Views on shoes or gendered ageism?

6 minute read
17 June 2015

This article was written by Connie Cliff in the Employment and Equalities team and first published on Thompson Reuters Accleus on 16 June 2015.

"Stiff 'croisetiquette' sees older women denied access for 'wrong' shoes", Screen Magazine.

Officials at the Cannes Film Festival reportedly turned away a number of women in their 50s from a red carpet film screening because they were wearing - oh shock, horror - flat shoes!

A glib act of an image-obsessed industry or an insidious high-heeled example of gendered ageism?

Closer to home, "Cameron's cuties", "Brown's sugars" and "Blair's Babes" are familiar headlines. Countless newspaper column inches have been filled with Theresa May's greatest footwear hits. As the Fawcett Society highlight in their "Views Not Shoes" campaign, female politicians often receive more media attention for their wardrobe choice than their political views - a phenomenon aptly portrayed in the opening episode of the latest US political drama series 'Madame Secretary'.

When interviewed in the Financial Times, Nicola Sturgeon described the focus on her appearance as: "probably not a single day goes by when I don't read some derogatory comment about myself, about how I look or what I'm wearing."

A 2005 study by Granleese and Sayer coined the phrase 'lookism' to describe prejudice on the grounds of appearance. The study concluded that women experienced age discrimination differently to men. They faced a triple jeopardy of age discrimination, gender discrimination and lookism, whereas men's social positions have the potential to improve when they become older.

The idea that perceptions relating to age are influenced by gender differences is not new. A study in 1995 by Itzin and Phillipson suggested that women may experience greater age discrimination over all ages than men. A further study in 2004 of the financial sector by Duncan and Loretto indicated that women were considered 'older' at an earlier age than their male colleagues.

Representation of women at board level in UK companies is a hot topic. On 25 March, Lord Davies published his fourth annual progress report on women on boards. The report highlighted that as at 1 March 2015, women accounted for 23.5% of FTSE 100 and 18% of FTSE 250 board positions. Progress has been made but much more is needed. Why does the pace of change remain slow. Could there be a link to this triple jeopardy?

In February, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) "Gender diversity in the boardrooms: reach for the top" survey report was published. Its findings reveal that the proportion of female employees decreases with seniority in two-thirds (67%) of organisations and just three in ten (31%) organisations have taken action to improve the gender diversity of their board. The report concludes that improving the female balance of senior talent therefore remains a key challenge for organisations across the economy and not just for FTSE 350 companies.

The intermittent nature of women's careers when due to family caring responsibilities is often pointed to as the primary reason for the under-representation of women in senior positions. While this is no doubt a significant feature impacting upon women's career progression, does this mask the prevalence of gendered ageism? Do older women in the workplace face a daily bias of 'the wrong shoes'?

A 2012 study by Jyrkinen, and McKie, "Gender, age and ageism: experiences of women managers in two EU countries", studied the experiences of senior female managers in Scotland and Finland. Its main findings were that:

  • Women are considered to be 'old' at an earlier age than their male colleagues, sometimes when they are just over 40 years of age.
  • Older women's knowledge is not necessarily valued in the same way as that of their male counterparts - a patriarchal value system tends to exclude 'old people' when they are women.
  • 'Lookism' is an increasingly particular concern for women.

The study concludes that gendered ageism is a phenomenon facing 'older' female managers, often only aged 40 plus. Such 'older' women managers can offer potential intellectual capital for businesses. Yet many of the mangers included in the study believed the organisations for which they worked were not aware of this nor ready to take advantage of this pool of expertise.

A report published on 18 May by the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers highlights the need for businesses to solve 'wicked' problems - a term used to describe very complicated problems requiring a large number of stakeholders to work together. 'Wicked' problems require transformational leaders capable of rethinking an organisation to challenge 'business as usual', including the business model itself. Such leaders are often shaped by different experiences to their peers. While the qualities needed for such transformational leaders can be found in all groups, the report concludes they are most commonly found in women over 55, "Wicked women over 55 solve your wicked problems".

What does this mean for employers?

Gendered ageism is a problem which organisations need to recognise and address where identified. Failure to do so risks loss of talent, expertise and potentially distinctive thought leadership. Gendered ageism is simply bad for business.

Employers would be wise to take appropriate measures to address conscious and, more importantly, unconscious bias across their workforce. Strategies include:

  • A visible board level commitment to diversity role-modelling.
  • Training employees, managers and HR teams on the importance and benefits of diversity and inclusion incorporating the issue of gendered ageism.
  • Designing clear career paths and unbiased promotional opportunities.

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