These days, an increasing number of workers try to stay on the job past the traditional retirement age of 65 — some because they enjoy their careers and think they still can make valuable contributions, others because of financial realities. But it’s not necessarily that easy to grow old in the workplace. Older employees may face resentment from younger colleagues, who see them as competitors for coveted leadership and economic opportunities.
But ageism in the office may not affect both genders equally, and in one important respect, older women actually may have an easier time than older men, according to Ashley Martin, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
In a study recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Martin and colleagues Michael S. North of New York University and Katherine W. Phillips of Columbia University present evidence that older, assertive men face the strongest “agency proscription” — that is, pressure for them not to assert themselves, but to sit back and allow young people to rise. Older women who are similarly assertive, in contrast, tend to be spared such backlash, because their behavior isn’t perceived as threatening.
As Martin explains, older female workers belong to two disadvantaged groups, because they’re both older and female. That might lead one to intuit that older women would experience a double penalty in terms of bias. But Martin was intrigued with the possibility that they instead might slip through the space between biases, a phenomenon called “intersectional escape.”
Intersectional escape occurs when two stereotypes clash. In this middle space, people can sometimes escape traditional biases.
What Is Intersectional Escape?
“Going back into evolutionary history, men’s role was defending and hunting, while women were supposed to be raising children,” Martin says. “Those stereotypes emerged back then, and they still exist today, where we have two social roles that exist — the communally-based female role, which includes nurturing, tending to others, and emotionality, and the male role that’s more agency, which involves action, achievement, those kinds of things.” People who step out of those roles face bias. Prior studies have established that, as a group, women in the workplace tend to be penalized when they challenge the stereotype by displaying agentic behavior in their climb through the corporate ranks.
But it gets more complicated when additional characteristics like age are factored in. That’s because groups are perceived in terms of their dominant members. “When you think of the category of women, you think of younger, white, heterosexual women,” Martin explains. “It’s just the same as when we’re asked to imagine racial minorities — we envision young, Black, heterosexual men.”
Research shows when a person falls outside the dominant group — say, a Black woman or a young gay man — they escape some of the biases associated with both groups. “Black women, for example, can escape the backlash that we ascribe to not only white women but Black men, because they lie at this intersection,” Martin says.
As a result, Martin hypothesized that when younger people think of older workers being an obstacle to their advancement, they tend to picture older men. “Because women aren’t the dominant category of that group of older people, they escape some of the negative penalties that older men face,” she explains.
Understanding Gender’s Impact on Ageism
The intersection of age and gender in society was largely uncharted territory, so Martin and her colleagues devised a multi-faceted effort to explore it. In one part of the study, they gathered data on members of Congress, and found that women, though underrepresented, tend to take office at older ages than men. They also surveyed a group of voters after the 2016 presidential election contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and found that the more a voter believed older people should step aside (a form of ageism), the less likely he or she was to vote for Trump.
The researchers also did a series of experiments, including one in which subjects evaluated resumes of younger and older male and female job candidates, and another in which they were asked to imagine being in a workplace meeting with a 68-year-old male or female coworker, who either dominated the discussion or else let other people take the lead. In the latter, they found that assertive older men received the most negative response, while assertive older women didn’t get that same pushback.
“It’s not that agentic older women are liked and older agentic men aren’t liked,” Martin says. “It’s that men are punished for it more than women.”
Martin is careful to note that just because older women experience intersectional escape when it comes to agentic behavior, that doesn’t mean that they won’t experience other types of age-related bias. “Basically, we don’t like older people who are doing young people things,” she says. “If old people come to clubs where young people hang out, they’re like, ‘No, no. I don’t like these old people.’ So there’s an identity bias. There’s also a consumption bias — we don’t want old people using resources, so we don’t think they should get the best seats on the bus or have their own advocacy groups.” But there’s no indication that those reactions would be any less negative if the older person happens to be female, Martin said.
Martin and her colleagues’ findings suggest that developing effective corporate diversity initiatives may be more complicated than it might initially seem — HR managers might be wise to consider intersectionality issues — and Martin isn’t prescribing any solution.
But Martin does think that the study provides a hopeful message to women who are experiencing bias in the workplace. “It gets better,” she says. “You’re probably going to have more influence as time goes on.”