career

"Shame and rejection": I'm one of many middle-aged women dealing with blatant ageism at work.

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Several years, ago, within five months of starting a new role, the HR Manager called me into her office and told me that my contract was being terminated. Apparently, I wasn’t the right fit – a devastating blow to anyone, but especially for a middle-aged woman who has resigned from a secure role and is prone to anxiety.

The process wasn’t handled professionally, and I felt like I was doing a walk of shame as the 20-year-old led out of the fishbowl meeting room and through the open plan office, full of staff.

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As any woman who has searched for part-time work is aware, flexible employment is hard to find, and I was excited to make the move. However, my incompatibility with the role soon became clear when it turned out to be more administrative, rather than sales oriented. To add to the stress, my new boss became seriously ill within three weeks of my start, and while I did what I could in the short time to justify my salary, I barely saw him.

Being let go without warning was a massive knock to my confidence, and concerns about what I would do next triggered a bout of anxiety and depression that left me in need of medication. 

For months, I struggled to get rid of my feelings of shame and rejection, but to "get straight back on the horse" and reinvent myself simply wasn’t an option. 

Many women are finding themselves in a similar situation as a result of COVID’s massacre of the job market. And as the government winds down JobKeeper, the likelihood is we will see more and more casualties – women who were forced to resign from their jobs to look after children, or whose part-time and casual jobs in retail, tourism, and hospitality, have since dried up. 

The government’s lack of any true support for the plight of women in the workplace in the budget was the final nail in the coffin.

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I was lucky. I was fortunate to have a supportive husband, and we were in a strong enough financial position for me to take a break and recalibrate for several months. Without that privilege, I’m not sure how my minor mental breakdown would have affected my marriage and family.

COVID aside, the job market is a daunting prospect for most middle-aged women who are considering a career change, re-entering the workforce, or who would like to cut back their hours for a better work/life balance. 

Many women, who have been short-changed in divorce settlements, or been carers to children and elderly parents, (hence, sacrificed their super), are now coming to terms with the fact that they don’t have the financial security to retire. In recent years, the number of homeless women over 55 has increased by over 30 per cent.

Sexism and ageism are still rife in many industries, and in my experience, even when you are lucky to land a part-time role, more often than not you are treated like a second-class citizen, overlooked for promotion, or forced to change roles internally to suit your employer’s needs, rather than your skill base. 

Despite impressive CVs and retraining, older women are sidelined for cheaper, younger labour.

Louise is struggling with this problem. She has been searching for a part-time role for several years, and in spite of her experience, upskilling, and her mail-out of hundreds of job applications (many of which she is over-qualified to do), she has yet to receive one offer of an interview. Most companies don’t even bother to reply.

She says: "Having pivoted from journalism/PR to digital marketing in my late forties, I had a healthy amount of consultancy work coming my way. 

Gradually, however, it became obvious that people were becoming their own online marketers and companies began to look for cheaper staff. 

When I asked a head-hunter for advice, she told me to remove my graduation year from my resume – which is all very well until I rock up for an interview a good 10 years older than the employer is expecting. It’s not worth wasting my time, or theirs."

There are other women like Mary, who currently works full time, but would like to cut back on her hours. She says:

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"I am approaching 60, which puts me in a dangerous position. If I ask to cut back to four days, my request will be seen as a transition to retirement – not the safest position to be in during a pandemic.

Added to which, I can’t really do my job in four days, and a job share or part-time work in my industry is seen as a sign of failure. 

I’m also conscious that I’m nowhere close to the stable financial position I need to be in to retire, and it’s depressing not to have an end point."

But the news isn’t all bad. Nicole Gorton, Director at Robert Half, agrees that "While ageism in the workplace is prevalent, employers today are increasingly seeing the benefits of having a diverse workforce, comprising of different age groups, as well as a healthy balance of men and women."

She suggests that "Women, across the age groups, could overcome potential downfalls associated with workplace ageism by having a mentor, building allies and credible relationships in the organisation, as well as speaking up and actively engaging with the wider business."

Networking is one solution, but it is obvious that discrimination in the workplace is going to take time to change. 

And, personally, I don’t believe middle-aged women should be expected to lean in as much or accept (what for some are) low-paid, stereotyped roles in medical receptions or care homes, for example, when men don’t seem to face the same pressure.

I believe we should focus on promoting the values of mature women in the workforce - in terms of their experience, emotional maturity and intelligence, and their flexibility. 

COVID highlighted the value of female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, and the value of roles in healthcare and education that women commonly fill, and yet working women continue to be compromised by childcare, sexism and ageism.

I would like you to know, however, that there was a bright side to the loss of my job. 

Admittedly, it took me several months to "get back on the horse", but my enforced break gave me the opportunity to try something new. 

I began to write a blog to catalogue my frustrations, which has slowly evolved into a career that provides me with much more balance and the flexibility to do what makes me happy. 

For more from Louisa, visit her website.

Feature Image: Getty. 

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