Jun 28, 2023 - Economy

Women leaders are criticized for their age — no matter how old they are, researchers find

Illustration of a woman in a suit with a briefcase climbing a ladder that is disappearing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It doesn't matter if a woman is young or old or somewhere in between — any age can be viewed as the wrong one for women leaders, write three researchers in a new article in Harvard Business Review.

Why it matters: This kind of "double-whammy" age-gender bias holds women back from promotions and, consequently, leadership roles.

Zoom out: The piece, titled "Women in leadership face ageism at every age," is part of a larger study — a qualitative survey of U.S. women leaders across four industries — that found that across a range of traits women are often viewed as "never quite right."

  • "They were too short or too tall, too pretty or too unattractive or too heavy. They had too much education or not enough...," the researchers wrote in a separate article for Fast Company.
  • Women lost out on leadership roles because they were "single, married, or divorced."
  • "There was no personality trait sweet spot, as introverted women were not seen as leaders and extraverted [sic] women were viewed as aggressive."

Zoom in: Age was one of the biggest issues for women — across generations.

  • Under age 40, women were patronized  patted on the head, called "kiddo," the researchers found. They also face a "credibility deficit," where they're not believed or taken seriously.
  • Between ages 40 - 60 some women are judged to have too many family responsibilities, or were passed over for promotions because of "menopause concerns," or because they "don't look vital."
  • Past 60, women are seen as outdated, their voices discounted and ignored.

What they're saying: "First, we are too young to be responsible or to supervise," one lawyer told the researchers. "This lasts into our mid- to late-thirties but does not for men. Then in an instant, we are too old to be hired for anything or anywhere new."

Flashback: Earlier this year, CNN host Don Lemon faced criticism for saying that at age 51, Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley "isn't in her prime." It's not a criticism you see leveled against men of a similar age.

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