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Pay and career progression experiences of women aged over 50 in Scotland: research

This report presents the findings of a qualitative exploration of the pay and career experiences of women aged over 50 in Scotland. It also makes recommendations for improvements to workplace practices to better support this demographic. The work was commissioned by the Fair Work Convention.


Executive summary

This report examines experiences of pay and progression among women over 50 years old working in Scotland in two specific sectors: the Finance and Insurance sector, and the Information and Communication sector. The research was conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) on behalf of the Fair Work Convention. The project involved semi-structured video or telephone interviews with 17 women over 50 years old and with 13 employers.

Our research found that women frequently expressed a reluctance to pursue opportunities for progression, including internal and external opportunities, and – to a lesser extent – opportunities for training. This reluctance was typically explained by women as a wish to avoid the potential stress and pressure that they connected with progression. Most of the women in our study additionally felt that their capacity and desire to pursue opportunities for more pay and more responsibility had reduced as they had got older.

In talking about their views around work and progression, women reflected on how their past and ongoing experiences in the workplace had contributed to this association for them between progression, age, and unwanted stress. In particular, they identified factors relating to their age and gender as key barriers both to their progression and their general sense of well-being in the workplace. Women also spoke in depth about their wishes around working arrangements – and associated concerns around their health, experiences of the menopause, and caring responsibilities for others – and how these experiences contributed to their reluctance to pursue opportunities for progression.

All of the employers that we interviewed recognised, to varying degrees, that gender could be a barrier to progression in the workplace. By comparison, few employers in our study recognised that age – and particularly the intersection between age and gender – may also present a significant barrier to progression in the workplace. While many of the larger employers that we interviewed had diversity strategies that included targets and actions on gender and the gender pay gap (GPG), they did not include age in these strategies. Similarly, most of these employers regularly monitored recruitment, pay, and progression by gender but not by age. Smaller employers also typically stated that they did not see formal interventions or policies around age in their organisations to be necessary.

Employers did, however, recognise some of the issues faced by women over 50, particularly around the menopause, caring responsibilities, and working arrangements. They provided varying degrees of support in relation to these issues. Some employers also expressed concerns about what they saw as additional age-related issues in the workplace, such as training older workers in new technology, and the need to consider issues around retirement and succession. In these cases, employers often expressed uncertainty around how to talk appropriately and sensitively in the workplace about age.

Overall, our findings speak to the central role that workplace practices have in shaping the pay and progression experiences of women over 50. Our findings also speak to the importance of the five dimensions of fair work as set out in the Fair Work Convention's Framework[1]: effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment, and respect. As outlined in the Conclusion to this report, our recommendations focus particularly on the dimensions of opportunity, respect, and effective voice.

Finally, it is important to note that the evidence in this report is based on qualitative research that is not – and does not set out to be – representative of the wider population. Instead, the research has focused on generating in-depth insights on the lived experiences of 17 women over 50 working in two sectors, as well as on the concerns and priorities of 13 employers in these two sectors (further information on the methodology used, and its strengths and weaknesses, appears in Section 1.2 of Chapter 1).

Age-related barriers in the workplace

All the women that we interviewed saw their age as bringing distinct advantages in the workplace: women stated that with age came experience, knowledge, and certain skills, particularly skills around dealing with people. All of the employers in our study made similar statements, emphasising that experience was the primary advantage of employing older workers. However, women and employers did express a number of concerns about how age affected experiences at work.

Concerns around recruitment and promotion processes

The women in our study identified recruitment and promotion procedures as a barrier to the pursuit of both internal and external progression opportunities. Women typically stated that these processes had become more complex and demanding over time, and they perceived that younger people were better prepared to navigate such processes. Several women identified concern about these sorts of processes as a primary reason for not applying for new opportunities.

Concerns about age bias in recruitment and promotion processes

Some women in our study were hesitant to apply for new jobs, both with new and existing employers, as they worried that they may be discriminated against due to their age. Some women thought that employers would prefer applicants who were less close to retirement age, while other women worried that employers might stigmatise older workers as somehow less productive or less efficient.

