Chapter Two: Experiences of pay and progression among women and employers
2.1 Women's views and experiences of progression: introduction
What was the history of progression and job moves among the women in our study?
Most of the women that we interviewed had worked in the same jobs, at the same grades, throughout their fifties and typically for many years prior to that. Some had moved up one or more grades earlier in their careers, while others had been on the same grade for over two decades or more.
We also interviewed six women who had recently moved jobs, and one woman, Lindsay, who had taken early retirement and was unsure whether she would return to work (for Lindsay's story see 2.4.2).
Out of the six women that had recently moved jobs, three had moved to roles in new organisations that they saw as equivalent to their old jobs in terms of pay and responsibility: this included two financial consultants, one of whom was at directorial level in her company, as well as a call centre worker. By contrast, two women had taken new jobs in new companies that involved a reduction in responsibility in one case, and a drop in both pay and responsibility in another. In these cases, both women had actively chosen these changes as part of a broader wish to reduce their stress levels and to have more time for their interests and relationships outside work. Finally, one woman had moved into a new role within her organisation, which she saw broadly as a move 'sideways' in terms of responsibility, although she noted that both her and her employer saw it as a step towards phased retirement within the next five years.
Only two of the women that we interviewed reported having recently applied and been turned down for some form of promotion. One of these women, a call-centre worker, attributed this failure to her age and the fact that she was slower with technology than younger workers. Another woman, an administrator for an internet provider, stated that she felt "fobbed off" by the company, and she wondered whether her gender had disadvantaged her, given that she was aware of men with the same job duties on higher grades. These experiences – and related findings – are explored in more depth in Section 184.108.40.206 and Section 2.4.1 respectively.
Overall, the findings in this chapter suggest that inequalities in pay and progression among women over 50 are not simply a legacy of the gendered work patterns experienced by women early on in their careers in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather, our findings suggest that workplace practices have a significant and ongoing impact on women's experiences of pay and progression, and the inequalities therein.
The following sections look at women's views on progression, focusing first on their perceptions around internal structural barriers to progression within organisations, and then at women's wishes and views around progression. The final section looks at women's attitudes to training and other professional development opportunities.
2.1.1 Women's views on structural constraints on progression within organisations
Several women that we interviewed described structural constraints within their organisations which they experienced as barriers to their progression. For example, three women working for a media company that had recently restructured and made many staff redundant all stated that there were no opportunities for them to progress within the organisation, as their departments were too small.
Some of our research participants also felt that there were limited opportunities for progression outside of management roles. This was particularly the case for administrators as well as call centre workers. For example, the woman at the internet company who felt "fobbed off" when she had failed to obtain her re-grade stated that: "I think [I just wanted] some recognition for a change and it kind of feels like sometimes if you don't want to be a management grade, we don't want to know".
2.1.2 Women's wishes around progression
Most of the women that we interviewed stated that, at this point in their working lives, they did not wish to progress further either within their organisations, or within other organisations. In some cases, this was because they felt a strong sense of satisfaction and fulfilment with what they had already achieved, and they now wished for a different focus in their lives. Amanda, for example, retired from an almost 40-year career in the public sector at 60 years old. A few years later, finding herself somewhat "bored" during lockdown, she took on a job doing administration work for a friend, working approximately 10 hours a week. Amanda reported being happy with this reduced level of responsibility as she felt that she no longer wished for her work to be the "dominant thing" in her life:
I was really busy in my job, it was really responsible, I loved it…but probably it was the dominant thing in my life and I didn't want to go back to that. I wanted it to be a secondary thing.
Amanda, 65, administrator for a financial services company
In most cases, however, the women that we interviewed framed their reluctance to progress in more negative terms: that is, they saw progression as a potentially stressful and undesirable experience. Many participants, for example, linked progression to extra pressure and extra scrutiny, without sufficient rewards either in terms of pay, job fulfilment or further progression. Moreover, these women typically stated that they wanted to avoid these sorts of stressors at their age, also often citing their health as a further reason for avoiding the stress entailed in progression:
I don't really want a high-pressured job, a stressful job. I'm quite happy just plodding along…I just think it'd be a bit stressful for me, at my time in life I just want to take things a bit easier.
Lesley, 56, call-centre worker
I'm not going to affect my health by going out and doing [a job with pressure].
Lindsay, 57, former project manager at a large bank
I don't want the stress, everything is manageable. So, and no matter what, I'm still getting paid….I've just got to think about, just overarching health and wellbeing.
Denise, 55, HR officer at a large bank
I'm at this stage now that I think I've done well, I don't want to be learning anymore…It is [my] choice not to put myself under any extra pressure.
Deirdre, 58, project manager for an internet provider
Several women also identified specific aspects of more senior jobs that they believed to be stressful. Two call-centre workers, for example, saw managerial jobs as involving extra work and extra scrutiny with little reward:
I'm quite happy to come in at night and that's it. I don't need to start worrying about my work, I didn't want to put all the work in, to be recognised to get an extra twenty pounds a month, no thanks very much. I'm not going to bother. I wasn't interested in having folk listen in to every phone I make and having to do things I didn't want to do.
Barbara, 65, call-centre worker
But at this stage, I don't want the hassle really. There's a lot of stress being a manager. I just want to go in, do a job, and come home and not think about it again until the next day.
Mary, 56, call centre worker
By comparison, Sandra, a 52-year-old woman who had recently taken redundancy from a senior manager position at a large bank, stated that, by the time she left the bank, she no longer wished for further promotions, in large part as she felt that jobs were much less secure at higher grades:
I didn't want to go any higher in the bank, I knew that… I got to where I wanted to be and that was that…the [higher grades] were the ones that went first if numbers weren't hit, if things were going bad, they were the first ones to be made redundant. So in the restructures you were quite safe at [the lower] grades…I just wanted stability, I just wanted to make sure I had a job.
Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank
As a final point, for one woman in particular, their experience of currently feeling over-worked and under-supported made them reluctant to take on any more responsibility:
I definitely [would] not [want to be a manager]. I'm happy with what I'm doing, and I wouldn't want any more responsibility. I'm doing more than enough now… I couldn't really take on any more. I wouldn't have the time.
Kate, 54, administrator for a media company
As these quotes show, therefore, women frequently related their reluctance to pursue progression opportunities both to stress or pressure in the workplace, as well as to a reduced capacity or desire to deal with these stressors – something that many women then linked to their age. Indeed, almost all these women also reported having been much keener to pursue promotions in the past.
2.1.3 Women's wishes around training
When it came to training opportunities, the picture was somewhat more mixed. Several women, for example, expressed a keenness to undergo new training and learning experiences, as well as an enjoyment of it in the past (see also Section 220.127.116.11). To give just one example, Helen, who had recently become HR manager within the credit union where she had worked for several decades, was very keen to undertake as much training as possible, to ensure that she performed her role to a high standard, despite being open about the fact she wished to retire in the next five years:
Because this is a new role, just to make sure that I'm fully trained and I've got it in a good place but then I'm still learning, I've not learnt everything of it. So, my goal is to make sure that I'm responsible for that role and I'm in a better place and I can fully understand the commitment and the responsibilities of it.
However, other women expressed similar attitudes towards training as they did towards progression opportunities: namely, they felt that training was something that they had become less interested in as they got older. For many women, this was because training was seen as 'extra' work, involving an extra level of pressure or stress that they did not want. Moreover, many women also saw training as either only open to managers, or as only necessary for those who wanted to progress higher in the organisation and therefore unnecessary to their work:
Some of the guys at the bank went and did MBAs, I thought, I'm not doing that, I never sat my bank exams and I've never needed them. I thought I'm not doing an MBA; I don't want to go any higher in the bank and it just looks bloody horrendous anyway.
Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank
At the end of the day, I'm just fed up sitting looking at a screen and just to sit there and do more. I'd rather be out walking with the dog or something, using my time differently. Ten years ago, it probably would have been a different conversation.
Claire, 54, call centre worker
I know there's a few people in the business but they're all managers, they did open university courses, but I've never been offered anything, but I don't think I would do it. It wouldn't help me with this job.
Kate, 54, administrator for a media company
Similarly, another woman who also worked for a media company noted that she did not always access training on technology because it was "self-serve" – in other words, the onus was on the employee to find extra time on top of their normal workload to attend webinars or to look at information online.
2.2. Women's views on pay: introduction
Were the women in our study happy with their pay?
13 of the women that we interviewed said that they were happy with their current pay, although several of these women felt they had experienced unfair pay in the past. In situations where women felt their pay was or had been unfair, this was typically due to three reasons: perceptions that colleagues, particularly men, were unjustly being paid more than them; perceptions that they were not being paid the same as others in the organisation simply because they had joined more recently than others; and perceptions that the company was underpaying their staff due to their own structural or financial difficulties. Concerns around the unequal pay between men and women were by far the most commonly expressed grievance among women.
Conversely, the women who were happy with their pay also tended to describe this in comparative terms, for example, pointing out that they were paid more than their managers who had joined more recently, or stating that they would not be able to get other jobs that paid as well. Similarly, women frequently emphasised the functional aspects of their pay, stating that it "paid the bills" or allowed them to support their families.
