Age Is the Biggest Obstacle to Women’s Success at Work, Report Finds
Surveys and conversations with more than 1,500 working women reveal race, physical appearance, and physical ability also hamper women’s progress.
“Race, age, body type and other identities cannot be separated from gender,” concludes a new report that adds an intersectional lens to current discussions around barriers to women in the workforce.
In it, women identify a range of factors that complicate and/or underlie obstacles to their advancement in the workplace. Some of these factors — like parental status and marital status — are familiar, as they dominate discourse around how to retain and advance women in the workforce; with women shouldering an unequal burden of care work within families, most solutions have focused on how to equalize responsibilities at home.
But other factors are less scrutinized and may affect women’s success as much or more — mainly, age, which a quarter of women reported affected their experiences at work, versus the 17% who pegged gender as their most limiting factor. Physical abilities and limitations, and body shape/size also were factors more women identified as aspects that limit their work experience more than gender. Race or ethnicity was also a major factor limiting women’s work experience. Overall, 58% of women surveyed said the way their identities and/or physical attributes are perceived limited their experiences at work.
But these factors can’t be fully divorced from gender, as the report itself concludes. As Quartz reports, research is inconclusive as to whether ageism in the workplace affects men and women equally. But it’s undeniable that women bear the brunt of ageism within society at large, which influences how we see older women within more specific contexts, such as the workplace.
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These intersections are the point of the report, which was developed from surveys of 1,550 U.S. women and non-binary individuals (who constituted 1% of the total group), who represented a variety of races, professions and caregiving roles, as well as conversations with 100 working women, gleaned during a “listening tour.” The effort was driven by The Riveter, a Seattle-based co-working space for women with nine locations around the country. “There are inseparable layers within this network of biases. More than half of black women who say that race impacts their work experiences report the impact is negative to very negative. Meanwhile, women over age 55 who say age impacts their work experiences overwhelmingly report it is a negative to very negative impact,” the report states.
As one interviewee is quoted, “Is this about my femininity, about my queer identity, about my sex worker identity? Is this about my larger body identity? It’s really tiring to have to constantly figure out why people are not treating me fairly.”
Subtly, however, what emerges in the report is that more often than not, it’s about race. While all women report being affected by the same obstacles, some groups of women are affected by these obstacles more than others. For instance, 30% of black women surveyed believe they do not receive equal access to information at work, compared to 23% of Asian women and 18% of white women surveyed. In another example, Native American, black, and Latinx women were more than twice as likely as Asian women to suffer consequences for reporting sexual harassment.
While these racial breakdowns are not as applicable in an Indian setting, the overall takeaway is: Even as all women face the same gendered obstacles to workforce success, some groups of women are harder hit than others by one or more manifestations of sexism. Dalit women, disabled women, queer women, and non-binary individuals spring to mind as some of the groups of Indian women who face compounded obstacles. Commitments to retaining and advancing women in the workforce — sorely needed, since women make up only around one-quarter of all formal and informal workers — must reflect commitments to these communities as well in order to succeed.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.