Oct. 4, 2022

Ageism an ingrained reality for women in the workplace

UCalgary professor Jenny Godley tackles the complex discussion of women and aging
Dr. Jenny Godley
Jenny Godley says the reality for women is a diminished value as they age, linked to the emphasis placed on physical appearance. Jenny Godley

We all age — but a UCalgary sociologist says society’s reaction to what should be a natural part of life is a very different experience for women and men in the workforce.

With the controversial removal of greying CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme sparking widespread discussion about workplace sexism and ageism, Dr. Jenny Godley, PhD, says the reality for women is a diminished value as they age, linked to the emphasis placed on physical appearance, far more than it is for men.

“In terms of Lisa LaFlamme’s dismissal, what we see is that older men are perceived to have all this knowledge and be the best reporters,” says Godley, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts, whose research has focused on the social determinants of health such as sex and gender, social class, race and ethnicity, and age, as well as social networks.

“In our society, women are still valued for their looks despite decades of feminism, and youth culture has gotten worse with social media — it’s still young looks that are valued.”

Is it still a man’s world?

Through her research, Godley believes that women have made some progress against sexism, but the rumors around LaFlamme’s sudden dismissal in August suggest it may have been based on her age, making Godley question how far there is to still go.

“We’ve increased educational levels for women and lowered the wage gap, but in social-cultural areas, there hasn’t been as much change. There is still a lot of pressure for women to look a certain way or fit a certain aesthetic. You see it especially in industries that value looks, and television is one of those,” says Godley.

“Based on my research, Canadian women are still reporting that they face 1.5 times more age discrimination than men, and those aged 65-plus are 1.5 times more likely to experience age discrimination than those aged 46 to 64.”

Is change on the horizon?

Through Lisa LaFlamme’s dismissal, Godley believes that we’ve seen an overt example of how aging affects a woman’s career. However, while change may be a slow process, there may be rays of hope ahead. For example, Godley notes that in England, companies are beginning to put policies in place to accommodate menopausal women.

“We are becoming a lot more open about mental health and menopause,” says Godley. “A lot of women experience insomnia, hot flashes or short-term memory loss during perimenopause, and it’s not forever, but women aged 45 to 55 years old often experience a lot of physical and mental changes that people don’t talk about.

"In England, companies have started offering more flexible work hours for menopausal women and (offering) things like fans in offices.”

On the other hand, Godley notes that there is still a lot of pressure from marketers to prevent aging.

“There is a whole marketing push to stop or reverse the aging process,” says Godley. “Social media has made it worse too. There is so much pressure to look a certain way — for both men and women. You now hear about men having more body issues now than in the past. Women, unfortunately, continue to have the pressure to be young, even though aging women make up a big portion of the population.”

Based on her research, Godley also notes that the intersection of ageism and sexism is a continuation that women will face their whole lives.

“One way to facilitate change is more marketing that celebrates who we are now,” says Godley. “There are so many people talking about inequality, and we’re seeing companies like Dove and Wendy’s who are willing to take a stand against ageism. Hopefully, this will help change the narrative.”

Jenny Godley, PhD, is an associate professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

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