Not only is the -gender gap' a real issue for Aussie female job-seekers, but the majority of Australian women also believe that age plays a major factor in securing employment, with 62% of respondents believing that employers are more likely to hire a candidate under the age of 40, reveals research conducted by The Heat Group, Australia's largest marketer to women, and Fitted For Work, a not-for-profit organisation committed to assisting women experiencing disadvantage to find work and keep it. The vast majority (88%) believe that employers take into account the physical appearance of candidates before making a hiring decision, and (going one step further), nearly half (45%) believe they have been discriminated against because of their age – some because they appeared too young (23%) and some too old (22%).
Taking matters into their own hands, 39% of job seekers have attempted to alter their appearance in order to fit the expected age, with 23% attempting to appear younger, and 16% have tried to make themselves look older for an interview. When it comes to the tools that they use to achieve the look, 89% of Aussie women have turned to makeup, 60% have overhauled their clothing and professional wardrobe, and 54% have changed their hairstyle. Nearly one in twenty (4%) have even gone under the knife to try to improve their chances.
'Women are unfortunately judged more harshly than men when it comes to their appearance, and this includes their age," says Gillian Franklin, Managing Director of The Heat Group. 'We have always known that women use makeup, clothing and hair to highlight their best features and build their confidence. However, now we have a worrying 39% of women who are changing their looks based on their idea of the -ideal age' for a job, across all levels of experience, seniority and skill level. I would question the notion that there is a right -age' for women and caution women against trying to look a different age than what they are…
'Businesses need to value the wisdom, knowledge and expertise that comes with mature-age employees. We should all encourage more experienced women to actively participate in the workforce without fear of judgement or age discrimination," concluded Ms Franklin.
Newly appointed Fitted for Work CEO, Donna de Zwart, agrees. 'At Fitted for Work, we see many mature women striving to re-enter the workforce and achieve gainful employment who are concerned about how their age translates into the current employment market. Every woman brings something of value to the workplace. Making the most of her best assets is not about presenting a crafted persona but it is about maintaining a sense of authenticity about who she is and what she can offer. The importance of capitalising on personal strengths is a message that we reinforce throughout all Fitted for Work programs. And we will continue to remind employers to focus on skills, experience and attitude over a person's age."
Gillian Franklin, Managing Director of the Heat Group, and advocate for women in the workforce – 'Women are unfortunately judged more harshly than men when it comes to their appearance and this includes their age. There is a worrying percentage of women who are changing their looks based on an -ideal age' for a job across all levels of experience, seniority and skill level."
Question: What evidence do you have that gender gap is playing a big part in the unemployment of women over 40?
Gillian Franklin: Women over 40 years of age make up some of our most vulnerable workforce in Australia. This is because unemployment (and employment in lesser roles) is an issue for men and women nearing retirement age, as they are passed over for other younger candidates. But also because, across the board, the gender gap disadvantages female workers as they are under-represented across all age groups in terms of salary disparity, seniority, and seats at the boardroom table.
Question: How do you hope to assist women over the age of 40 find work?
Gillian Franklin: Firstly, we are trying to show that they are not alone. 62% of Aussie women believe employers are more likely to hire a candidate under the age of 40, and 39% of job seekers have attempted to alter their appearance in order to fit the expected age for a job interview. We are all in the same boat and need to work together to change hiring expectations.
And secondly, whilst make-up, hair and clothing can be incredibly empowering and confidence-boosting, we want to remind women that their experience, knowledge and skills are what really counts when it comes to the crunch. By all means, carefully select that knock-out shade of work-appropriate lipstick, but make sure it is what comes out of your mouth that really shows your value.
We regularly hold mentoring workshops for men and women. But we always tell the young women in the room to never feel that your femininity is a negative. In fact, if appropriate, why not use it to your advantage? In our company for example, women make up a large proportion of employees, even at the most senior levels, and it is often due to the fact (e.g. in marketing roles) that the candidate needs to have an affinity with the products we sell and the target audience. Don't be afraid to talk about why a women can do the job better!
Question: Why are women over the age of 40 perfect for our workplaces?
Gillian Franklin: Women over 40 have spent their entire career educating themselves and gaining experience in their fields so that they can land a well-respected job by the time they reach middle age...so why would we turn these experienced, seasoned professionals down? In many respects, they are -over' experimenting. They have been there, done that, and now they know what they want.
Another key point we believe woman can better utilise in their applications is the transferable skills they have honed running a household. Women are required to have exceptional time management, budgeting, negotiation and problem solving skills in their roles as wives and mothers and all of these skills are required to be successful in business. Women over 40 have a number of years expertise to draw on in this regard.
In most industries, the retirement age is around 55-60, looking to increase to as high as 70. Did you know that the average tenure in Australia is around 3 years and 4 months? For companies who are hiring that 30 year old because you think they will stick around longer than a 50 year old, you may need to think twice, because that 30 year old is likely to have 6 jobs by the time they turn 50.
The smartest CEOs are now starting to realise is that diversity is key to a strong corporate culture, which begets strong financial performance. Age is just another factor in that diversity scorecard.
Question: How and why have women altered their appearance in order to get a job?
Gillian Franklin: Our Heat Poll has shown that 39% of job seekers have attempted to alter their appearance in order to fit the expected age for a job interview. 23% have attempted to appear younger and 16% have attempted to appear older. To alter their appearance for a job interview, 89% of women have used makeup, 60% have overhauled their clothing and professional wardrobe, 54% have changed their hairstyle, and an astonishing 4% (nearly 1 in 20) have had cosmetic surgery.