2.2.1. Challenging unfair pay
Only a small number of the women that we interviewed had ever challenged their employers about their pay. Many of the women that we spoke to stated directly that this was something that they would not feel able to do, either because they felt they lacked confidence in general to do so or because they felt concerned about receiving a negative response from employers. To give some examples:
Yes, I think initially when I started I car shared and one girl had worked for an insurance company in Edinburgh and we both started at the bank at the same time. And she was like, "I told them I wasn't working for twelve, so, they put me up to fourteen." At that time, I was thirty five and I was like, the thought of going back to someone and saying, that's not much money, you have to give me more, was like really? As the time progressed, it was like, oh I've had another pay rise, and you just, you kept within that. It allowed me to pay my mortgage and whatever, the pay was fine…..I wasn't brave enough to do something like that.
Denise, 55, HR officer, large bank
It's one of these things, you know, 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…like, you know you get, you know you get paid enough, you know why aren't you happy with your lot. You know basically the door just gets shut and that is so... you don't know if it would antagonise anybody…but at the same time I feel you should have a right to be able to question these things, you know. But workplaces don't always make it easy…you know whether it's maybe well we're going to be restructuring or there's always something that will fob you off for another spell.
Caroline, 50, project manager at a media company
We've still got the same work to do, for the same money and it's not very fair I don't think, but it's not up for discussion.
Kate, 54, administrator for a media company
I never did [negotiate my pay]. They all negotiate their salaries, especially the men, women are not good at that, women take what they're given, the men would play hardball and negotiate…Women are really bad at that hardball game.
Sandra, 52, former senior manager at a large bank
By contrast, two women that we interviewed stated that in the past they had directly asked their employers about equal pay. One woman, who worked for an insurance company, did this pre-emptively when a male colleague joined her team, while another woman, who was a financial consultant, did this when she discovered that a man in a similar role was being paid more than her:
I did ask a question in terms of, the team of three that we've got, there is now a male… there's been a guy join the team and because of what they were proposing for consolidation, I did ask that question, in terms of, was there any equal pay that had to be looked at? Rather than just say consolidation, because he was a grade higher than me when he got the secondment. So, I was concerned that there might have been a differential on base pay, it was then going to be hidden by consolidation.
Anne, 52, trade union representative for an insurance company
What happened is somebody inadvertently gave me his pay rise letter, and I saw that he had an appraisal grade of less than mine, he had a bigger pay rise and his baseline was also bigger. So, that would have been the nineties and that was the only time I have actually felt right, this isn't on and I did, I took it up and I got it equalised. But I still couldn't get over the fact that it was exceptionally unfair.
Catherine, 60, financial consultant
In sum, therefore, only a small number of women that we spoke to did feel able – or had felt able in the past – to challenge what they perceived as unfair pay. In these cases, one of these women had direct evidence of unequal pay, while the other was a trade union representative with experience in pay policy and negotiation. However, many other women felt unable to raise the issue of unfair pay.
2.2.2 Geographical differences and pay inequalities
As a final point on pay, it is noteworthy that some of the women that we spoke to – particularly those who for worked for large organisations that were based in England as well as Scotland – complained that their colleagues in London were routinely paid considerably more than them. For example, one woman who worked for a large bank stated that her colleagues in London on equivalent grades were earning up to £20,000 more than she was. Another woman whom we interviewed as part of our employer sample stated that when she was a senior manager for the same large bank she was asked to manage a junior colleague in London, whom she discovered was being paid £30 000 more than she was. In both cases, the bank explained these pay disparities as due to differences in the cost of living between Scotland and England. An IT consultancy company that we interviewed as part of our employer sample also reported paying colleagues considerably more in England than in Scotland – something that the manager in Scotland found problematic. Interestingly, in most of these cases, women felt that geographical differences were being used as some sort of "excuse" to hide inequalities in pay along gender lines.
2.3 Women's views on age in the workplace
These sections present evidence on how our research participants viewed their own age: its benefits and its disadvantages, particularly as they applied to the workplace. The first section looks at women's views on the advantages of their relative age, while subsequent sections look at four areas where women expressed concerns about the impact of their age on their work. These concerns can be grouped into four main areas:
- concerns around their capacity to use complex technology;
- concerns around the speed of their work and other assessments of performance;
- concerns around recruitment processes if moving jobs or applying for promotions;
- concerns around youth-orientated workplace cultures.
2.3.1 Women's perceptions on the benefits of experience
Almost all of the women that we interviewed saw their experience as something that brought benefits, both to them as individuals and to their employers. Particularly for those women who had worked in the same organisation or the same industry for many years, or even decades, they felt that their age came with a significant level of experience and knowledge that was useful for others, as these quotes illustrate:
It is a very complicated [job] but I've been doing it now for, this particular job I've been doing now for about five years. Folk obviously come to me because I've got good experience and a lot of folk who're more experienced than me are now retiring and leaving... So, they've got all these new recruits in and the poor things haven't got a chance, six weeks they get training and it's taken me six years to get where I am.
Deirdre, 58, project manager for an internet provider
I think [my age has] helped because I still get asked questions because of my experience, being there for so long. So I think that's what comes out of that experience because I'm not just new in the door, being someone older…If my experience can help someone else, that's amazing. If someone else can take away something that I'm saying to them or something I've done in the past, that's brilliant, if I can pass that on.
Helen, 57, HR manager, credit union
When you do your job long enough it just becomes water off a duck's back doesn't it, if you're that experienced at something.
Caroline, 50, project manager for a media company
I don't really think about age myself, I just think, well I'm more experienced, I've seen this, done it, got the tee shirt for it…experience helped I think. The length of time I was there…you build up that wealth of knowledge, you know how systems work, you know who the people are to get things done. So I think that did help.
Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank
In another example, Lesley, a 56-year old, was pleasantly surprised when she obtained a new job in her fifties, working as a call centre worker for a large insurance company. She felt that her over 15 years of work in the civil service dealing with complaints from the public not only helped her obtain her new job, but also gave her a competitive advantage over younger recruits:
I was quite surprised that I got another job quite quickly with [my employer], I think you tend to sort of doubt yourself when you get to a certain age, you think is this a good idea? I've found it quite enlightening; it boosted my confidence quite a bit the fact that I could get another job so easily and that my experience kind of took over from the age thing if you know what I mean. I realised that age isn't everything really, your experience can count for a lot as well and it sort of boosted my confidence a bit getting a new job at my age…. I was a bit nervous going on the phone with all the call flows, all the things you had to remember but it's just like practise. I don't think I was in any way disadvantaged as far as being older was concerned because I think the young ones struggled quite a bit as well. In some ways I felt as if I had an advantage because I was used to speaking on the phones to customers, so that kind of balanced things out a bit….They were really quick on the keyboard but I had the soft skills to deal with the customers.
In addition, some women felt that their age gave them advantages over younger people when it came to managing people and managing relationships with colleagues. For example, Lindsay, a former project manager at a large bank, described to us how she calmly and pragmatically dealt with two people that she line managed who were having issues with their family lives outside work. She saw her capacities here as something that was due, at least in part, to her "maturity":
I like to think that when you get to a certain age, so even forties, fifties, what was a big deal and what you see your youngsters finding a big deal that work for you, you find it isn't…I think you can maybe think of the bigger picture when you're older, and try and reason….There's always a reason, if you sit somebody down, as to why they react the way they do. But I probably couldn't have done that in my twenties, because I don't know, you didn't think about the bigger picture…But you think there's something at the back of it, and that's when you start to ask the right questions. So, age wise, I think maturity brings a lot to the pack.
Similarly, other women reported that with age they had become calmer, more self-accepting and less reliant on professional success for their happiness, which they felt allowed them to take a more balanced approach to work:
Don't get me wrong, I care about my job…but I don't care in the bigger sense anymore,. It's kind of life, I like it, I do it because I like it, but it's not important, it's that my horizons have changed. It used to be…you get up in the morning, your job is your be all and end all…but I don't feel I have to prove anything about it… I don't feel that I have to justify my existence anymore, which I think I did slightly when I was younger, in fact more than slightly.
Susan, 58, director at a financial services company
Whilst work is important, yes, and having a regular income is important, what's equally important, is my own sense of, who I am, and sense of self. That's what's changed. Whereas before it was, you only had a sense of self when you were working… [I had] to have a job of credibility. That's what it would have been like when I was younger. I need to have that, 'look what I'm doing'.
Denise, 55, HR officer at a large bank
You just become a bit hardened to things…I think it's natural, I'd love to be back at that innocent, enthusiastic, you know no fear type thing but I also think getting a little bit hardened you don't maybe stress so much. Because you know well hey it'll either happen or it won't happen. You know. So, yes you can just deal with problems I think a little bit better. Whereas if you are younger or whatever and you've not really experienced much else, problems can be absolutely humungous whereas now I can switch my computer off and just go well that's that for the day. You know whereas I think when you are younger you maybe take a lot of stuff home with you.
Caroline, 50, project manager at a media company
In sum, our research suggests that women over 50 can see their age as having distinct advantages in the workplace. For the women in our study, this is because they saw age as correlating with experience, knowledge, and certain skills, particularly skills around dealing with people, be these colleagues or customers, as well as skills around their capacity to deal with the stressors involved in work. However, at the same time, women also often believed that age could simultaneously hinder them in the workplace, as the next section explores.
