, , , ,

Wicked Witch or Job Candidate

I have observed an increasing number of articles coming across my news feeds and social media how inaccurate perceptions of aging women impacts them in the workplace. A recent WSJ article about women over 50 looking for work caught my attention as the trends in the workplace and media have some similarities.  The article cited a study conducted in 2015 at the University of California, Irvine where researchers submitted 40,000 fake job applications from both male and female “candidates” across three age ranges.  Unfortunately, significant evidence was found of age discrimination against older women. The author also noted that women often take jobs that are below their capacity, skill level and pay grade and are judged more harshly than their male counterparts for their appearance (Weber, 2017). Being someone who believes the “data doesn’t lie”, I looked at Census and labor statistics.

Women over 40 make up 48% of the U.S. population and men over 40 are roughly 44% (United States Census Bureau, 2017). However, when it comes to unemployment women tend to fare worse than men as they age. Unemployment in the 45-54 age range is higher for women (3.6% of women vs 3% of men), same for the 55-64 range (2.8% for both genders), and higher in the over 65 segment (4% of women vs 3.1% of men) (Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, 2018).

In the age of awareness and press coverage around unconscious bias, you would think the problem of discrimination and false perceptions associated with age and gender would lead to a more enlightened public. So, the question is, why? Why are women in higher age groups subjected to tougher hurdles and unfair perceptions by other groups? One variable to look at is the media we have consumed. If you think logically about the media consumed by multiple generations, older women have not usually been portrayed in a positive light. For example, Snow White had an evil older step mother, The Little Mermaid had Ursula the old gray-haired villain and 101 Dalmatians’ villain was Cruella Deville. The list goes on and on. See a theme here? If you don’t think these portrayals haven’t impacted our perceptions, please read on…

Cultivation theory in psychology posits that media develops the public’s worldview, especially in children. Media created worldviews, especially those with high exposure, can influence schemas as to what is perceived as normal, particularly with individuals in groups that have little exposure to other groups other than through media (Signorielli, 2004). Portrayals of age groups in television and film can influence our perceptions as to the size of a demographic group, as well as their competencies. Negative portrayals of older age groups can and will create perceptions, particularly with younger demographics, because they are not as likely to critically examine media portrayals. However, perception formation does not only impact younger generations, those in the aging group tend to hold negative stereotypes and perceptions about their own group as well (Lauzen & Dozier, 2005b).

A double standard associated with aging men and women exists in television, film and advertising messages about older women. In many films, women are often portrayed as younger in age compared to male characters and female characters are described as elderly at an earlier age than males. Women are often considered older in the film and television industry by age 35, where this age is higher for men (Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook, & Harris, 1997). Women’s value in film emphasizes looks and youth whereas men have additional attributes that define their worth. In an analysis of the top 100 grossing films in 2002, Lauzen and Dozier (2005a) found that male characters over the age of 50 were depicted as active in all aspects of life, whereas females were not. Men are portrayed as if they still have things to accomplish as they age, while women are portrayed with less purposeful lives, such as career aspirations (Lauzen & Dozier, 2005a).

Television isn’t any better than film and over time has portrayed aging women as becoming old earlier in life and are less visible than males. Furthermore, aging female characters are portrayed as less useful and with diminished capacity particularly around prestige and elements that would represent importance and vitality compared to men of the same age (Bazzini et. al., 1997: Signorielli, 2004). A study conducted in 2005 on primetime television characters found that representation, recognition and respect are not the same for men and women as they age. Specifically:

  • Aging female characters had less representation than their male counterparts starting in their 40s.
  • Portrayals of leadership increased with age, however when analyzed, men were much more likely to play leadership roles in their 40s and 50s compared to women.
  • Occupational power portrayals had a positive linear relationship to age for both genders however men in their 50s were more likely to have occupational power compared to females of the same age.
  • Male characters of all ages were likely to have goals whereas women in their 40s were most likely to have goals.

