier lives, many of whom may also be working well past the traditional or official retirement age, a demographic shift presents an opportunity to harness the experience and wisdom of older individuals. Unfortunately, society perpetuates damaging stereotypes and expectations about aging, especially for women.

Spence notes, “Ageism is a prejudice or discrimination based on age, and it applies to both young and older people.” Spence said that while diversity and inclusion initiatives are prevalent in organizations, age diversity often remains conspicuously absent from these discussions. She notes,

Ageism is socially accepted and normalized among all the types of discrimination. Worldwide, 92 percent of companies don't include age in their diversity strategies, [according to the Harvard Business Review.] [And yet,] Baby boomers hold half of the nation's wealth.

Ageism hurts employees and ignores valuable consumer demand.

Gendered Ageism: A Compounding Affect

As women age, they experience the compounding effects of two intersectional identities (gender and age), causing sexism and ageism that negatively affect work opportunities. Gendered ageism intersects with traditional sexism, creating a double whammy that disadvantages women as they age.

Spence pointed out that older women often face “lookism,” the added pressure of looking younger and more attractive, contributing to the normalization of gendered ageism. This happens less for men, who are sometimes labeled positively (“distinguished”) and looked up to more as they age.

Spence notes:

Women still face a lot of sexism. And they're discriminated against based on their age when the signs are more visible. The reality is that women are often coming into their own in their 50s. They have a completely different and positive perspective on their lives. And studies show that women have greater self-esteem as they age. Unfortunately, gendered ageism sometimes upends the positive.

Internalized Ageism and Sexism: The Silent Culprit

To make it even more complicated, as individuals absorb societal stereotypes about aging, they internalize these biases, a concept called internalized ageism, otherwise known as self-directed ageism. Internalized ageism can manifest as depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, and a diminished sense of self-worth.

Spence noted that this self-directed bias is particularly damaging because it influences people to devalue themselves based on societal constructs perpetuating negative views of aging. It is also largely unconscious, making it even more challenging to catch and counteract.

Spence emphasized that this issue is so deeply ingrained that many individuals remain unaware of their internalized biases. While both men and women experience internalized ageism (and ageism itself), it affects women more, especially in the workplace, due to the compounding effect of gender.

Add to the mix internalized sexism, which is a self-directed bias about how women should look and act, and the compounding effects can be damaging for older women in the workplace and beyond. For example, older women in leadership roles face significant pressures to appear youthful and fit into the ageist beauty ideals perpetuated by society.

Spence described how many women experience a quiet phasing out in the workplace. This comes in the form of pushing older employees to retire or not providing them with performance appraisals and development opportunities. Organizations often mask these behaviors to create opportunities for younger talent.

The impact on organizational outcomes is significant, including losing organizational knowledge and experience and undermining the potential for a diverse, multigenerational workforce.

Combatting Gendered Ageism Recommendations

To combat gendered ageism, organizations and society as a whole need to take proactive steps:

  1. Education: At the societal level, Spence recommended educating children about ageism starting from a young age. Stereotypes about aging begin to form early in life, and research has shown that even three-year-olds already display age bias. From an organizational level, age diversity and inclusion (ADI) initiatives that educate the entire workforce about the significance of age diversity and the harm of ageism should be implemented.
  2. Mentorship Programs: Develop reciprocal mentoring programs that facilitate knowledge exchange between generations, preserving institutional knowledge.
  3. Performance Appraisals and Professional Development Opportunities: Ensure that older employees receive performance appraisals and professional development opportunities on par with their younger counterparts. Spence notes that because there is an assumption that someone older plans to retire (especially those who reveal their grey hair might appear “of retirement age”), they aren’t given the same training opportunities and feedback for growth as their younger colleagues. “That's a real no-no. It’s one reason older women are probably not staying in their leadership roles because they're not getting equal treatment.”
  4. Gradual Off-Ramp to Retirement: Establish transition programs that allow older employees to gradually reduce their workload before retirement, allowing for a smoother transition.
  5. Employee Resource Groups: Create multigenerational employee resource groups to provide a platform for individuals to air grievances and share experiences.


Gendered ageism is a pervasive issue that profoundly impacts women in leadership roles. It erodes confidence, perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and influences people to internalize biases about aging.

To combat this issue, education, mentorship programs, performance appraisals, growth opportunities, and employee resource groups are vital tools organizations and society can use to promote age diversity and inclusion. Recognizing and addressing gendered ageism is crucial to ensure that older women continue contributing to society and the workforce while embracing the wisdom and experience that come with age.

Note: There was no conflict of interest to disclose with this interview. The author of this post did not receive any financial benefit or compensation for conducting or writing this interview.

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