2.3.2. Women's perceptions on the disadvantages of older age in the workplace
When asked directly if they had ever experienced harassment, bullying or discrimination due to their age, all the women in our research replied that they had not. However, in our interviews, all the women also expressed at least some concerns and anxieties about how their age had or could negatively affect their experiences of work. In talking about these concerns, these women often revealed implicit beliefs that they had or could face discrimination because of their age. The first of these concerns among women over 50 was around requirements to use new and complex technology in the workplace.
18.104.22.168 Concerns around the use of complex technology
One of the most common concerns expressed by women in our interviews was about their capacity to use new or complex technological systems. Women working in both the Finance and Insurance sector, and the Information and Communication sector, reported these concerns in fairly equal measure. The following quotes show how women often felt that they were at a disadvantage compared to younger colleagues, who were typically seen as intrinsically better with technology:
I think it was probably more like the systems, the technology side of things, and although I was used to working with a computer, I knew what a keyboard and a mouse was, I'd used Word and Excel and things like that. So, you're used to doing the same thing day after day, doing the same programmes and the same job, and then all of a sudden starting in a brand-new job with new systems and having to learn all that again, I think that's the bit that I found daunting. Whereas the young ones would probably pick that up quicker.
Lesley, 56, call-centre worker
I suppose [ a concern would be in moving jobs] in terms of the lack of experience that [I would have] that they'll have, even though they're younger members of staff, because they've worked in that environment… the world has moved on in technology etc., it's not my strong point.
Anne, 52, trade union representative for an insurance company
Yes, because you've got competitive youngsters coming up behind you, sniffing at your heels, you know, so, you've got to keep up with the latest PowerPoint or Excel bloody packs, that you've got to pull together.
Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank
I think some of the technology, I think that might just be a kind of stumbling block towards the older generation. The young ones these days can master anything between apps, phones etc., so I think that side of the business that might just be a wee kind of stumbling block. The younger generation are so clued up where it takes the older ones [longer] to get there, don't get me wrong there's nothing that we can't focus on but you do see the younger ones speaking about all this technology.
Helen, 57, HR manager, credit union
It is important to note, however, that despite these concerns many women also expressed an interest and an enjoyment in learning new technology, and they welcomed training or help from others in this area. Susan, a 58-year-old director at a financial services company, had previously worked in her mid-fifties for a tech company – an experience that she greatly enjoyed, as she told us:
I'm 59 next month, and as I point out to my youngsters, when I was at school, we didn't even have personal computers. So going and working for a digital tech company was a phenomenal eye opener for me. And an incredible learning process actually.
Similarly, Helen, a manager who had worked in various roles for the same credit union for several decades, stated that she welcomed learning new technological skills from younger employees:
We know how to work user spreadsheets and everything else that comes with it but there's all these other things that [younger people] can do that you think right okay, I didn't know I could do that. So, it's a learning curve as well and to be fair, the younger generation are really good, we have a few in their forties, there's two like myself in their fifties, the younger generation they tell us everything and it's great to have that knowledge and information from them.
Similarly, Amanda, a 65-year-old woman who had worked in IT in the public sector throughout her fifties, spoke about how much she had enjoyed being trained in new technology:
When I worked in…the IT department they were fantastically good at teaching me stuff. So, and that was not formal teaching it was ad hoc, on the go if I needed to do something somebody taught me how to do it. So, I can put a PC together or a printer and a camera and all of that sort of stuff. And I can load up software and things like that….So, I know it and I understand quite a lot of it… as I said I really surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it.
As a final example, Caroline a 50-year-old project manager for a media company, was anticipating receiving training from her employer given that her industry was shifting in focus to online content – training that she welcomed given its potential to open up new opportunities for her:
This digital format is on the horizon… so I'll be getting some training for that. I am a bit of one of these people, I am not a Luddite but my tech, my tech basically amounts to Facebook and Messenger and even then I am not, it's only every now and again. I am not involved in a sort of tech world as such. Whereas the digital thing opens up a whole new other side of things but I think I'd like to learn it because it's a new set of skills. So who knows where I could go with that.
These declarations of interest in technology, often expressed alongside concerns about a lack of skills and experience, are important as they challenge any assumptions or generalisations that women over 50 are uninterested or resistant to engage with technology. Indeed, as subsequent sections suggest, these beliefs were held by some of the employers that we interviewed who stated that their female employees over 50 were often not unwilling to learn new technologies. Our findings do suggest, however, that many women over 50 experience uncertainty and a lack of confidence in using new and particularly complex technologies, suggesting that they would benefit from support in this area.
As a final point, it is worth noting that not all women reported positive experiences when seeking help or training with technology. Lindsay, for example, who took early retirement from a large bank in 2019 due to a number of negative experiences there (see Section 3.4.2), stated that her working environment had not been supportive of people who needed additional help in learning new things, especially technology:
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.
For some women, the online nature of some training also presented a barrier, as there was no one they could actually talk to about their problems face-to-face. For example, a project manager at a communications company stated the following:
You're just expected to know and to be able to do so much as well. I mean, I'm not exactly technically minded but things change on a daily basis all the time, even health and safety alone you know…I don't particularly like it because it's not very well laid down, it's all to do with do it yourself now, you get here's an [online training classroom] get on with it. I mean, it used to be that you could sit down with people to have a face to face training session and if you had questions you would say 'I'm not really sure about that' and someone was there. Whereas these [online sessions] you think you're doing it right and then six months down the line they say 'why are you calculating this' and 'why are you doing that' when you think you've done it right all along, there's nobody coming along checking your work properly.
Deirdre, 58, project manager for an internet provider
22.214.171.124 Concerns around speed and other assessments of performance
Several of the women that we interviewed stated that they felt that their age affected their performance, particularly in terms of their ability to perform certain tasks quickly and efficiently, and in terms of their ability to retain information. This was a common concern for women experiencing cognitive symptoms relating to the menopause (see section 3.4.2), although women also connected reduced speed at work to the process of ageing, in and of itself. For example, Susan, a 58-year-old director at a financial services company, stated that she felt that she was "slower" now than when she was younger:
I'll be quite happy to keep doing [my job], for as long as my brain will work. That's the other thing, I'm not being funny, but you do slow up. I know I've slowed up, in the last couple of years, three, four years or so. I'm still good, don't get me wrong, and I've still got one of those very highly active brains, so it's still faster than some people's. But I know it's not quite where it used to be in terms of memory and all the rest of it.
These concerns around speed were felt particularly acutely by call centre workers, who often expressed anxiety that the criteria upon which they were evaluated put them at a disadvantage in comparison to younger workers. For example, Mary, a 56-year-old call centre worker for a communications company, was disappointed when she did not get two new positions because her "stats" were not good enough. Mary felt that this was "unfair" given that she was capable of performing the tasks required in the new roles. She was sure that it was her "call handling speeds" that held her back – something that she also saw as a product of her relative age. She additionally felt that her reduced ability to concentrate and retain information were a factor:
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 don't retain stuff as well, and I'm not as quick at, because new people coming in, they're all trained on computers, and stuff, where I never was. So, yeah I can be a bit slower at picking things up, yeah, so I think that is a disadvantage. ..
I didn't get [those jobs] either because my stats aren't good enough. I'm too slow, that's what it is,... I mean I'm not too slow, I achieve me stats, but younger people are quicker than me, so yes. Yeah, it's all about speed. .. It's call handling time, that's what they're measured on. …I'm definitely a lot slower than the young ones, yeah. Just because they're more clued up on computers, and they seem to just whiz about the system, whereas I've got to sometimes think about it and think where on the system is that? …Because yeah, well at this age, it's impossible to keep up because things change nearly every day, and my brain just can't retain it anymore….because the concentration has gone, and you just, yeah, your brain doesn't work as actively, I suppose, as younger people. They pick things up and they're just quicker.
This emphasis on "stats" in comparison to experience in the organisation was also seen as a problem by Lesley, who worked in a similar role for a large insurance company and was currently trying to go up a "step" in the grading structure but was concerned that her "stats" might not be good enough:
I mean, I think basically when you've got the experience, I think you should get [the next step] anyway. If you've been there a long time, you're competent at your job, you've not had a lot of sick leave or detriment, I think you should get it anyway, I don't think you should have to prove yourself really. We all have off days, whether you're going through the menopause or not, you have your off days so I think just checking certain calls, it could've been a bad day that day and all your calls are rubbish and you're getting marked on that, so that doesn't seem very fair to me. I think it could be fairer, I think it should go on your longer-term service really, I think.
Claire, who worked as a call centre worker for a communications company, expressed somewhat similar views about the problem of "stats-orientated" workplaces, although her concerns were more around demands to hit certain sales targets, which she felt were incompatible with her age. She stated that this was why she had not pursued a promotion to work as a manager in a sales department:
I could have gone into sales but I'm too old for sales, even back then…In sales, it was, well it still is, they all work on bonuses and it's all cut-throat kind of thing and I'm probably too customer service to sell your granny the top of the range TV and broadband and all these new singing mobile phones, that's not me, I can't do that... So, I'd just rather go to a department that is not too stats orientated, that lets you deal with your customers to the best that you can....I think you just, you just get to the point in life, where it's, I've probably got a bigger conscience more than anything and I just wouldn't do it and I would get picked up on it, more than anything.