A small number of employers stated that they did consider questions of longevity when hiring: in particular, they mentioned that they may try to recruit younger workers if existing employees in similar posts were all close to retirement age.

While some of the employers in our sample did recognise that age bias was potentially a problem in recruitment and promotion procedures, none of the employers in our sample reported existing or planned measures to tackle age bias.

Concerns around the age profile of management structures

Our research found that women over 50 were sensitive to the age profile of their workplaces, and particularly to the age profile of the management structure. While this was not a problem for all women, a preponderance of younger people in management structures could contribute to some women's concerns about their own security or prospects within an organisation. It could also, at times, contribute to tensions with individual line managers, particularly if these relationships were already under stress.

Concerns around technology

Many women in our study expressed concerns about their capacity to use new and complex technology. Women typically felt that younger colleagues had an intrinsic advantage with technology in the workplace. Similarly, some women expressed concerns about how their age affected their ability to meet the performance criteria set by managers, particularly if such criteria were disproportionately based on the capacity to work quickly or competitively with complex technology.

Several employers reported concerns that, in their experience, both men and women over 50 were less adept with technology than younger workers. Some employers also felt that older workers were less willing to undergo training or to receive support with new technology. Moreover, some employers noted that they were unsure how to address their concerns around technology and older workers, as they felt that specific training for older workers on technology would be inappropriate and potentially offensive to their employees.

Gender-related barriers in the workplace

Many of the women to whom we spoke believed that their gender, irrespective of their age, had held them back, or continued to hold them back, in the workplace. Some women reported feeling patronised or taken less seriously at work because of their gender, while others felt that management structures were dominated by men and by male-orientated values and social networks. Women working in senior positions in the financial sector were particularly likely to report feeling that their industry favoured men over women in these ways.

While most of the women to whom we spoke felt happy with their current level of pay, many of the women that we interviewed, in a range of positions and in different industries, had either direct experiences of unequal pay, or they routinely reported observing this in their workplace among others. In other words, women frequently reported a belief that men were more likely to be better paid – and indeed promoted – than women, despite having the same skills and experience or less. Women found their experiences of unequal pay frustrating at best and profoundly disillusioning at worse.

A small number of women in our study had directly challenged an employer about unequal pay in the past, although most of the women that we interviewed stated that they did not feel able to do this. Women also attributed their silence to the fact that they were often unsure as to whether there were other reasons for unequal pay of which they were unaware. This suggests that a lack of transparency about the reasons for pay differences within organisations may contribute to women's silence on unequal pay.

Employer actions on the GPG

As part of our research study, we interviewed both organisations that reported their GPG and smaller organisations that are not required to report their GPG. These smaller organisations were usually not aware if they had a GPG and, moreover, tended to equate the GPG with issues of equal pay.

All of the larger organisations to whom we spoke did report a GPG. Most stated that the primary driver of their GPG was a lack of women in senior positions. Several of these organisations described a range of initiatives that they had taken, and continued to take, to address their GPG: in some cases, they reported that these had resulted in reductions in their GPG in recent years. These initiatives included mentoring and coaching, increasing the number of part-time jobs at senior posts, and a range of interventions around recruitment and hiring decisions.

None of the organisations that we interviewed considered how their GPG varied by age, nor did they consider how interventions around the GPG may affect women of different ages in different ways.

Views on working arrangements among women and employers

Our study shows the central role of working arrangements in the experiences of women over 50 in the workplace. In particular, our research shows how women over 50 may seek out flexible and part-time work where possible and, moreover, that they may use this flexibility to help manage concerns about their health or well-being, as well as to manage their caring responsibilities for others. Indeed, most women in our study reported significant caring responsibilities for others, particularly for grandchildren and elderly parents. A lack of flexibility or a lack of part-time work – as well as a lack of respect among managers for part-time hours – can lead to some women moving jobs or to avoiding opportunities for progression.

