Ageism: which gender has it worse?

The CMO of Skillsoft talks ageism, artificial intelligence and unconscious bias

Ageism: which gender has it worse?

The #MeToo campaign has made us all more aware of sexism and harassment in the workplace, but what isn’t discussed nearly as much is ageism, according to Tara O’Sullivan, CMO, Skillsoft.

According to O’Sullivan, ageism is ingrained in the subconscious of many and too many people have the view that as women get older they somehow lose their value.

“Older women are perceived in a negative way, yet at the same time men in a similar age bracket are deemed more experienced, successful, wealthier,” she said.

“In Hollywood, we’ve seen it happening for years – a woman in her late 40s is less likely to be the leading lady, but a man of a similar age can be James Bond.”

O’Sullivan added that in an ageing population, this is becoming a pressing issue because ageism is far worse for women than for men.

“Many organisations have come a long way in establishing gender equality, but far more needs to be done when it comes to this unconscious bias against more experienced women,” said O’Sullivan.

“We hear a lot about technology shaping a better world – and in many ways it is – but we need to be mindful of what this will look like.”

Take Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is poised to subsume thousands of jobs over the next few years.

According to the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis (ISEA), this will affect twice as many women as it will men.

“As business leaders, we need to address this,” said O’Sullivan.

“Organisations need to develop new strategies for addressing the skills gap. Many think they can hire their way out of the problem, but this is not the case. They will need to train their way out – both to strengthen their existing workforce and to attract the best talent.”

O’Sullivan said that part of the job as an employer is to ensure every member of staff is more marketable when they leave. This has a big impact on your reputation as a business.

According to O’Sullivan, the struggle to ensure a more diverse workforce comes in many forms – from gender to ethnic background.

“The bottom line is diverse teams make better decisions – this is a proven fact,” she said.

“They provide much needed differences in opinion, and having a more diverse team avoids the problem of ‘group think’. The challenge is we’re still dealing with a huge amount of bias in the workplace – both conscious and unconscious.”

“We need to treat these two areas separately. Conscious bias is easier to deal with. We can name-and-shame when it rears its ugly head, all while backing this up with facts and figures.”

However, unconscious bias is harder to address, and will take longer to eradicate.

“Often it’s still hidden, and those holding it are completely unaware. Studies show that for many people in this situation, when their unconscious bias is demonstrated to them, they hate it – they fall apart at seeing their own prejudice looking back at them.”

The solution? When unconscious bias is identified in an individual, we need to address it across the entire team.

“This makes it ‘palatable’ on an individual basis, and allows us to make the required changes,” said O’Sullivan.

“At the end of the day there’s no excuse. Diversity in the workplace is a social norm, and just like wearing clothes, we need to treat it as such.”

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