These last comments here about "being picked up on it" also reflect a more general concern expressed by several of our interviewees around management techniques in call centres, involving what was perceived as overly harsh and critical feedback on calls from managers. However, other types of workers also expressed concern about having to meet specific performance targets that were closely monitored by managers. For example, Anne, who had previously worked as a project manager for an insurance company before taking a secondment as a full-time trade union representative, felt unsure about whether she wished to return to work as a project manager, given that her performance and speed would be closely monitored by a manager:
Because I've had a lot of, in terms of leadership in the management side, you're left to your own devices, to a lot of degrees, obviously, my leader can see my diary and she knows when I have commitments etc., but I'm not micromanaged, in terms of what I spend my time doing. So, that [would be a] change of having someone, having control and allocate work and speed of work, yes, that would be a concern.
In sum, some women expressed concerns about how age affected their ability to meet the performance criteria set by managers, particularly if such targets were disproportionately based on the capacity to work quickly or competitively, especially with technology.
126.96.36.199. Concerns around recruitment and promotion procedures
The women that we interviewed expressed a range of age-related concerns about moving jobs either internally or externally, both in terms of having to go through recruitment procedures, and in terms of the potential age bias of those hiring. These are explored in turn below.
Women's perceptions of overly complex and intimidating recruitment processes
Several of the women that we interviewed stated that they would be reluctant or anxious to go through what they saw as overly complex, intimidating and lengthy recruitment procedures in order to secure a new job. These women typically stated that recruitment procedures had changed over the years and that they lacked experience with them. For example, a 56-year-old woman who had worked for the same communications firm for 28 years, stated:
I've written a CV for my manager's posts but yeah I haven't been in that sort of situation for years, where you've got to apply for something, and then…I know even to get into [my employer] now you've got to jump through hoops to get even an interview. And I just think, oh my God. In my day you just went for your interview, and it was a basic yes or no, there was nothing else…My manager now, she's just passed her interview, she had to do a presentation, she had to give like a scenario on how she would help her team if they were performing badly. And, honest to God, it's three hours, and you just think, 'what for a job?'…I couldn't put myself through that, I don't think.
Mary, 56, call centre worker
Another woman, Kate, who had also worked for her employer – a media company – for over 25 years expressed similar concerns that she lacked the confidence and skills to apply for another job, even if this only involved an interview. She stated that although she would "love to leave this job" she could only imagine getting another job through an existing social network. Her comments focused particularly on her concerns over the need to "sell herself":
If I knew locally of someone and they knew me, I think I could get a job…[But] the thought of like going onto a job website and thinking I'm going to apply for that, no I wouldn't do that…I've been here so long, do you know what I mean, the thought of going for an interview just does nothing for me. I don't know how I would get on an in interview. I can't sell myself, you know, I couldn't say how good I am at my job, and I would never sit in a chair and say that…The thought of going for an interview just freaks me out.
Kate, 54, administrator for a media company
Kate's statement here that she would prefer to use existing social networks to find new jobs was echoed in several of our interviews. Indeed, five of the women that we spoke to had obtained their current jobs this way, taking either redundancy or early retirement, before being offered a new position by a former colleague, customer, or friend.
For example, Amanda had retired at 60 after having worked in the public sector for nearly four decades. While she had not initially intended to go back to work, she found herself experiencing "boredom" in lockdown and so she decided to take up a friend's offer of working in administration for a small financial services company. Amanda stated, however, that she would not have wished to apply for a new job, in part as she would have been "scared" by the prospect of lengthy and complex recruitment procedures. This concern also affected her when she was working in her fifties, and it put her off applying for new positions at the time. She stated that she had found such recruitment processes more intimidating as she had gotten older and that she did not think there was much preparation or support available to help with this:
As time went on those interviews became more and more complex, you know they are doing psychometric testing and they are doing scenarios and … things which I am almost certain I could have done but I was scared of…It's definitely a barrier I think… a barrier on all sorts of levels….I have always found interviews a bit … I mean everybody finds interviews stressful and anxiety provoking. Yeah but, I think that was getting worse as I got older it was becoming harder and, yeah. Just becoming harder actually….I suppose you could argue that people of my age are not prepared for these types of interviews, and there is no … there was not any preparation available.
Another woman, Catherine, who also obtained her current job with a financial services company through an existing network after having taken early retirement from a previous job, linked her reluctance to go through complex recruitment procedures to a concern that such procedures were more likely to be geared towards younger people, and to put emphasis on things like social media, with which she was not particularly experienced. Catherine also wondered whether her reluctance was due to a reduction in her confidence, which she linked to her age:
Do I want to put myself through assessment centres and all that sort of stuff that comes with other job applications?...I mean one of my friends, she's on…a third interview for a job, and I'm like oh crikey. Certainly, I would definitely not be going back, I don't think to a big corporation, with all that recruitment process, because actually, I just feel now, I've done it in the past, all the assessment centres, and all the psychometric profiling and all this. I feel now, I am what I am, and I can do this and if you want me to show you how I can do it, I can show you all of that. Do I want to go in there and sit there and think, oh my goodness, those people are really young, I bet they've got so much better ideas than me, they've probably got a better social media presence? I haven't got that, I haven't got this. Probably sounds weird, but yes, should I be putting myself out on Twitter?...I've never felt that people want to see photos of me going, hey I'm happy, because I've had a great day today.
Maybe there is that, maybe is that why I don't want to apply for those sorts of jobs, because I don't think I'd get called for it, and then it deflates your confidence. It's like oh well you know, I've applied for all those, I never even got pooled, I don't know. Am I playing it safe by just staying with what I know, and it feels good?
In sum, therefore, women identified what they saw as overly complex and intimidating recruitment procedures as a barrier to applying for internal promotions or for jobs elsewhere.
Women's perceptions of age discrimination in recruitment and promotion processes
Catherine's last comments in the section above are also indicative of how women over 50 can worry about experiencing age bias when applying for new jobs. Some of these concerns focus on issues of 'longevity'. For example, two women that we interviewed expressed concerns that they were less likely to be successful in job applications because employers would prefer someone who had more years ahead of them in the job. Anne, a 52-year-old full-time trade union representative who previously worked as a project manager for a large insurance company, stated:
It would be something in the back of my mind, in terms of, if I did want a career change and not having past skills and experience, [if I wanted] to do something completely different. And people looking at you and thinking well, you're aged 51, 52, whatever, now, how many more years [will you commit]? Somebody thinking, well, you're coming to this age, how many more years are you going to commit to the company, to retrain you and invest in you? I suppose that would be more my concern.
Kate, a 54-year-old woman who worked as an administrator for a media company, expressed similar concerns that employees would hire someone who was younger as they would not be retiring in the near future:
I feel that it would, 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 know when we advertised for staff it was all young people, always young…hopefully in 10 years' time I'll be retiring…I just think from a company's point of view, I know that's ageism, but I just think, I may be wrong, but I just think that a younger one would get it before me…so it's just the length of time.
In addition to concerns about longevity, some women worried that people might discriminate against them because of a general stigma against older workers, perhaps linked to their assumptions about their health or their competence. Elizabeth, a 62-year-old woman who had suffered significant health issues over the last few years, was not only concerned about promotions or switching jobs, but also of losing her current job in a media production company due to her age. This was partly as she had witnessed an older colleague being asked to leave:
I'm a little bit paranoid because I'm 62, I'm paranoid that they're going to want to get rid of me and actually my financial situation…is not great… But I'd have to look and see what the company has done in the past, and what the company has done in the past, has got rid of people in their sixties… I remember a really lovely older woman who had been involved in Admin. I know she was just absolutely bereft when they told her that they wanted her to go. All I could see, I don't know how they got round the age issue, they must have had a way, although it's a good few years ago now, so, maybe it wasn't so well protected as I think it would be now. But they don't have an HR department, so, they take advice, and I imagine probably they take advice from an HR department which is you don't hang on to people after a certain point, because as I've probably proved to them, your health begins to go and you become a little bit perhaps less energetic and stuff like that.
Similarly, Caroline, a 50-year-old project manager for a media company believed that there was a general stigma attached to people over 50 in society at large, which did concern her when thinking about switching jobs:
It's a shame you have to think there's a sort of stigma about the age thing but you can't help it. It is there unfortunately, especially when you kind of hit the 50 mark, you know like right what are my options here now….I still think people think anyone over 50 is just getting on now, they are old….but you feel it is a bit still out there especially if management are getting younger and younger and you've got, you know aren't they going to go for somebody who is younger?
Caroline's last point here about an increasingly younger management structure – and how it contributed to her concerns about her age – was also expressed by other women: a point taken up in more detail in the next section.
188.8.131.52 Concerns around youth-orientated workplace cultures
Many of the women that we interviewed described being acutely aware of the age profile of their organisation and where they fitted within it. For example, several women described being self-conscious of the fact that they were the "oldest person" in the company. This was particularly the case for those working in smaller companies. In addition, there was a feeling among many women that their workplaces were becoming increasingly orientated towards young people, both in terms of promotion to management and in terms of workplace culture. Call-centre workers reported, for example, that their line managers were almost always considerably younger than them. This was also a complaint among women working in the financial sector: for example, two women who had previously worked in the same large bank talked of a culture of "let's promote the youngsters quick"; of being dismissed for not being "trendy"; and of "competitive youngsters coming up behind you, sniffing at your heels". Similarly, a woman described her previous financial services company as wanting only "bright young things".
