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Women ‘impacted more than men by age discrimination’ in the workplace

26 Jan 2018 By Miriam Kenner

Government inquiry hears flexible working, greater access to training and moves to combat bias are urgently required

Women in the workplace suffer greater discrimination on the basis of age than men, evidenced by pay inequality, a lack of promotion opportunities and poor access to skills training, the government’s older people and employment inquiry heard this week (24 January).

Significant discrimination occurs at the recruitment stage, where recruiters’ and employers’ biases lead to fewer job offers to older workers, experts advised the women and equalities committee session chaired by Maria Miller MP.

The oral evidence session on the role of older people in the workplace heard that those already in work also faced unfavourable treatment because of their age, as they were neither offered the same training nor the same opportunities for promotion as younger workers. This was particularly true for women, the industry experts agreed.

Teresa Donegan, head of learning and organising services at Unison, described how older workers – many of whom were women – felt they were overlooked for training and upskilling in the workplace, while employer training investment went to younger workers.

With its own evidence suggesting that older workers are overlooked for promotion, Unison has tried to work with employers to train older people in interview skills and give them greater confidence – particularly older women. Many of those courses were funded by the union’s skills fund, however, rather than the government or private businesses. 

Donegan said female workers’ “needs are being ignored” increasingly as they age. Many older workers find they are looking after others, and the biggest barrier to promotion and training opportunities at work is caring responsibilities. 

Employers have been unsympathetic to women in this situation, and time off they are required to take is often unpaid, she added. Since many of Unison’s members are low paid and working full time, lack of pay places them at a significant economic disadvantage.

Completing online training was more and more problematic for older employees who may be unskilled in newer technology and more familiar with paper or face-to-face training, said Donegan. 

The issue of age at work, and the experiences of women, has grown in importance over recent years thanks to the work of campaigners and unions. Most notably, television presenter Dame Joan Bakewell (pictured) opened a debate on the absence of opportunities for older women in the media, which led the BBC to announce it was addressing the issue. 

As part of the committee’s examination of ‘Older people and employment: retain, retrain, recruit’, witnesses Tom Hadley, director of policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), and Jane Shepherd, national education officer at Unison, echoed this evidence.

Older female workers too often missed out on deserved and desired work opportunities to progress, Shepherd said, because of a lack of flexible working. Employers should be more flexible to address the needs of such employees: many women, Shepherd added, lacked confidence to apply for jobs and promotions.

Hadley agreed that there were not many flexible jobs on offer from the REC’s own research with Indeed, the recruitment website. The apprenticeship levy could be equally geared towards training for older workers, he suggested, and he specifically called for a nationwide government careers service to cover all ages. 

However, there remains a pressing need to address age bias by employers in the workplace. While there were some good ideas advancing – such as removing university dates and ages from CVs – much more was needed. 

Asked whether data was collected about age discrimination, Hadley confirmed that the REC collects data in a general attempt to be transparent, but it tended to cover gender more than age. 

“More employers need to be open to change and to shake things up” to tackle the inertia in the industry, he added. Many employers used the same job campaigns they had used for years.

The difficulty remained in employers’ and recruiters’ attitudes and biases. Hadley said employers used to request specific age groups in job adverts more often than they currently do, although ignorance regarding the age positioning of adverts continued. 

The committee highlighted that this was illegal, which Hadley admitted but said it tended more to be the wrong wording. The solution was to educate people on how to “do things differently in recruitment”, he said.

Hadley thought recruitment itself was a younger industry because people had tended to fall into it rather than choose it. The priority was to raise awareness “for us as an industry”, but this applied across sectors, he suggested.

The REC, a membership body, represents 80 per cent of the recruitment industry by turnover, and offers a legal helpline regarding recruitment law. Part of the REC’s work was to ensure people understood what was legal in recruitment. Its legal helpline received 16,000 calls last year, including questions covering what was legal – and illegal – in job adverts.

In an age where digital learning and jobs will become increasingly important, Hadley said: “We want to give people confidence they are right. We want to bring together expertise to inform members so they don’t just comply, but start changing things.”

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