Most of the women that we interviewed had spent long periods of time working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most women acknowledged considerable benefits to home working, such as the ability to balance their work responsibilities with their responsibilities outside of work. However, women also spoke of missing social interactions in the office. Most women were planning to return to the office on a hybrid basis and they were happy with these arrangements. However, for those women who demonstrated a strong preference for home working, the anticipated return to the office was a source of considerable upset and frustration. Similarly, some women stated that their preference for home working would determine – or had determined in the past – decisions around pursuing new opportunities.

Finally, the women in our study frequently spoke about their difficulties with requirements to travel or commute long distances. Many women stated that previous jobs had involved considerable amounts of travel but that they no longer felt willing to travel in the same way – something that they associated with their age. Indeed, several women cited travel as a key reason for not pursuing opportunities both for new positions and for training.

Most employers reported a shift in their approach to flexible and home working during the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that not only had employees proven themselves to be trustworthy and efficient at home, but also that there were significant benefits to home working for their organisations. Most, but not all, employers felt that, post-pandemic, they were much more likely to approve requests for flexible and home working than they had been in the past.

Employers reported being largely open to part-time work, which they typically saw as a way of improving diversity within their organisation and widening their 'talent pools'. However, some employers also noted that part-time work could create operational difficulties and that it was not always possible to grant requests for these reasons.

Most large employers interviewed reported having policies on leave and adjustments for carers, although these were not specific to the needs of older workers. Smaller organisations were less likely to have specific policies on caring, instead leaving managers to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Women's experiences of their health and of the menopause

Many – but not all – of the women in our study reported having experienced general health issues that affected their wishes around work. In particular, several women cited concerns over their health as a primary reason for wanting to reduce their hours and/or their stress levels at work.

In addition, many women spoke at length about the profound impact of the menopause on their physical and mental well-being in the workplace. Crucially, women spoke not only of the difficult physical symptoms associated with the menopause but also of a loss of confidence both in their ability to perform their work and in their sense of how their competence was viewed by others. For one woman, this loss of confidence had been so severe that she cited the menopause as the main reason for taking early retirement in her mid-fifties and not returning to work again.

While a small number of women in our study had received some useful support around the menopause at work, most women reported either feeling unable to talk about the menopause in the workplace or having received little or no support from managers.

Our interviews with employers suggest that the menopause has received more attention from employers in recent years. Many of the larger organisations that we interviewed reported having recently introduced a menopause policy and training on the menopause. However, most of these organisations reported that such training was optional and could be accessed by employers or employees only when required. Given our findings that many women feel unable to raise the issue of the menopause with managers, optional training may prove limited in its capacity to raise awareness among both employees and managers.

Moreover, our research suggests that employers and managers feel most able to talk about the menopause – or to recognise its symptoms – if they have some experience themselves of the menopause, either personally or through the experience of people close to them. Again, this raises the question of whether optional training will be sufficient to improve awareness among those managers who have little personal experience of the menopause.

Retirement planning

Many of the women in our study expressed a wish to retire prior to the state-pension age or, at least, to reduce their hours, if this was financially possible. Women cited a number of reasons for their wish to retire or reduce their hours, such as: wishes to pursue leisure and personal interests while they were still in good health; a wish to improve their own health; and a wish to spend time with family, particularly their spouses.

While most women did have a clear idea about when they wanted to retire, few had discussed this with their employers. Many of the employers that we interviewed stated that it would be helpful to have these conversations around retirement with employees, as it would allow for them to plan ahead. However, employers also expressed uncertainty about how to have these conversations appropriately and sensitively. In some cases, employers reported feeling unable to have these conversations and, instead, made assumptions that people who were in their late fifties or early sixties would be retiring soon.

Recommendations

Based on our research findings, we have developed a number of recommendations, which are explored in depth at the end of this report. While our research only focused on women working in the Finance and Insurance sector, and the Information and Communication sector, it is likely that many of these recommendations will have some application to other workplaces and sectors as well. Ultimately, however, the relevance of these recommendations for other sectors should be explored through further research.