For some women over 50, the preponderance of younger people in the workplace presented a number of problems. For some, it was a question of culture and belonging, as they felt simply that they did not fit in as well with younger people. One woman stated for example that she felt a "social disconnect" given that she was one of the oldest women in her departments. Caroline, a 50-year-old project manager for a media company, described a similar sense of disconnect with younger people:
They are bringing in a younger crowd because of the digital side… I mean I am not the oldest person in the company but it's beginning to feel like that way…there's a few reporters who would be around my age mark but…I am not particularly bothered but if that's the way that company is going, it's going to restrict where I can go with it…That's the thing [also], it's about being with your peers as well. If you're with a load of folk who are twenty years younger than you, well, you have got a completely different outlook on life. I suppose that's the other problem with age in the workplace.
Another major concern for some of the women that we interviewed was that their managers were often considerably younger than them, something that was seen as problematic in a number of ways. For some women, they simply found it rather insulting to be managed so closely by someone who was several decades younger than them, particularly if they were perceived to be inexperienced, unprofessional, or poor performers. It was common in our interviews for women to point out that their managers were often the same age as their children, or even grandchildren.
Barbara, a 65-year-old woman who worked as a call centre worker for an insurance company, told us how she refused to have her one-to-one review with a "young girl":
The younger ones seem to get on a lot more than the older ones do in there, let me give you an example… My manager was one of the laziest guys I've ever met…[one day] he said "I'm going on holiday, I'll get [Anne] to do your one-to-one". I said "I'm not doing it.. she's in her twenties"…He said "that's ageist". I said "I don't care"… "I don't want a 20 year old to sit and tell us", that's my grandkid's age, my grandson is eighteen…. I don't mind people being younger, if they know what they're doing, but she was one of the girls, but as a person she's fine, but she's another one, took a lot of time off. Some of these managers, one of them is like the local newspaper, I wouldn't tell her anything. Some of them are very young and they're on the phones one minute and the next thing they're managers.
Lesley, who worked in the same role for the same insurance company, had liked many of her managers, although had had a particularly bad experience with one manager. She felt that this was largely due to the poor work culture in that particular office, although Lesley also wondered whether age played a role both in her manager's behaviour and in Lesley's reaction to her:
Maybe it was slightly due to my age, the fact that, I don't know maybe that girl thought you think because you're an older person that you can do what you want. I don't know whether she maybe thought that or not but I just didn't like the way she spoke to me, it was really quite demeaning, I don't know whether you think when you get to a certain age, you should be treated with a bit of respect and not spoken to like that, it was really awful.
Caroline, a project manager at a media company, was expecting to have more younger managers in the future, given the business' increased emphasis on digital technology. She worried that she would find this difficult, particularly if her own experience was not respected:
I think it is just a natural, just gets your back up a wee bit as well. It depends on what their attitude is…You'd just be a wee bit worried…thinking straightaway you know this youngster is going to try and act all the big management sort of boss and…disregard my experience… I think younger folk, do they disregard older folk in the workplace? I'd be very interested to see how the dynamics develop with that…I might find it a wee bit hard to begin with…that just seems to be the default [in me]: they better not take an attitude with me.
For other women, the issue was more that their younger line managers seemed to have less life experience in general, thus making them less able to understand complex problems. Lindsay, for example, who had worked for a large bank, felt that younger managers often had "technical" skills but then "don't actually know how to speak to people or treat people".
In another good example of this dynamic, Mary, a 56-year-old call-centre worker, described to us how she had taken time off work due to long covid. She saw her manager's poor handling of the situation as betraying a lack of maturity and experience:
All the managers are younger…my manager is a young girl, 23, younger than my children ... and she's ... she's a very, very ... she's a lovely girl, but she's got no life skills, so if you have an issue it's just ... sometimes I think she's ... she doesn't understand it because she's not lived it…So ...[I have been off with long covid] and I've been back a couple of times and had to go off again. So, one of the times like that, I went off, and when I went back I said to her, "I'm having trouble concentrating", and ... so, she got me to do training, when I'd already told her. And, I said to her, "you're just pushing me, this is too soon for me to be doing training on like the second day back". And, she said, "I don't want to wrap you in cotton wool", and I just think maybe if she was a bit older, she wouldn't have had that response. So, of course it just knocked me for six and I had to go off again… I just think if she was a bit older she might be a bit more perceptive to someone struggling… but when they're younger, they don't know what to say when you've got a situation like that, because they've never encountered it.
In sum, 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 by no means presented problems for all women, a preponderance of young people in management structures could contribute to women's concerns about their own security or prospects within an organisation. It could also at times contribute to tensions with their individual line managers, particularly if these relationships were already under stress. This finding points towards the need for further research on intergenerational respect and working – research that should include the perspectives and experiences of younger workers as well.
2.4 Women's views on gender in the workplace
While none of the women that we interviewed stated directly that they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment due to their age, the majority of women that we interviewed did state that they had experienced unfair treatment due to their gender: five women in our sample stated that they did not think that being a woman had ever held them back at work, while 12 women spoke to us at length about the various ways in which they believed that being a woman had created barriers at work.
The following sections explore:
- women's experiences of unequal pay at work;
- women's perceptions on the impact of having had children on their careers;
- women's experiences of gender-based assumptions and stigmas;
- women's experiences of male-dominated workplace cultures.
2.4.1 Women's experiences of unequal pay
For many women, gender inequality was felt most acutely in terms of the comparative pay and promotions of men, particularly men who were not deemed to be any more skilled or qualified than women on lesser grades and pay.
Jill, a 60-year-old administrator for an internet provider, had applied for a re-grade because she felt that her responsibilities and experience warranted one. After a year of back and forth with HR, she was turned down for this regrade. In reflecting on this experience, she stated that she sometimes wondered if this had happened because of gender discrimination:
Sometimes I feel that it happened because I'm a woman. Pay grades, because a lot of times you will see men with ... because I'm a C2 grade, and Martha [my colleague] and I both noticed men that are our former colleagues is on C3 – why is he a C3? He's not doing anything more complicated than we are, why are we C2s?...He was a grade higher, and we thought the work he's doing isn't any more complex than what we're doing. It's not fair, so I always kind of suspected, is it a question of equal pay for equal work? I think so because it wasn't the first.
Catherine, who now worked as a consultant for a financial services company, described an experience with a former employer in the financial sector, where she discovered that a male colleague was being paid more than her, despite a lower appraisal grade:
I saw that he had an appraisal grade as less than mine, he had had a bigger pay rise and this baseline was also bigger…I took it up and got it equalised, but I still couldn't get over the fact that that was exceptionally unfair. He had no additional qualifications, other than, we were on the same level with the same professional qualifications, maybe, okay, I don't know if he had a degree that I wasn't aware of, but at this stage we were in our thirties, both performing the same role…In those days, it was about five grand, which was actually quite a big percentage in those days.
In some of our interviews, women also offered their views on why men so often managed to achieve better pay and promotions than women. For example, Susan, a director at a financial services company, felt that her problems with a former employer were due to one specific boss, who was purposefully paying women less than men. Other women felt that these problems were relatively specific to the industries they worked in: for example, Amanda had observed similar inequalities when she had worked in IT for the public sector, which she largely saw as a product of the male-orientated culture in the "tech industry":
The IT department absolutely was… there was one other very techy woman there, and she was way, way better at her job than a lot of the men. But the men constantly got promotion in the techy world over her even.
Similarly, Lindsay, who used to work as a project manager for a large bank, felt that men often progressed further than women because of a "[lads culture]" and because of an ability to "blag their way through":
I think men will just keep going for it and just blag their way through, because sometimes you think, how did they get that job? Well, when I was in the ranks, we used to take bets on, I bet he gets it, and he did get it, but he went out drinking and to the football with the big boss, who he is now working for. And we were like, yes. But it became a joke, that it didn't mean you then respected that person in their new role, you know they only got it because they were one of the lads…There was a group, about twenty of them, who were all about the same age, who then all ended up with these fantastic jobs and…..the same people then went and headed [another] bank and it ended up with the same [poor] results. But maybe I'm just being cynical, but then when you then read in the paper, this has happened, and you think, really?
While women did speculate as to why they frequently observed men getting better pay and better roles, it is important to note that women also expressed uncertainties about whether or not their suspicions about gender bias were justified. Some women wondered, for example, if there were other reasons for these differences of which they were unaware. In other words, they were not always sure whether their grievances were 'legitimate' or not. Ultimately, such doubts could contribute to a sense in women that they did not have the 'right' or 'confidence' to challenge inequalities when they experienced them. This is well captured in the following statements by Elizabeth, who works for a media production company, and who felt "resentful" over her experiences of unequal pay but was unsure whether these were due to her gender, or the importance of her specific area of expertise to the company:
But when my other colleague joined me, I wasn't made a senior and he was paid the same amount of money as me, and he came from being a trainee but he's very talented... so, in a sense, I didn't resent it, but actually when I thought about it, I thought, no doubt the company thinks [the two departments are different] but actually the two are very similar, they both do [similar work]. So, I began to get a little bit resentful... So, there's just little things like that, that over the years, you start to wonder about, I think I get caught up wondering whether it's about the way they see [my area of expertise] or, and I try not to think of this one, whether it's because I'm a woman. The company would strenuously deny that, that it's anything to do with women. I mean in the past, they have been really good in that [good] people that they like, they will promote and stuff. I'm just not sure I'm seeing that now, but anyway, all the people at the moment, are all male in the elevated roles.
