Older women are having to tackle unemployment bias head-on

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It’s a sad fact that older women often face a higher hurdle while finding employment. In the pandemic, they’ve also been losing their jobs at worrisome rates.

Since February 2020, the unemployment rate for females over 55 has almost doubled, from 3.5 percent to 6.1 percent, said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resiliency programming at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

“We’re very concerned,” she said. “Nearly half of this population are considered long-term unemployed, which means they’ll be out of work for six months or longer. The Great Recession [in 2008] taught us that it will take them double the time to find a new job as it does for a younger person, and they probably won’t make the salary they made when they were pushed out of the workforce.”

This is in part due to the industries where they were often employed, including hospitality, restaurants and education, said Weinstock. With widespread remote schooling, women have also had to make tough decisions regarding child care. “Children under the age of 14 are deemed too young to be left at home, and women have stereotypically been expected to be primary caregivers,” she said.

Age discrimination is another undeniably inhibitive factor when vying for new work.

If you feel you’ve been a victim of it, “You can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it’s hard to prove,” said Weinstock. “There is a higher bar than for other forms of discrimination.”

To succeed on the job-hunt front, honing in on your unique skill set is crucial.

“Older workers have soft skills from being in the workforce for a long time,” said Weinstock. “They tend to be calm, problem-solvers, collaborative and highly engaged. Their turnover is lower — all things a worker should accentuate when seeking new work.”

If you need to upskill, “Look for a course online or at a local community college. Some of these schools offer free classes to those over a certain age. You want to show employers you’re a lifelong learner,” she said.

For Jennifer Mayer, it was a tough path to re-employment. After 22 years in human resources, in early 2020 the 56-year-old Westchester resident learned that her position was being eliminated.

Although she broadened her job search out of state, Mayer had difficulty getting to the interview process.

Having connected with over 55 companies for 110 interviews, “I had a challenging time getting past the recruiter or talent acquisition person,” she said. “I’m personable, but either they were really young or inexperienced. Employers can be very discriminating in times like this, when they have pick of the litter.”
Mayer also withstood unprofessional treatment by hiring pros.

“I’ve been ghosted multiple times. It’s one thing if it happens and you haven’t gone anywhere in the process, but if you’ve interviewed in person for multiple rounds and hear nothing back, it’s very unprofessional,” said Mayer. “Human resources don’t necessarily want to be helpful. Many times they are blockers. If you can find out who the job reports to, or who is hiring for the job, reach out to them.”

Some interviewers told her that she was “not agile and nimble. You don’t have the energy for the job — it’s a fast-paced environment.”

Mayer didn’t let these ageist comments deflate her self-image, and decided against altering her appearance. “People told me to color my hair, but I refused,” she said.

While her former employer provided outplacement assistance with resume help and online profiles, it was Mayer’s networking prowess that ultimately helped her land a new position.

From the get-go, “I consistently networked with local women’s groups, executive roundtables and business school groups,” said Mayer, which offered both professional and emotional support. “I felt like I wasn’t in this alone in understanding that this transition is temporary.”

Eventually, after a 13-month search, someone in her women’s group knew an employee from a company she was interested in.

“This person was willing to talk with me, to share a piece of the company’s culture,” said Mayer, who was offered a position soon after. Although she took a salary cut, “It’s a fresh start and can only expand my exposure.”

The unemployment wave taught Jennifer Proga from Connecticut how to change course, another viable track for the unemployed.

As director of institutional investment consulting for a financial company for 16 years, she was one of the company’s 500 layoffs last fall.

“It took me a while to absorb it,” said Proga, who is in her 50s. “Then I spent time thinking about what I really want to do, as opposed to finding a job similar to what I’d been doing. I thought that might be more difficult, given my age.”

Throughout her career, Proga had advised nonprofit companies and had volunteered for a few on personal time. When she signed on with the Connecticut Department of Labor, she was advised to connect with Encore Connecticut, which targets people seeking to transition into the nonprofit sector.

“It required signing up for a course and a deep immersion program to learn how such organizations operate, and what kinds of jobs are available within them,” said Proga. “You apply for a fellowship to do a project and get your feet wet. I’m now waiting to hear back about where I’ll be placed,” said Proga. “There’s a lot of networking available through this course. We all have the same interests. We’d like to take what we know and transition to the nonprofit world.”

Proga now views her job loss as a blessing.

“What happened was a gift. Now I have the opportunity to be open to a whole new world of work, and I’m very positive about it,” she said.

To those still struggling with unemployment, Proga suggested being open and talking to lots of people about your interests. “Help came from an unexpected place. You never know where it’s going to come from,” she said.

Weinstock agreed, noting that most people get their jobs through networking.

“Today, much of it is done virtually through LinkedIn and Zoom,” she said. If you need to polish up your online profiles on these platforms, AARP has valuable content accessible on demand through the Web site.
Weinstock also advises modernizing your resume, keeping it to under two pages, updating e-mail to a Gmail account, and including keywords for job descriptions. And, stay upbeat.

“Don’t take job-hunting rejection personally,” said Mayer. “Focus on the job and the value you can bring to the company, what its challenges are and how you can help solve them.”

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