Our recommendations relate closely to the Fair Work Convention's Fair Work Framework, in particular the dimensions of opportunity, respect and effective voice. The recommendations focus on:

  • A need for employers to commit to consideration of age as a fundamental equalities dimension, which is strongly associated with the Framework's dimension of opportunity;
  • An understanding of the pivotal relationship between health and work for this demographic, which has a direct link to the dimension of respect; and
  • A recognition that women's voices must be heard more in the workplace to understand barriers faced and to guide future workplaces practices, which talks to the dimension of effective voice.

The recommendations can be summarised as follows. See the Conclusion at the end of this report for more detail about the recommendations.

1. Improving awareness among employers of age-related barriers to progression

Employers should consider ways to better monitor how recruitment, pay, and progression in their organisations are affected by age. Similarly, they should consider how interventions on the GPG may affect women of different ages in different ways.

  • Recommendation 1a: Raise awareness about the importance of age as a diversity and inclusion priority among employers.
  • Recommendation 1b: Employers should consider ways to monitor the age profile of their organisations and of their management structures in particular.
  • Recommendation 1c: Employers should monitor how age affects recruitment, pay, and progression outcomes within their organisations.
  • Recommendation 1d: Employers should better tailor interventions around the GPG to different age groups.

2. Improving awareness of the GPG

Some employers, particularly those who do not have to report their GPG, may benefit from a better understanding of the difference between equal pay and the GPG; of how to monitor their GPG; and of the factors that may be driving it.

  • Recommendation 2a: Raise awareness of the GPG and its drivers among employers, particularly among those smaller organisations who do not have to report their GPG.
  • Recommendation 2b: Raise awareness of how to monitor the GPG, particularly among those smaller organisations who do not have to report their GPG.

3. Improving transparency around pay structures

Women's concerns about unequal pay are often made worse by a lack of transparency in pay and grading structures. Employers should consider ways of improving transparency in this regard.

  • Recommendation 3a: Employers should improve transparency around pay and grading structures.

4. Providing support to both women and employers around recruitment and promotion processes

Employers may benefit from a greater awareness of age-inclusive recruitment practices. Women over 50 may benefit from support and guidance on how to navigate recruitment processes.

  • Recommendation 4a: Employers should adopt more age-inclusive recruitment practices.
  • Recommendation 4b: Provide women over 50 with more support and guidance on recruitment and promotion processes.

5. Providing a more supportive environment in the workplace around the use of technology

Employers should consider how to provide a more supportive workplace environment for those employees who express a lack of confidence in their ability to use new or complex technology. Employers should also consider how their performance criteria may disadvantage some workers over others, especially if these criteria are predominately based on the use of technology.

  • Recommendation 5a: Employers should provide women over 50 with training on the use of technology in sensitive, appropriate, and evidence-based ways.
  • Recommendation 5b: Conduct further research on how these women would like to receive this support and training.
  • Recommendation 5c: Employers should evaluate how their performance criteria may disadvantage certain groups of workers more than others, and adapt performance criteria accordingly.

6. Increasing opportunities for flexible working and home working

Employers should maximise opportunities for flexible, home working, and part-time work within their organisations. Employers should consider how requirements to travel either for work or for training could provide a barrier to the progression of women over 50.

  • Recommendation 6a: Employers should increase opportunities for part-time work, home working and flexible work.
  • Recommendation 6b: Employers should consider how requirements to travel either for work or training may present barriers to progression for certain groups of workers.

7. Increasing awareness of and providing appropriate support on the menopause

Employers should develop policies and practices that address both the physical and the psychological impacts of the menopause on women in the workplace. Employers should remember that women and managers may feel unable to talk about the menopause in the workplace. They should, therefore, focus on interventions that address this stigma at all levels in the organisation.

  • Recommendation 7a: Increase awareness among women, colleagues, and line managers about the impact of the menopause.
  • Recommendation 7b: Employers should provide mandatory, rather than optional, training for managers on the menopause, to help promote conversations about the menopause in the workplace.
  • Recommendation 7c: Employers should provide appropriate support on the menopause, including menopause policies and occupational health interventions.