To summarise this section, many women reported experiences of unequal pay in their workplaces – experiences that they found, at best, frustrating and, at worst, profoundly disillusioning. A lack of transparency about the reasons for pay differences within organisations contributed to women's silence on these issues, as they were unsure as to whether their grievances were justified. Moreover, many women also felt that employers would always be able to justify such differences somehow: as another woman put it, "there's always a sort of reason…so they can always say well this is why."
2.4.2. Women's views on the impact of childcare on pay and progression
While women largely seemed to see issues with pay and progression as a product of gender discrimination and male-dominated workplaces, some women also talked about more structural factors contributing to these inequalities and, specifically, the impact of having had children on their careers. The following quotes from three women highlight some of the issues that women can experience around childcare and work – issues that are often perceived as a form of gender discrimination. These quotes also show how some women believe that having had children 'slowed' down their careers in various ways:
I think when my children were young, yes… So, I think it's more finance that's held me back…and childcare as well I suppose, I mean if I didn't have children and a mortgage then I wouldn't have to work and I could've [got more qualifications]…..I remember one incident in particular…I had a male line manager who didn't have any children and I had to take time off. Now, I've always had a work ethic that I don't take time off unless I have to, but at this particular time when my son had just started nursery, he just seemed to pick everything up at this particular time. I think he had measles and then he picked up something else and they called it special leave…if you weren't ill but you had to care for a family member, and because I'd already had one period, I'd applied for a second one and it was refused. I was quite annoyed about that one and I felt as though if maybe I'd had a line manager who was someone who'd had children they might've been more sympathetic and understood and maybe looked at my sick leave over the whole time I'd worked there rather than just that particular period. That was one particular occasion but then if I was a man with a child would it have been any different? I don't know.
Lesley, 56, call-centre worker
If I'd have been a male, I probably would have been a senior manager a lot quicker, because I wouldn't have been off on maternity leave for a start, I think that held me back, but that was also a personal choice, I didn't want to push myself, because I knew I was going to start a family, so I didn't want to have a senior role and even when I came back, I needed to take it easy, because I wanted to at least get home sometimes to see my son. So, yes, I would say it probably did affect it, so I was later to the game if you like, but then I had experience and understood people better, because I was older, so, that helped. But yes, I think I would have been a senior manager much earlier, much, much earlier.
Sandra, 52, bank worker and former senior manager at a large bank
So, although I have moved up incrementally, in terms of salary, had I moved and went elsewhere, then I might be ten, twenty, as much as thirty more than where I'm at just now, potentially.. but part of that was, well, obviously, when my daughter was younger, it just wasn't feasible. I had to sort of weigh up the costs of getting from a to b.
Denise, 55, HR officer at a large bank
2.4.3. Women's experiences of gender-based assumptions and stigmas
Some women in our research also reported generalised experiences of gender bias in the workplace, typically experiences that centred around certain degrading or patronising 'assumptions' or 'stigmas' about women. For example, Catherine, a financial consultant, told a story about the assumption made at a work event that she must be her boss' PA. She felt that this was reflective of the male-dominated nature of the financial industry:
I was at an event…I'm on this table, I'd gone there because my boss couldn't go, I'd gone in at the last minute, I was the only female on the table. Then it was like, "So, what do you do? Are you his PA?" Now we're talking, that is only about five years ago, but automatic assumption, there's a woman there, she can't be one of us. That's always, I think I have always felt like that. There are great guys out there who are not like that, but it is still very heavily male.
Amanda, who now works for a financial services company, made similar comments about her experiences in the male-dominated IT industry, stating that she felt that women were often patronised in this sector. She noted, however, that this only applied in one location where she worked in the Scottish Borders, not elsewhere:
Definitely I felt in the Borders much more that they were not so keen on you if you were a woman. Particularly in the IT world…they were much more stereotypical. In Lothian definitely not, it never was a thing. But I definitely felt it more in the Borders, and I think it's along the lines of that whole, they didn't like change. So, it was very traditional…. Things are subtle…. if I asked for [an explanation] I got it on a very technical level which … and they kind of knew I didn't understand what they were talking about, so it was obstructive in that way. And why I should think that was worse because I was a woman, I couldn't honestly say. But it definitely felt that way, how other people … men got explanations it was different. So, you can't describe these things really, it's like saying, I don't like the way that person walks. It's a feeling.
This general sense of being patronised or taken less seriously was similarly expressed by Jill, who worked in administration for an internet provider:
Well, because I'm a woman I'm not taken seriously, and I don't know if that's more now than it was when I was younger, it might be, I don't know.
For Denise, who worked for a large bank, these sorts of patronising comments seemed to indicate to her that they considered her to be "neurotic", and that they took her experience and views less seriously as a result:
You do get talked to like you're some neurotic woman. So, when you're talking about a project, and you're making statements etc., oh it's just because you're neurotic or whatever… I know that there were times, particularly in the project management space, where I was making legitimate statements, because I've got a risk and compliance background. That's what I was doing, in other spheres of the business, and when you're saying that, but it's almost like, oh well, that, it's difficult, was it because I was a woman? I don't know, or is it just a belief that they didn't accept it, is it the way I put it across or?
As indicated in all these quotes, these experiences of gender-based assumptions and stigmas are closely linked in the minds of women to the perception that their workplaces are dominated by men or, moreover, by a male-orientated culture. The next section looks at women's experiences of these sorts of workplaces.
2.4.4 Women's experiences of male-orientated workplace cultures
In their interviews with us, many women discussed the negative impact that male-orientated workplace cultures had on their experiences of work. This was particularly true, although not exclusively so, for women in the financial industry. As stated in the above section, many women felt that such cultures contributed to an environment where women were taken less seriously than men. In some cases, these dynamics were subtle, in other cases they were explicit. For example, Susan, who is now a director at a financial services company, described a former boss as overtly sexist:
The last company, my chairman could be quite sexist, but never, never when it came to pay or conditions. Weirdly, for a man who could actually open his mouth and say some things that would probably get hashtag me too, you'd go oh God, you can't say that...Oh, just sexist stuff, you know, women should be cooking the dinner and he wasn't being altogether funny, you know, about it, and you've just got no place … could you stop saying that, please stop saying that, you know.
In a lengthier example, Sandra, a 52-year-old bank worker who recently took redundancy from her senior management post in a large bank, talked at length about the personal impacts of what she saw as a chauvinistic culture in this bank. She talked, for example, about how her former manager was part of a "drinking culture down in London" which is "all blokes and the odd young female that would, or females that would go along and try and wriggle their way in sort of thing." She noted that, in the years before she left the bank, was felt "too old and long in the tooth for all this nonsense."
Crucially, Sandra also talked about how the preponderance of men in the management structure put her off going higher up in the bank. She felt let down by the fact that there was a lack of female role models in senior roles:
I was quite disappointed, I was reflecting on this the other day, and I was disappointed that there wasn't many female managers to look up to. I got my senior role, when did I get my senior role? It's six or seven years ago, and at that time, there were maybe, I don't know, five senior managers around, most of them in London to be fair. I just think that some of the females that were in role, weren't really people to look up to, they weren't strong characters, they were just, I hate to say it, because it's not great from a female perspective, but they were there because they were female.
Interestingly, Sandra also felt that the lack of female managers at the top created extra pressure on women who wished to progress, as they were often placed under additional scrutiny and given additional mentoring roles, neither of which Sandra was interested in:
I think you just got more scrutiny being a woman at [that] level, because there wasn't that many of them, and more people wanting to be mentored by you and stuff like that. They're very keen on mentorship in [the bank] and you had to get a mentor and no, I thought no, I don't want to do all that. It's bad enough keeping a hold on my team, never mind mentoring other people…. I just didn't want to, I didn't want to be the poster women, oh here's fifty-year-old Sandra G, you can all look up to her, I didn't want to be one of them. I think there's a bit of stigma as well, that oh she only got that role because she's a woman and there was more of that the higher you went up.
Sandra's story illustrates, therefore, how women can be deterred from seeking progression opportunities when they perceive that both formal and informal management structures are dominated by men and by male-orientated values and social networks. Moreover, her story suggests that this can create not only structural barriers, but also psychological ones, by making women feel under added pressure and scrutiny in comparison to their male colleagues, and by adding significantly to their workload, given that they are expected to take on additional responsibilities as 'mentors' and 'trail blazers' – responsibilities that are not necessarily sufficiently recognised or rewarded by their employers. As she stated in the above quote, the fact that Sandra was over 50 only seemed to exacerbate her feelings on these issues.
2.5 Employer views on age and gender
2.5.1 Employer views on the advantages of employing women over 50
All the employers that we spoke to stated that experience was the primary benefit of employing men and women over 50. This was particularly emphasised by two employers that we interviewed, a small bank and a small financial services company. The latter had recently hired three women over 50, while the former had nine employees, all of whom were over 48 years old. Both organisations felt that, at this stage in their development, it was vital to have people on board who could bring decades of experience to the organisation, particularly given that their capacity to train new people was limited, to varying degrees.
