December 20th, 2007 | 7:00 am

Is Ageism a Ticking Time Bomb for Women?

filed under Expert Answers

Contributed by Rebecca Chong of Rooks Riders Solicitors

Accountants, bankers and analysts are increasingly finding that they have more in common with celebrities than they ever realized or wanted. It is no secret that Tinseltown and the media have been unkind to women who dare to age. For Hollywood, this led to some of the industry’s finest hitting Cannes with “Searching for Debra Winger,” a documentary exploring Hollywood’s treatment of the aging actress. Across the Atlantic, a high profile campaign was launched against the removal of OBE-awarded and respected British journalist Moira Stuart from Sunday AM, reportedly eased out because she was too old for TV (although this was always denied by the BBC). For women of all ages working in a society ruled by the commercial power of image, particularly for those working in the financial sector where the big institutions fix their eyes on the keen and capable amongst the freshly graduated, it appears that sexism and ageism is the double glass ceiling to progression in the work place.

A study on working women and ageism, by Women in Journalism, reveals the hidden fear:

71% of women are worried about being forced out of their careers as they reach their 40s and 50s.

As the cosmetics industry feeds off the resulting frenzied quest for the fountain of youth, it perpetuates the fallacy that has permeated society; that whatever the profession, only the young and vital are valuable. For example, Liz Walker, proprietor of the House of Beauty in Barnsley, Yorkshire, recently commented to The Guardian Unlimited that it is Botox that her increasingly younger clientele are ‘clamouring’ for.

In Australia, eight flight attendants successfully challenged Virgin Blue’s decision not to recruit them on the grounds of direct discrimination against them for their age. After applying for jobs with the company in 2001, the women attended assessments during which they were asked to sing, dance and perform, but not one of them made it past the first round, despite many years of experience as flight attendants. By its own admittance, Virgin Blue had not hired any cabin crew over the age of 36 during their two year recruitment process.

Caroline Doran Employment Expert at Rooks Rider Solicitors, warns that women are wise to be ahead of the game in keeping an eye on the clock when it comes to unscrupulous employers:

Age discrimination in the UK became unlawful on Sunday, October 1, 2006. On Monday, October 2nd, we were retained by our first victim. Our client, a mere 44, was the oldest person in his department in a large bank. HR had tried to call him to a boardroom for an announced meeting, days before the legislation came into force but, coincidentally, that day he felt ill and had to unexpectedly go home to recuperate.

When he returned to work on October 2, the HR team went ahead and they dismissed him. The serendipitous timing meant as the age discrimination was in force on the day of dismissal we negotiated an extra 6 figures payment out of the bank for our client.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, (EER), which seeks to prevent such unlawful discrimination of workers over the age of 65, also acts to prevent discriminatory treatment due to their being considered too young. Similar to the maturing work force, the existing perceptions of the young in the workplace should not be disregarded, and particularly for women.

Cranfield School of Management found that HR managers tend to perceive younger workers as being inexperienced, more likely to take time off sick, less likely to stay in the job, and unskilled and unreliable. This November, 20-year-old Megan Thomas showed that “youthful law is not wasted on the young.” Ms. Thomas launched a landmark claim of age discrimination under the EER, in which she successfully claimed she was dismissed from her job as membership secretary of the exclusive Eight Member Club, because she was not old enough to deal with the club’s members.

If statistics concerning the treatment of the younger worker are correct, this case could prompt an increase in claims, and it is conceivable that a large proportion of these will be by women of child bearing age like Ms Thomas, where the impact may be two fold.

Research from TakeLegalAdvice.com reveals that directors are least likely to hire women of child-bearing age than any of their counterparts in the UK. The implications of being caught by constant changes regarding maternity leave being the main reason behind this. Over four in ten directors in the North East (43%) openly admitted to deciding against employing women who fit into the category.

To Caroline Doran, employment law and discrimination expert at Rooks Rider this comes as no surprise:

I have advised men and women who have complained about ageist attitudes in banks, however, many women have complained about the fact it is a “double whammy” of discrimination. Many women fear their worth to the bank is linked to their image and looks in a way in which their male colleagues are not beholden. As long as sexist managers view female staff as eye candy or the “tethered goat” for clients or brokers, then inevitably women’s career progress and bonuses will be affected adversely by becoming ‘too old’. My clients have queried, in the style of Carrie Bradshaw, “is ageism the new sexism?”

Neither sex nor age is an indicator of ability or even relevant experience, and employers who fail to address the institutionalism of discriminatory practices such as advertising for job applicants by years of experience rather than type of experience, and selecting employees for training by the old adage ‘an old dog can’t learn new tricks’ will not only lose out to competitors cashing in on a gained perspective about the value of their employees, but such employers will potentially find themselves paying out, at the sharp ends of both sex and age discrimination claims.

For further information please contact Caroline Doran on +44 207 689 7000 or by email: [email protected]

1 comment

  1. Russell

    This is an excellent and creatively written article which makes what could be quite a dry subject become alive and interesting.