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

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

Chapter Four: Conclusion

This research explored the experiences of women over 50 working in the Finance and Insurance sector, and the Information and Communication sector, in Scotland. We interviewed both women and employers in these sectors, focusing in particular on how workplace practices have shaped these women's views and experiences of pay and progression. These two sectors were chosen in order to provide focus to the research, and to remove any confounding factors generated by differences across sectors.

Our research raises a number of important questions about how barriers to progression for women over 50 in the workplace may be reduced. They also point to areas that require further research. The following recommendations are aimed at employers as well as policy makers, trade unions, and other stakeholders who work with employers and individual workers.

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

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

It is worth noting that, in relation to women's experiences and employer practices, our research did not find any significant differences between the two sectors. It is also important to note that some of the issues identified in this report may potentially be specific to – or at least more pronounced in – these two sectors when compared to the wider population. For example, women in both sectors and employers expressed a belief that male-orientated workplace cultures were more of an issue in their sector than in others. It is also possible that women's and employer's concerns about technology may be more pressing in these two sectors given the reliance on technology in both these sectors. At the same time, it is also likely that many of our findings will also apply to other sectors, particularly given that we interviewed women in a range of different jobs and workplaces. Ultimately, however, the applicability of these recommendations beyond the two sectors under investigation can only be fully addressed through further research.

Recommendations and areas for further research

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

How can employers increase their awareness and understanding of how age affects the workplace experiences – and specifically the progression opportunities – of women over 50 within their organisations? Our research suggests that while gender is often recognised by employers as a potential barrier to progression in the workplace, age is rarely considered in the same way. Similarly, employers often do not consider how workplace interventions around gender and progression may affect women of different ages in different ways.

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

2. Improving awareness of the GPG among employers

Our research suggests that some employers – particularly those that do not have to report their GPG – do not always understand the difference between equal pay and the GPG. Similarly, employers that do not need to report are not always aware of how to monitor their GPG, nor of how to identify the key drivers of their GPG.

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

3. Improving transparency around pay structures

Our research suggests that a lack of transparency around pay structures can contribute to sentiments of suspicion and discontent among women about their pay and how it relates to the pay of others, particularly men. Moreover, a lack of transparency can also contribute to women's reluctance to ask their employers about equal pay, as they can often feel uncertain as to whether their grievances are justified.

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

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

Our research suggests that both employers and women employees over 50 could benefit from more support on navigating recruitment and promotion processes. The employers in our research study demonstrated a lack of awareness about age-inclusive recruitment practices. This is significant given that many of the women in our study expressed concerns about how age bias and discrimination could affect their chances when applying for new jobs. By using more age-inclusive recruitment practices, employers could potentially increase the number of older women who feel confident in applying for jobs.

In addition, our research shows that women can find recruitment and promotion procedures intimidating, particularly if they are perceived as complex. For example, women cited things such as psychometric testing, scenario-based tasks, and presentations as examples of such complex recruitment processes. Our research suggests that women over 50 could benefit from support and guidance on navigating these sorts of processes.

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

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

Our research suggests that women over 50 can feel concerned about their capacity to use new or complex technology. They can also feel at a disadvantage in comparison to younger workers in this regard. Our research found that these concerns were particularly pronounced in call-centre workers, who felt that their opportunities for progression were determined by their ability to use technology at speed. It is important to note that these are perceptions among women, and we are not presenting evidence here on the accuracy of their perceptions.

Some of the employers in our research expressed similar concerns about the capacity of workers – both men and women – over 50 to use new or complex technology. Some employers also expressed concerns about how to provide training and support to older workers without causing offence.

Our research suggests that employers should support women over 50 with the use of technology in sensitive and appropriate ways. This could involve providing training and support both for workers over 50 as well as for their managers. However, it could also involve employers evaluating how performance criteria may disadvantage certain groups of workers more than others.

In order to ascertain the best way to support women with these concerns, further evidence needs to be collected on the factors that drive these perceptions among older women, and the extent to which these perceptions reflect realities in the workplace. Moreover, further work needs to be done to explore how best to provide support to women in ways that build upon this evidence, and that also are sensitive to women's broader concerns around their age and position in the workplace. This could include, for example, reviewing evidence on the most effective forms of training, as well as developing training materials in peer-to-peer sessions with women in this demographic.

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

6. Increasing opportunities for flexible working and home working

Our research shows that women over 50 often favour flexible working, including part-time work. Flexible and part-time hours can be crucial for women over 50 as they allow them to manage their caring responsibilities for others, as well as their own mental and physical well-being. Women over 50 may also appreciate working at home for similar reasons and may find regular and long periods of travel difficult.

Our research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to at least some employers being more open to flexible and home working in particular. Our research suggests that employers should continue to increase opportunities for part-time work, home working, and flexible work within their organisations. Similarly, employers should consider how requirements to travel either for work or for training could provide a barrier to the progression of women over 50.

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

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

Our research points to the often profound physical and mental effects of the menopause for many women in the workplace. In particular, our findings show that the menopause can result in difficult physical symptoms that require appropriate occupational health interventions by employers. However, our research also suggests that the menopause can affect the confidence and psychological well-being of women at work, and that this must also be considered by employers in policies and interventions around the menopause.

Furthermore, our research suggests that many women feel unable to talk about the menopause in the workplace. This is significant when we consider that many of the employers in our study offered only optional training for managers on the menopause. Employers should consider whether optional training is sufficient to help promote conversations about the menopause in the workplace and to encourage women to report their difficulties.

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

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

Our research shows that employers often feel uncertain about how to talk to employees about their retirement plans, even though in many cases these employers would welcome these conversations. In the absence of these conversations, employers may make assumptions about when employees wish to retire.

Our research suggests that while women often do have a clear sense of their retirement plans, they do not necessarily discuss these plans with their employers. Similarly, our research suggests that while many women may have clear views on why they wish to reduce their hours or to approach their careers in different ways as they grow older, they do not necessarily have these conversations in the workplace. Our study did not, however, generate a significant amount of evidence on why women do or do not have these conversations with employers. Nor did it generate much evidence on women's experiences of the impact of these conversations when they do occur. This is something that could usefully be explored in further research, so as to develop a clear sense of how employers and employees can best approach the question of retirement in the workplace.

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

9. Promoting intergenerational respect and working

Our research suggests that some women over 50 experience age differences as a source of tension between colleagues in the workplace. This finding suggests that further research should be conducted on intergenerational working, and on the barriers to intergenerational respect in the workplace. This research should also include the perspectives of younger workers on these same issues.

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

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

Our research shows how women over 50 may have caring commitments for their grandchildren that impact on their experiences and views of work. Several women in our study, for example, reduced their working hours in order to care for grandchildren. It is important to note that these women saw these commitments not only as an opportunity to spend time with their grandchildren but also, crucially, as an opportunity to help their own children. In addition, our research found that women over 50 may have caring responsibilities for elderly parents that are often time-consuming and emotionally demanding.

As stated in recommendation number 6, flexible working allows women to better manage their work responsibilities with their caring responsibilities for others. However, it is also important to consider broader structural issues relating to care, such as the accessibility and affordability of good-quality childcare for parents, and of good-quality care for the elderly. Research and policy work on care systems should, therefore, consider the impact of caring structures on the experiences of women over 50 in the workplace.

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



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