Most employers also stated that they found older workers to be more reliable, more conscientious, and more able to work independently than younger workers. Furthermore, one managing director noted that, in his experience, older workers were more likely to stay in roles for longer periods, as opposed to "millennials" among whom he felt there was a culture of moving jobs every few years.
Interestingly, many of the employers also felt that women over 50 brought additional qualities to their roles, such as good social skills, life experience, and empathy, which were particularly important for those employees in customer-facing roles. For example, the director of another small, financial services company stated that the life experience of older women was vital for understanding the needs of their clients, most of whom were themselves planning for retirement and for their families.
2.5.2 Employer views on the disadvantages of employing women over 50
184.108.40.206. Employer views on caring responsibilities among women over 50
Employers also talked about a number of disadvantages of employing women over 50, although most of these disadvantages were seen to apply equally to men and women over 50. The only issue that was seen to apply specifically to women over 50 was that they often had caring responsibilities outside work, be these children, grandchildren or elderly parents. While not necessarily considering this to be a problem, most of the employers noted that older women were, therefore, more likely to require flexible working, time off work, and potentially also to have taken time out of the workforce when they were younger. Two employers felt, moreover, that these added pressures could make older women less ambitious, and more willing to take redundancies or early retirement: they have "run out of juice", as one HR officer for a bank put it.
220.127.116.11. Employer views on technological skills among women over 50
Several employers that we interviewed expressed concerns about the adaptability of older workers to change and, specifically, to technological change. The director of a credit union stated, for example, that his older employees were clearly struggling with the "digital transformation": one male employee over 50 had resigned as he had found the requirements to keep abreast of new technology too much. The director of a media agency also spoke about this issue at length: this was of particular concern to him, given the pressures in the industry to move content online:
We are going through a bit of a digital revolution, that means on-boarding new systems and software and all that goes along with it. What we have absolutely honestly found is that when young people in the business come in they can adapt to that technology in minutes. And there is almost a direct relationship between age and adaptability to new systems. It's not impossible for these people to adapt but they view it as they are much more worried about it, they are much slower to become competent in it but when they do get proficient in it, they are proficient ultimately. But they are not naturally great problem solvers when it comes to tech. You know what might come intuitively to a 25-year-old does not come intuitively to a 55-year-old and that is male and female.
These sentiments were echoed by the HR manager of a large communications company, who also found that "over 55s" working in call centres struggled with the "digital element of the job". His experience was that over 55s in particular showed significant drops in performance in comparison to younger workers due to their struggles with technology, although he also emphasised that to some degree this was a "stereotype" rather than an evidence-based statement. Indeed, he also felt that there were additional factors contributing to poor performance among over 55s, particularly the pressure put on call-centre workers to meet competitive sales and speed targets. He also stated that many people who had several decades of service to the company had favourable pension deals, thus contributing to a belief in the company that over 55s were simply 'waiting it out' until retirement, rather than actively trying to improve their performance. Notably, his comments resonated with the two call centre employees whom we interviewed at this organisation, who similarly felt that their age put them at a disadvantage because of the new technological requirements, the emphasis on meeting certain targets, and the "micro-managing" of managers, who listen in on calls. Crucially, this HR manager believed that line managers were more likely to be biased against older workers during the recruitment process given these stereotypes. He emphasised that managers receive commission depending on the sales of those they manage, and thus he believed that managers may be concerned that older workers will cost them, as they will be "less able to cope" and "less committed" to the job.
These three employers who all expressed concerns about technological skills among the over 50s did not offer any extra training or support to older workers struggling with technology. The director of the credit union – which had under 20 employees – stated that he tried to encourage a culture where people always felt able to ask questions. The communications company stated that older workers have the same support that other workers get, such as support from managers and emotional support in the form of access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Interestingly, the director of the media agency expressed uncertainty about the best way to deal with this issue. It was his experience that older workers were less likely to take up offers to undertake training on technology but, at the same time, he was unsure whether it was appropriate to force – or even encourage – these workers to undertake more training:
I don't know how you increase people's confidence in terms of initiatives but something like that would be good. The last thing you almost want to do is identify this cohort and say right you are 55, we need to give you some tech training and here's some, you can go in a room full of other 55- to 60-year olds and tell them how to turn on a computer. You know that is not going to be valuable.
This concern among employers about how to speak to employees appropriately and sensitively about issues around age-related issues is a theme identified in other sections of the report.
18.104.22.168 Employer views on longevity and succession in the workplace among women over 50
Concerns about longevity in the workplace were expressed by a number of the employers that we interviewed. The director of a small financial services company, who did recently employ an administrative worker over 60, noted that she would not, however, employ a trainee financial consultant in their late 50s or early 60s. This was for three reasons: first, she stated that it would take at least three years to train them and then potentially even longer for them to become "competent"; secondly, she wished to retire in the next ten years, and so she wanted to train someone up who could take over her position. Third, she further stated that financial consulting was a high-pressure job with long and often stressful hours, and she felt that this was not appropriate for someone over 60.
Concerns about succession were also expressed by a small number of other employers, particularly where their age profile was heavily skewed towards older workers. The Head of HR for a large production company, for example, noted that they had done work to try and recruit younger people into certain departments, on the basis that the majority of the employees in those departments were close to retirement. A consultancy social enterprise made similar statements, emphasising that they were "mindful" of the need to plan for those teams with several people close to retirement age. Finally, the director of a credit union noted that they had purposefully sought out younger woman for their board, in large part to add balance to a predominately male, ageing board. He noted that he wanted someone who was "going to be around for a long time" to have "better longevity" on the board.
22.214.171.124 Employer views on discrimination and bias in the workplace
Five employers stated that they saw bias as a potential problem in the workplace for women over 50. One of these employers was the communications company described above who talked of bias among managers against women over 50.
In other cases, the issue was seen to be primarily an issue of gender rather than age: a financial services company, for example, noted that prior to employing three women over 50, there had been a "lads culture" and that "noses had been put out of joint" by these new employees, although this had gradually changed as they proved their worth to the organisation. The director of a media agency also felt that his industry had historically been a "macho culture"; "high pressure, there's lots of deadlines, they can be a bit old-fashioned in terms of language and their bluntness". He stated that he had "taken steps" to address this culture.
The HR manager of a large production company felt that women over 50 may face "unconscious bias" as both women and older women, particularly if there was a perception that they might be a "bit in the past" or that, if there was a higher concentration of young people in a team, they "might [not relate]". She noted that this was something they try to be "aware of" and – in relation to gender, but not age – monitor data on who is recruited and who is promoted.
Finally, the HR manager of an IT consultancy firm also noted that "tech companies" tend to be male dominated and to recruit younger people more than older people, which she suspected presented barriers during recruitment procedures. The company did not monitor recruitment by age or gender, or have specific policies on recruitment and diversity, although this manager talked of "conversations" during recruitment processes about increasing diversity through hiring.
2.6 The Gender Pay Gap (GPG): views and actions among employers
2.6.1 Organisations that do not report their GPG
Smaller organisations that did not have a legal requirement to report their GPG were typically unaware of whether or not there was a GPG in their organisation. In many cases, they equated the GPG with equal pay in our interviews, stating that they ensured "equal pay for men and women" and therefore did not believe that this was an area where intervention or further work was necessary.
There were three exceptions here, however: the director of a small media production company with 15 employees, for example, was concerned that their company had unequal pay because many of the male employees had been there for longer and therefore had had more incremental increases over the years. While he expressed concern about this, he did not have current plans to address this.
In another example, the CEO of a credit union with 12 employees had recently invited a consultant to conduct an 'Equality Impact Assessment', which had highlighted a GPG. He noted, however, that in such a small organisation, this was hugely skewed by his own salary as CEO, which in his view limited the usefulness of the data.
Similarly, the director of a media agency with over 75 employees stated that he had done "his own research" and calculated that they had a "gender pay gap of £3000" in favour of men. He felt that the primary problem in their organisation was that the management structure was dominated by men, which he saw as a historical legacy of a "macho" culture. He also stated that his own salary as director skewed the figures considerably, as this was considerably higher than managers below him. When asked what the company had done or planned to do to address these issues, he stated that they were actively looking to secure more female managers and that they hoped that their new approach to flexible working would also help with this. The company had also started paying the living wage to a number of employees who had previously been on the minimum wage – employees that, interestingly, had all been women.
2.6.2. Organisations that do report their GPG
All of the larger organisations that we interviewed reported a GPG and, moreover, described to us a number of steps that they had taken to address this, although the amount of detail that we obtained on this depended on who we were talking to in the organisation, and the degree of responsibility that they had in this area.
First, as a general point, it is worth noting that several of the organisations that we interviewed implied that they had found reporting to be a helpful process as a way of highlighting issues around gender in their organisation. One employer did note, however, that GPG data is somewhat of a "blunt instrument" given that it does not consider "what the practitioner is doing", "the rate of pay for the particular roles" or "location".
