Emma Forster, a 32-year-old marketer, makes a poignant observation about her career. “I feel like as a woman it’s always either that you’re too young or too old. Maybe there’s one day in my life where I’ll be just the right age for something.”
Unfortunately, the stark reality is that there is never a ‘right age’ for professional women. Women suffer the financial effects of the intersection of gender bias and ageism throughout their careers.
Let’s start with the stark reality that women earn 82 % of men’s average earnings, which according to a 2020 Harris poll adds up to a $469,000 average gap in lifetime income. This gap in earnings based on gender continues to be a detriment over the course of a woman’s career as she struggles to manage both debt and future income setbacks due to motherhood. The backdrop of financial insecurity looms well into the latter half of her career when she may lack critical funds for retirement and is vulnerable to job loss due to ageism.
Many women enter the workforce burdened with student loan debt. In fact, 34% of adults 18-29 have student loan debt which takes them an average of 21.1 years to pay off. For women, that debt coupled with less income results in the need to use a higher percentage of their salary to pay off their debt compared with their male colleagues.
A woman’s earnings and potential income take a significant hit from the Motherhood penalty. Census Bureau researchers found an earnings gap between opposite-sex couples from two years before the birth of a couple’s first child and a year after. This income gap between spouses doubles during this time period and continues to grow until that child is ten years old. “Though is narrows after that, it never disappears completely.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016, the earnings gap for workers with children is 75%. Research also shows that hiring managers are less likely to hire women with children, and when employers do make an offer, it comes with a lower salary for mothers.
Finances can influence a woman’s decision to have children. A recent New York Times article on the declining birthrate cites the results of interviews with more than two dozen women on their choice whether or not to have children. Some questioned whether they could even afford motherhood. “They cited the costs of childcare and housing, and sometimes student debt,” as well as their desire to get their careers set first.
Career disruptions like parenting or taking care of an elder relative over the course of one’s career, can add up to over $1 million in lost income, promotions, as well as less pension and social security. Women suffer from the necessity to opt-out for caregiving.
Moving beyond childbearing years, as women approach 40 and beyond, they face the impact of both gender bias and ageism. According to Catalyst, beginning around the age 40, women face discrimination based on “lookism” or “gendered youthful beauty standards in addition to the unfounded societal biases that older workers are less innovative, adaptive, and generally less qualified.” Women feel the pressure to maintain a youthful look. Due to these beauty standards and “lookism”, they face the consequences of ageism earlier than their male counterparts.
As a result, older women are marginalized in the workplace. Once highly valued for their expertise and opinions, they often experience a loss of respect and demeaning comments from younger colleagues. They are perceived as less competent, passed over for promotions, and become invisible and vulnerable to being forced out the door as they show visible signs of aging.
If women over 45 experience job loss and seek employment, they are less likely to be called back for a second interview than women under 40. According to the Urban Institute, jobless women 50-61 are 18% less likely to find new work than women 25-34, and at 62+, they are 50% less likely to be rehired.
Susan Weinstock, AARP’s vice president for financial resilience programming confirms this issue. “There’s a trifecta effect for older unemployed women. They face age discrimination, are likely to be unemployed longer in downturns and, when they finally get a job, they often have to take a significant pay cut.”
Charlotte Japp, the 30-year-old founder of the intergenerational company, CIRKEL,warns young professionals about ageism. “Ageism prevents people from maintaining an income, but soon it will also prevent millennials and Gen Zers from being able to pay back their loans (in addition to maintaining livelihood). The looming double-whammy of student loan debt + ageism scares me, and alarm bells should ring for other young professionals too.”
What is the right age for professional women? Following the average career trajectory of a professional woman, it’s difficult to determine at what point in her career she is free from the financial burdens associated with the gender pay gap, student loan debt, the motherhood penalty and job insecurity due to ageism.
It’s critical that companies carefully examine their policies to ensure fair workplace practices. A full assessment regarding recruitment, hiring, compensation, parental leave through the lens of the intersection of gender and age will unveil any inequities. Once uncovered, solutions must be implemented with managerial accountability as part of DEI initiatives.
Companies need to take the gender pay inequity seriously and stop paying lip service to an issue that affects women’s financial viability over the course of her entire career. Companies like Apple, Salesforce, Starbucks, Intel, and Adobe have taken the lead in leveling the playing field regarding compensation. Other companies need to follow suit. A financial penalty for women at any stage of their career based on their gender and age is unacceptable.
Most importantly, a woman shouldn’t have to ask the question, when is the right age for me to thrive in my career?