Lauzen & Dozier’s research concluded that there is double standard of respect afforded to aging characters based on gender. Male characters were more likely to have leadership roles, occupational power and goals compared to women, which could have potential effects on older women such as reinforcing a stereotype bias against them in the workplace (Lauzen & Dozier, 2005b).

Some of you reading this article may look at the age of the research I am referencing and say, “This research is between 10 – 20 years old and so much has changed”. With women’s issues receiving more attention in the media, it wouldn’t be farfetched to provide proof points of the changing times by referencing actors such as Lilly Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie or Judy Dench or Helen Mirrin in powerful roles in recent years. However, this is a false assumption because cultivation theory posits that what we see in the media creates our world views regardless of the veracity. A study conducted in 2016 analyzed over 2000 movie screenplays and the gender associated with dialogue. As women aged, their percentage of dialogue quickly diminished while men’s dialogue increased in age. For example, women between 22-31 received 38% of screenplay words (men were 20%) and between ages 42-65 women received 20% while men received 39%. The numbers for over 65 were abysmal for both genders, however women fared worse with 3% compared to males at 5% (Anderson & Daniels, 2016).

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s 2017 analysis of the top 100 grossing films of 2017 did not provide an encouraging picture. Women’s total speaking roles were 34% of all characters which is sad considering they represent half the population. However, when their unfair portion of speaking roles were broken down by age, the story continues to favor the younger woman as men over 40 accounted for 46% of all male characters whereas women over 40 were only 29%  (Lauzen M. M., 2018). While it is wonderful to see some older women taking on powerful lead roles, the attention it receives is certainly not the norm.

There you have it, as women age in media and entertainment, if they appear at all, they are often portrayed as old, ugly, evil, less competent, less powerful, have little to accomplish and receive less respect than their male counterparts. American culture associates beauty with goodness and therefore a woman’s value tends to be associated with her looks favoring the young (Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook, & Harris, 1997). The time has come for all supervisors, recruiters and human resource departments to rethink assumptions and check unconscious bias on aging women as well. Women over 40 are a sizeable portion of the population, we are not invisible and dammit we are just as smart, capable and appealing as our male counterparts. America’s unemployment is low, skilled talent is a growing issue and women over 40 represent an opportunity to fill the gap. Is your perception of that woman’s qualifications based on data or is Cinderella’s evil stepmother influencing your opinion?


Anderson, H., & Daniels, M. (2016, April). Film dialogue from 2000 screenplays, broken down by gender and age. Retrieved from The Pudding: https://pudding.cool/2017/03/film-dialogue/index.html

Bazzini, D. G., McIntosh, W. D., Smith, S. M., Cook, M., & Harris, C. (1997). The aging woman in popular film: Underrepresented, unattractive, unfriendly, and unintelligent. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 36(7-8), 531-543. doi:10.1007/BF0276689

Labor force statistics from the current population survey. (2018, July 6). Retrieved from Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpsee_e16.htm

Lauzen, M. M. (2018). It’s a man’s (celluloid) world 2017. Retrieved September 1, 2018, from Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/2017_Its_a_Mans_Celluloid_World_Report_3.pdf

Lauzen, M., & Dozier, D. (2005a). Maintaining the double standard: Portrayals of age and gender in popular flms. Sex Roles, 52(7/8), 437-446. doi:10.1007/s11199-00593710-1

Lauzen, M., & Dozier, D. (2005b). Recognition and respect revisited: Portrayals of age and gender in prime-time television. Mass Communication, 8(3), 241-256.

Signorielli, N. (2004). Aging on television: Messages relating to gender, race and occupation in prime time. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electric Media, 48(2), 279-301.

United States Census Bureau. (2017, June). Annual estimates of the resident population by sex, age, race, and hispanic origin for the United States and states: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016 more information. Retrieved from American Fact Finder: https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk

Weber, L. (2017, October 10). After 50, women struggle to find a foothold at work. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-50-women-struggle-to-find-a-foothold-at-work-1507608181?ns=prod/accounts-wsj