Age and gender continue to remain in the media spotlight, with a number of high profile cases involving female presenters claiming they have been replaced or side-lined because of their age and gender. But behind the headlines and the hype, is 'age and gender' a live issue, and if it is, what can employers do to address it?

The idea that perceptions relating to age are influenced by gender differences is not new. A study in 1995 by Itzin and Phillipson suggested that women may experience greater age discrimination over all ages than men. A further study in 2004 by Duncan and Loretto indicated that women were considered 'older' at an earlier age than their male colleagues.

In 2006, 'age' was added to the list of 'protected characteristics' covered by anti-discrimination laws, but the legislation does not specifically cater for the gender dimensions of age discrimination.

In October 2013, the National Union of Journalists; Women, Ageing and Media; and Women in Journalism; and the New Dynamics of Ageing (NDA) Research Programme produced a Charter Against Ageism and Sexism in the media. This Charter calls on its signatories to adopt and support actions in order to ensure what it considers a fairer, more truthful representation of older women. These actions include avoiding the digital manipulation of images of women and stereotypes that equate ageing with negativity and decline.

The Charter also responds to the findings of the NDA research programme 'Representing Self; Representing Ageing', exploring media representations of women and ageing using participatory visual approaches  to equip older women with a novel means of challenging persistent stereotyping and invisibility. The programme included the following findings:

  • Women in their 50s–60s felt more pressure from media and advertising imagery compared with participants in their 80–90s;
  • Participants wanted to see more images of ‘ordinary’ older women who were still ‘making a contribution’; and
  • he involvement of older women in creating new images counteracting current ageist preoccupations impacted on well-being and a feeling of public validation.

Physical appearance is not the only factor in the debate around gender dimensions of age discrimination. The intermittent nature of women’s careers due to family caring responsibilities is also a feature which has a material impact on women's lives.

Recently, Unison issued a report entitled 'Women Deserve Better: a Better Deal for Women Aged 50 and over in Employment' which surveyed c.5,500 women. The report found that a substantial portion of women aged 50 and over would like to reduce their hours spent at work, with just under a quarter requesting reduced hours for health reasons, whilst many women cited the need to care for other dependents as a reason for reduced hours.

By contrast, a significant number of women reported feeling trapped in part-time work, with one in 12 respondents having other paid jobs in addition to their main employment in order to supplement income.

Many of the women surveyed were still ambitious in terms of their career but reported facing significant obstacles in terms of opportunities for career progression. 

The report clearly shows that while there are concerns that are attributable to and faced by older women in the workforce, there is also a danger in overgeneralising and grouping people together in terms of what they want in their work according to their age/gender etc.

The Trade Union Congress's 'Age Immaterial' Report also addresses some of the issues faced by older women in the workplace. It discusses research carried out in 2009 – 10 by Metcalf and Meadows, which found that two per cent of employers included a preferred age range in their job advertisements and two fifths asked about applicant’s age in the recruitment process.

This report highlights the fact that other sectors (in addition to the media), such as teaching, are particularly vulnerable to falling foul of age discrimination in relation to their older female workforce, stating that "nearly two fifths of respondents had encountered job adverts which suggested that older teachers were discouraged from applying. Ten per cent of respondents reported that they had been told by senior management that their age would be a barrier to their future professional progression."

The report concludes that tribunal fees should be removed to fully allow older women in the workplace to seek justice, and that awareness of the above issues needs to be raised, possibly by amendment of the Equality Act itself.

So how do employers deal with this issue?

As the reports above suggest, discrimination against individuals on the basis of their combined age and gender characteristics does seem to be something that is affecting employees, and is drawing increasing attention from organisations that represent them.

The reputational risks hitting employers who are unsuccessful in defending such claims are clear from the media cases. To mitigate the risks, employers would be wise to train employees, managers and HR teams on the issues involved and take appropriate measures to address this conscious and more importantly "subconscious bias" across their workforce.  

This article was originally published on Thomson Reuters Accelus.