2.6.3 Understanding of the GPG among employers
All of the larger organisations that we interviewed stated that their primary problem was a predominance of men in senior roles. Some organisations also noted a predominance of women in junior roles. Indeed, one organisation noted that they found that women were significantly more likely to apply for administrative roles than men and that, therefore, they needed to encourage more men to apply into these areas of the company. Finally, another organisation noted that they struggled to recruit women into tech-orientated roles, which presented an additional challenge to the organisation.
2.6.4 Actions taken by organisations on their GPG
The larger organisations that we interviewed reported focusing most of their efforts around their GPG on recruiting women into senior roles. However, most of these employers did demonstrate an understanding of a range of factors that could be contributing to this lack of women in senior roles.
Three examples stood out in particular in our research, in terms of the breadth of action taken to address their GPG, as well as in terms of having achieved reductions in their GPG.
A financial services company, for example, noted that the composition of its partner group changed from under 15% female in 2014 to now over 30% female. They attributed this shift to a range of interventions, including a focus on "mentoring and coaching", an increased acceptance of part-time work at senior levels, as well as a general push across the business for diversity and inclusion to be considered in all business plans. The HR manager referred to this as "nurturing the permission to talk about [these issues"]. This has also involved partners reporting quarterly to the board on their diversity and inclusion plans and achievements. This organisation also noted other actions, such as changes to how governance roles were made, so that more women were included in governance roles. They noted that such positions were often more time-consuming for part-time employees – an issue of which they were aware and were trying to address.
A large media production company stated that they had made a commitment to ensure an equal gender split in the top 25% of senior roles by pay, which should "close the gap" entirely. They reported that the majority of the work in this area had been in "resourcing and recruitment" decisions, as well as in raising "awareness of unconscious bias" in these processes. They mentioned that they were trying to stop using the term 'part-time' work within the organisation, as they felt that it still carried a certain stigma. They did not report, however, any specific actions to create more part-time posts at a senior level.
Finally, another organisation – a consultancy social enterprise – reported having reduced their GPG from 20% to 14% in recent years, which they also attributed to a focus on ensuring more women were recruited into senior roles. The HR manager at this same organisation also noted that men were often more willing to negotiate higher starting salaries than women. She told us that the company had just created the capacity to record this information on whether there had been pay negotiations so that they could monitor whether gender differences in approaches to negotiation were potentially a contributing factor to their GPG.
2.7 Employer actions and initiatives on age
2.7.1 Monitoring pay and progression by age
While all of the larger organisations that we spoke to reported monitoring recruitment, promotions and pay by gender, these same organisations did not regularly monitor pay, progression or hiring by age, although some of these organisations stated that this information would be easily available to them, should they wish to access it. The only exception here was a large media production company who had recently looked at how age varied across pay deciles within their organisation, which was part of their reporting obligations to an external regulator. This had revealed a balanced profile across the deciles.
None of the organisations that we interviewed were aware of how their GPG varied by age.
Interestingly, one communications company noted that they have a problem collecting data for their call-centres in large part because they find that their employees are unwilling to declare personal characteristics. This was not reported as a problem by other organisations.
2.7.2 The absence of age-related interventions in diversity planning
Across all the organisations that we interviewed, this lack of data on age reflected – and potentially contributed to – the minimal importance given to age in interventions on diversity. For example, none of the organisations that we spoke to had completed – or were planning to complete – any substantial work relating to age, be this in relation to recruitment, internal promotions or workplace cultures. Indeed, four of the large organisations that we interviewed described to us how they had recently developed strategic plans around diversity which focused on gender and ethnicity, as well as on disability and LGBTQ+. These plans did not, however, consider age as an aspect of diversity.
When questioned, these employers generally implied that while they were not, in principle, opposed to considering age as an aspect of diversity, they had no immediate plans or compelling reasons to do so in the near future. Similarly, in smaller organisations, it was common for employers to state that interventions on age were unnecessary as they "do not discriminate" and "treat everyone equally", as two employers put it.
By contrast, several of the employers that we spoke to did have initiatives to recruit younger people: for example, a smaller financial services organisation had hired two people through a KICKSTART scheme, while several of the larger organisations ran graduate and apprenticeships programs targeted directly for younger people. As noted in Section 126.96.36.199, several of these organisations also explicitly tried to recruit younger people in order to 'balance out' departments that had an older age profile.
The only exception here was a large financial services company who described a few initiatives that existed within their organisation on age. While they had not included age as part of their diversity strategy and did not regularly monitor pay and promotions by age, they did have a network group for older employers. This contrasted, for example, to a large bank who reported having networks groups in a huge variety of areas, but not for age. This financial services company had also tried to "promote conversations" about progression so that managers are not assuming that older people do not want to progress. This organisation also reported amending their graduate recruitment procedures so that people in later life, perhaps those who were mature students or who had switched careers, still felt able to apply. They also noted that they had worked with an external organisation in the past to employ women returning to the workplace after breaks in their career, and they stated that they would be interested in doing something similar in the future for older workers. The HR manager noted, for example, that some people retire and then find themselves wishing to return to work. She stated that they would be open to contributing to any schemes developed in this area.
2.7.3 Recruitment initiatives on age
While many of the smaller and larger organisations spoke to us about their efforts to improve their recruitment of women, none of the organisations that we spoke to had similar initiatives on age.
Interestingly, the managing director of a small media production company spoke to us at length about his uncertainties about how to hire female workers over 50. His company was the only organisation that we interviewed that did not have any employees who were women over 50, which was something he felt troubled by. He wished to have a more balanced workforce in terms of age and gender and, as a man in his 60s, he felt from personal experience that women over 50 would have a range of skills and experience to bring to his team. However, as a relatively small organisation, he said he had no sense of how he could change his job adverts or his workplace practices in order to secure more applications from older women. He repeated many times in his interview, therefore, that he would welcome advice and guidelines on this matter. In particular, he said he felt uncertain about what was legal and what was appropriate, in terms of adjusting job adverts in order to attract more applications from women over 50.
2.8 Employer views and actions on progression and training opportunities
To what extent did employers in our study offer opportunities for training and progression?
Most of the organisations that we spoke to offered some form of training and professional development to all their staff, although few of the organisations regularly reviewed who was more likely to take up training opportunities, or why. Similarly, most of the organisations reported that there were opportunities for progression internally, to varying degrees. Only one of the organisations that we spoke to felt that opportunities for both progression and training were fairly limited due to the current size and situation of their business, although interestingly this employer also saw this as a reason for hiring experienced older workers at senior levels.
2.8.1 Uptake of progression and training opportunities among women over 50
Several of the organisations that we spoke to felt that women over 50 were potentially at a disadvantage compared to younger colleagues or to men when it came to training and progression opportunities. In some cases, this was seen as a product of the types of roles that women typically did in these organisations. An HR manager for a consultancy social enterprise, for example, noted that in their organisation, women over 50 were often concentrated in administrative roles and that it was often difficult to create opportunities for progression in these roles, without substantial training or re-skilling. She also noted, however, that training courses often required travel and older women were more hesitant to travel than younger ones, potentially because of caring commitments – a point that does correspond with our own findings from our interviews with women workers.
Other employers also identified a reluctance among women over 50 to take up training and progression opportunities. For example, the HR manager for a number of communications call centres linked this reluctance to a range of factors, particularly the fact that their managerial training course takes 18 months, is unpaid, and must be completed outside of working hours. He felt that this disincentivized women over 50 who may also have commitments outside work. Moreover, managers are almost always full-time at this company (see below) and so, while in theory the course would be open to someone working part-time, he noted that in practice only full-time workers complete this course. Indeed, while entirely online, some classes must also be taken 'live' which can be difficult for part-timers. Outside of this managerial training course, the company offers no other opportunities for progression for call centre workers.
In a second example, the director of a media agency spoke to us about his perception that older men and women were less willing to "expose themselves" and "get out of their comfort zone". He reported having tried unsuccessfully to recruit women over 50 onto training courses on new technologies. Ultimately, this had made women over 50 especially vulnerable to redundancy when they had to reduce the size of the staff a few years ago:
There was a number of people with a lot of length of service and naturally older and some of them were women over 50 who I had to have difficult conversations with and result in making them redundant. Now what we found with those people is it was very difficult for them to pivot their skill sets. Not only they were aware themselves that it was, they had struggled to pivot despite us giving them the opportunity to pivot, that they have struggled to pivot and they were comfortable and competent in what they were doing but for us to pivot the business and them to pivot with us was they couldn't, they didn't have any evidence of being able to do that despite having the opportunity.
As a final example, the HR manager in an IT consultancy also felt that young people were more likely to pursue training than older people:
I would say the younger demographic seem to be more keen for roles like that. I would say the older employees that we've got are maybe quite settled or maybe quite comfortable in what they're doing. They're maybe at a stage in their life where they don't want to take on the extra stress or responsibility so, yes, in the time I've been here, it has been the younger, generally the younger demographic that have been going for those opportunities.
By contrast, it is important to note that not all employers saw women over 50 as reluctant to take up training and progression opportunities. A large financial services company noted that, in their experience, women over 50 were as keen to pursue training opportunities as younger staff members. They noted that several of their career development workshops and leadership programmes had been attended by women over 50. At the same time, however, they also recognised that part-time staff are often less keen to attend training sessions, simply because they have less time in the week to get through their work, and thus have less time available for optional extras, such as training. They had not yet come up with any strategies to combat this problem.
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