8. Developing guidelines for best practice on talking about retirement in the workplace

Employers often welcome conversations with their employees about their retirement plans but they can feel uncertain about how to approach these conversations. Employers would benefit from evidence-based guidelines on how best to approach the subject of retirement in the workplace.

  • Recommendation 8a: Develop guidelines for best practice for employers on how to initiate and have conversations about retirement in the workplace.
  • Recommendation 8b: Conduct further research on why women over 50 may or may not initiate conversations in the workplace about their plans around work as they grow older.

9. Promoting intergenerational respect and working

Further research should be conducted on intergenerational working, and on the barriers to intergenerational respect in the workplace. This research should also include the perspectives of younger workers on these issues.

  • Recommendation 9a: Conduct further research on intergenerational working, focusing on the factors that facilitate or prohibit intergenerational respect in the workplace.
  • Recommendation 9b: Develop guidelines for best practice for employers on how to promote intergenerational respect in the workplace.

10. Promoting awareness of how structural issues around childcare impact women over 50

Our research shows how women's experiences in the workplace are impacted by broader structural issues relating to care systems, such as the accessibility and affordability of good-quality childcare, and of good-quality care for the elderly. Research and policy work on care systems should, therefore, consider the impact of caring structures on the experiences of women over 50.

  • Recommendation 10a: Raise awareness of how women over 50 are impacted by care structures.
  • Recommendation 10b: Research and policy work on care should consider women over 50 as a key group for consideration.

Worker voices: A small selection of the insights heard from our interviews with women over 50

On pay and progression

Do I go and say I don't think I am getting paid the same as a colleague? You don't know what sort of can of worms you're opening… Workplaces don't always make it easy… there's always something that will fob you off for another spell.

As time went on those interviews became more and more complex, you know they are doing psychometric testing and they are doing scenarios… as I got older it was becoming harder…there was not any preparation available.

It was difficult when they assumed that I would know the latest technology…when they introduce something new into the bank, okay, well I wanted to have another look at this, or I didn't understand this, and you did get the rolled eyes and everything, as if to say, come on! But I'm not stupid.

On experiences of the menopause

It almost affects your credibility, whether real or perceived. I thought they don't need me anymore…

[I felt] less confident, and as I say, I think part of that was, my mother was ill, menopause, brain going everywhere, not remembering anything, and thinking, I feel absolutely stupid, they think I'm stupid.

The past five years have been really difficult as far as the menopause, it totally changed me, it really did.

I wouldn't even begin to know how to say to someone at work I am having a bad day because I am going through the menopause… there's just not that conversation, you know, there's never been any correspondence out that covers that.

On age in the workplace

The way I was trained it was all down to quality and getting it right first time. But now they want the speed and when you're a bit older, I don't have the speed that they want.

I'm a little bit paranoid because I'm 62, I'm paranoid that they're going to want to get rid of me… as I've probably proved to them, your health begins to go, and you become a little bit perhaps less energetic.

If an office job came up locally, I would just think that somebody of 20 would be in before me…Would they take somebody of 55? I may be wrong, but I just think that a younger one would get it before me.

On balancing work with life

In previous roles I've had an awful lot of travel and I don't know if it's a combination of COVID, age and everything else and other responsibilities, but I just don't want to do that level of travel anymore.

We now have the added pressure of my parents who are elderly, they live forty miles away… I don't think I could work full time, because…I'm now responsible [for them]… We come away from there, we're exhausted. But there isn't anybody else.

I had a new lease of life, with these new [part-time] hours…So, we're eating healthier now, it's a pity I had to leave my job to do that, to look after my health…Hopefully, I'll be back off the [diabetes] tablets soon enough.

I just want to enjoy life, you hear so many horror stories of people retiring at 65 and 67 and they don't enjoy it, they've got too many ailments and whatever going on, and I just want to still be young enough to enjoy it.

Contact

Email: fairworkconvention@gov.scot

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