New research quantifies cold shoulders women receive
From the time she left the Tuscarora Indian Nation Reservation in upstate New York, Jeanine Hinkle has been reinventing herself. First, as an Army captain and helicopter pilot. Later as a line supervisor at a Ford Motor automotive plant. And then as a self-employed recruiter, specializing in sensitive Defense industry jobs.
After all that, Hinkle recently started over again—with the odds stacked against experienced women who find themselves out of the white-collar workforce.
As they grow older, women confront a cold shoulder in the employment market, limiting their opportunities for job interviews, and penalizing them for holding lesser jobs while they attempt to get their careers back on track, according to compelling new data from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The studies reveal a fraying lifeline in the world’s largest economy, as some income opportunities disappear and retirement benefits contract.
“When my business stopped making money, there was 1-1/2 years when I wasn’t earning anything,” says Hinkle, a 48-year-old wife and mother of two in Nashville. “Ego-wise, oh man! It was tough. When you’re working hard, and doing all the right things, but nothing is turning out, it’s very disconcerting.”
The United States’ fastest-growing employment-age population is 45 to 64, and its numbers are expected to increase by almost 20% between now and the year 2060,
Unemployment rates for Americans 45 and up are higher, and last longer, than the norm. And the Social Security Administration itself projects that Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance will be broke by the time that Hinkle retires.
“I have sought employment in the government sector in varying levels of effort over the last two years, and had no offers of an interview or employment,” says Katherine Cook, a retired Army colonel in her 50s with two Bronze stars, a Distinguished Service Medal, and years of high-profile work in the military command. “I’ve had no response from most contractors, though I had tentative but temporary interest from two firms making last-minute contract bids that seemed to be looking for a warm body who might halfway suit the requirement.”
Most job applicants realize that the likelihood of getting an interview is low relative to the number of employment seekers. But distinct negative trend lines emerge for older applicants—especially women—in two new NBER working papers.
About 14% of younger applicants (ages 29-31) received callbacks for administrative jobs while interview opportunities for middle-age workers (49-51) fell to 10.3% and dropped to 7.6% for near retirement-age workers (64-66), according to research by economics professors David Neumark and Ian Burn at the University of California, Irvine; and Patrick Button at Tulane University.
The economists tested opportunities for retail sales people, cashiers, building cleaners, secretaries, office clerks and receptionists—submitting more than 40,000 fake job applications, and monitoring the responses at phone numbers and e-mail addresses obtained for the experiment. Although the employment opportunities were real, the applicants were realistic proxies submitted by the researchers. Enough information was contained so the applicants’ age could be inferred by the employer.
“Employers responded to the younger applicants earlier, perhaps in the hopes of first trying to hire them,” the researchers wrote, finding “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.”
Age-discrimination in the workplace is less understood than what’s known about job barriers on the bases of race and sex. And researchers typically concentrate on terminations rather than hires, in part because it’s difficult to interpret job interviews and opportunities that never materialize.
Yet the issue comes into focus in a separate paper that examines the likelihood that college-educated females applying for an administrative support job will receive a callback from a potential employer.
Middle-age women ages 35 to 42 typically receive equal consideration by prospective employers when seeking white-collar office jobs such as administrative and executive assistants, receptionists, secretaries and office associates. But a substantial negative hiring bias kicks in sometime afterward, and is strongly evident by the time a woman is 55 or older, according to the research by economists Henry Farber at Princeton University, Dan Silverman at Arizona State University, and Till von Wachter at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Only about 7.6% of older women applicants received interview callbacks compared with the 10-11% rate for women in their mid-30s to early 40s, the researchers found. The divergence became even more pronounced when multiple applications were submitted for the same job, and a prospective employer responded positively to at least one of the fake resumes.
At worst, an older woman could expect to receive a callback about half as often as a younger woman, even if both of them held a bachelor’s degree from a non-elite public university, and, during the past five years, had worked at three to six previous office jobs with no spells of unemployment longer than a month.
The narrow scope of the two employment studies means the findings related to age and gender can’t necessarily be extrapolated across all professions.
Last week, I reached out via LinkedIn to about two-dozen women whose work and education histories roughly correspond to the Faber, Silverman, von Wachter report. Cyndi Edgley, a 48-year-old receptionist for a medical products company in Colorado, told me, “I myself am working a contract position, and find it very hard to land a position that will hire that permanent employee.”
Beth Gregor, 49, an out-of-work executive assistant in south Florida, said: “Have I struggled? Yes. And the obstacles have been only whatever I wish to allow to be my obstacle. I may fail on one attempt, but I keep pursuing my goals.” She pointed to her recent completion of a jobs workshop—where “most of the participants were in the age group you are writing about”—as evidence that, “We have the power to change our skills and make ourselves the candidate worth embracing.”
Yet not all obstacles are the applicant’s making, as the research shows.
Consider that a woman who temporarily holds a lesser job while trying to get her career back on track might be better served by not disclosing such personal grit (or need). That’s because the callback rate was 15% lower when the fake applicants listed interim employment on their resumes, the researchers found.
Arizona State economist Silverman describes this as “very clearly surprising,” because it indicates that prospective employers are discounting—and even disqualifying—capable, educated women who are temporarily forced to work outside of their chosen profession, or skillset. This, he says, comes atop the “implicit penalty” that hiring professionals assign to older workers.
In Washington, arguments to delay the prevailing retirement age are gaining traction to forestall the insolvency of the Social Security trust funds.
Next year, no cost-of living adjustment will be allotted to the almost 65 million Americans who currently collect Social Security, reflecting a zero inflation rate recorded by the consumer price index for urban wage earnings and clerical workers. Of course, retirees are not urban wage earners or clerical workers. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI-W measure is not particularly good at tracking out-of-pocket medical expenses that retired seniors spend a significant amount of their income on, according to Dan Adcock, policy director at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in Washington.
Adcock says women typically already receive smaller Social Security retirement benefits than do men, while living years longer. He also points out that an early applicant for Social Security at age 62 automatically forfeits 25% of the full benefit, and estimates the reduction will grow to 50% if the retirement age were raised to 70. To strengthen the safety net, the group is asking Congress to increase, or eliminate, the $118,500 income cap on Social Security taxes; provide a “caregiver’s credit” to those who by necessity leave the work force early; and bump up benefits for seniors 85 and older, as they are likely to exhaust their savings.
This is a great reminder for employers and policy makers alike to put more thought into the fraying economic lifeline that many Americans ages 50 to 70 face.
Not only the public interest is at stake, self-interest is as well.
Government employment reports and the academic research reveal quite plainly that valuable economic knowledge and capability are needlessly being swept from the workplace, with no more regard than a casino croupier clears bets.
And a greater number of young workers can look forward to such wasteful treatment in the future than older workers do today, Census data shows.
“I don’t even consider Social Security as a retirement option, and I can’t depend on a 401(k) because I don’t have one,” Hinkle, the former helicopter pilot and defense technology recruiter, told me last week between appointments. As we spoke, the police-radar detector went off in her car. She was in a hurry, as usual: building a new business that markets skin-care products, and volunteering her services for a military veterans-support initiative called Reboot Combat Recovery.
“When I was helping employers look for people in that executive space, I knew what people were looking for at my age,” she said. “A willingness to learn, and energy and desire to do so. The thing my generation has is a work ethic.”
“You can’t teach a work ethic.”
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