Women Face Workplace Discrimination Across Age Groups: Study

The Harvard Business Review study found that younger women are often overlooked for promotions due to perceptions of inexperience, while middle-aged women are viewed as burdened by family responsibilities.

Priya Prakash
Jul 15, 2023 20:53 IST
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Ageism in the workplace has long been associated with bias against older workers. However, a recent study published, women face age bias regardless of their age.

The Harvard Business Review study found that younger women are often overlooked for promotions due to perceptions of inexperience, while middle-aged women are viewed as burdened by family responsibilities. Interestingly, even older women are deemed unworthy of promotion. In each stage of their careers, women encounter barriers to leadership positions, highlighting the pervasive gender bias that persists in the corporate world.

Women Face Age Bias At Work No Matter How Old They Are

According to Amy Diehl, a gender bias expert and co-author of the study, women of all ages face the perception that their suitability for leadership roles is never quite right. This suggests that age is not the determining factor for promotion when it comes to women in the workplace. The findings shed light on the need to address gender bias and challenge societal expectations that limit women's career progression at every stage of their professional journey.


The study's findings carry significant implications for the career paths of millions of professional women, as they continue to face lower representation in top positions and leadership roles within corporations, with only 1 in 4 C-suite positions occupied by women. The presence of age bias, regardless of a woman's age, underscores the existence of unspoken barriers that hinder their progress, potentially impeding their ability to attain the same career achievements as equally qualified men.

Gender disparities we must fight

According to Diehl, a co-author of the study and a gender bias expert, a substantial number of young and middle-aged women encounter obstacles that hinder their professional advancement, leading to career stagnation at the entry and mid-level levels.


The gender disparities in career advancement also have a significant impact on women's ability to save for retirement at the same level as their male counterparts. As noted by Diehl, women generally earn less than men, leading to lower retirement savings. Recent data on retirement savings supports this, revealing that the average 401(k) balance for men is 50% higher than that of women. Men have an average balance of $89,000, while women have an average balance of $59,000. 

These numbers highlight women's ongoing financial challenges, emphasising the importance of addressing gender inequalities in the workplace to ensure equal opportunities for women's long-term financial security and retirement savings.

The detrimental effects of ageism on women extend beyond individual careers and have a broader impact on the economy, according to Leanne Dzubinski, a professor at Biola University and co-author of the study.


The study, which surveyed over 900 women in professional roles such as higher education executives, attorneys, and physicians, revealed widespread experiences of discrimination throughout their careers. Younger women, particularly those who appeared youthful, faced demeaning treatment such as being addressed by pet names, patted on the head, and encountering scepticism about their roles. Many were mistaken for interns, trainees, administrative assistants, or paralegals, highlighting the issue of "role incredulity."

Middle-aged women also encountered ageism, with instances where search committees opted against hiring women in their late 40s due to concerns about perceived family responsibilities and the approaching menopausal stage. These biases and stereotypes surrounding age not only hinder individual career advancement but also contribute to systemic barriers that limit the full potential of women in the workforce.

The authors of the study observed a disparity in how older male workers and older women are perceived in the workplace. While older men are often regarded as authoritative and respected, older women tend to face discounting and marginalisation. This discrepancy in treatment based on gender reinforces the existence of gender bias and ageism, highlighting the need for greater awareness and efforts to address these biases in order to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment for women of all ages. 


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