Question: Why do you believe women are more harshly judged in the workplace, than men?
Gillian Franklin: We don't want to presume we know the answer to this question; there are too many factors and variables. The good news is that women are smart, capable, and can find ways to use this to our advantage. It is slowly changing with time, but we need to keep working on it together.
Of course, men also experience unique pressures in the workplace, and in the home, and that life is not simply rosy because you are born a male in Australia. Overall, however, women are repeatedly drawing the short straw when it comes to opportunities, and we would like to help address this.
Question: What are your tips for women overcoming ageism in the workplace?
Gillian Franklin: The same tips we always provide for job-seekers of all ages.
1. Network, network, network. (Often women don't do this as well as men.) This gives you a better chance of hearing about opportunities in the first place. It's who you know…
2. When an opportunity arises: do your homework on the organisation and the role.
3. Role-play your interview. Practise the tough questions and know how to demonstrate value.
4. Be focussed on your key values and expertise for the role and make sure you repeat this at the end of the interview and ask for feedback regarding your suitability. This gives you the chance to address any concerns they raise before you leave the interview.
5. Know how much you are worth and be prepared to ask for it.
Question: How can Australian employers take a stand against ageism?
Gillian Franklin: If Australian organisations knew how having a culture that celebrates diversity in all its forms can make a business stronger and more well-rounded, there would be no need to take a stand against ageism.
Donna de Zwart, CEO of Fitted for Work, non-for-profit organisation committed to assisting women to find meaningful employment – 'We see many mature women striving to re-enter the workforce and achieve gainful employment who are concerned how their age translates into the current employment market."
Question: What is Fitted for Work?
Donna de Zwart: Fitted for Work is a not-for-profit organisation and the first of its kind in Australia. Our vision is financial independence for women and our mission is to help women experiencing disadvantage get work and keep it. We focus specifically on helping women get and keep work because work provides financial security as well as a sense social connectedness, dignity and pride. When we help a woman, we also help her family and her community.
The women we help are aged 16-65 and come from many different backgrounds. However, they all have one important factor in common - they want to work. They may be a survivor of domestic violence, a newly arrived refugee, recently released from prison, homeless, recovering from an illness, recently widowed or divorced or have a disability. Many of the women we help are single mothers.
Since 2005, we have assisted over 19,500 women. We now have 15 staff and over 260 volunteers (men and women) from a variety of industries. Our sites are located in Melbourne and Parramatta, Sydney and we are currently developing our online service delivery to allow us to broaden our reach and impact.
Question: What inspired the creation of the Fitted for Work organisation?
Donna de Zwart: Fitted for Work has to thank two amazing women, Renata Singer and Marion Webster, who founded the organisation in 2005. They took inspiration from -Bottomless Closet' in New York and, after identifying a gap in service provision in Australia, launched Fitted for Work. With the assistance of a small group of volunteers the organisation began assisting women through providing them with high quality donated business clothing for interviews. As a result of the increasing demand for the service, hard work of staff and volunteers, creativity and entrepreneurship, Fitted for Work has grown and expanded its service offerings to assist women to get and keep work. The organisation is now a recognised provider of quality innovative services and a go-to organisation for women and work issues.
Question: What is involved in the Fitted for Work programs?
Donna de Zwart: In addition to our personal outfitting services, our free programs now include volunteer mentoring, interview preparation workshops, work experience placements with business partners and a range of transition to work and staying employed programs. Every day our 15 trained staff and over 260 volunteers help women gain the confidence and skills to secure their goal of sustainable employment.
We are also committed to advocating for (and with) women experiencing disadvantage through educating and building a greater understanding of, and empathy with, the barriers that women experiencing disadvantage face as they seek work.
Question: How do women over 40 benefit from these programs?
Donna de Zwart: Currently over 27% of the women we help are over 45 and experiencing disadvantage and we are finding that this number is increasing. They are typically lacking in confidence and self-belief and they may not have access to funds to purchase appropriate clothing for interview. Our specially designed programs address these barriers and help to create an equal playing field for these women. Over 6 months, through group life skills training, interview workshops, work experience and mentoring, our programs increase confidence, promote social inclusion, increase life opportunities, and provide women with access to a network to help them transition to sustainable employment. All our programs focus on the many strengths these women have and we empower them to be able to present the best version of their authentic selves.
Question: What are your tips for women overcoming ageism in the workplace?
Donna de Zwart: Just as employers may have negative perceptions of women over a certain age that are unfounded, women can also have unhelpful perceptions of themselves. We often hear women talking about themselves 'not having what it takes". All too often they sell themselves short and they discount the years of work and life experience, maturity, skills and wisdom they bring to the workplace. One of the things we do at Fitted for Work is help these women find their inner-confidence and articulate their wonderful qualities and unique value offering to a prospective employer.
Question: How can Australian employers take a stand against ageism?
Donna de Zwart: Ageism is very rarely overt behaviour, rather it is -unconscious bias' that influences the recruitment decisions Australian employers make. We believe that in making the unconscious conscious this will go a long way to ensure that employers make decisions based a candidate's skills and competencies relevant to the job as opposed to appearance. At Fitted for Work we welcome the opportunity to work with organisations to create diverse and inclusive workforces across Australia.
Interviews by Brooke Hunter