Here’s the truth about age bias. Like bias across other dimensions of diversity, it exists because it is woven into the cultural fabric of virtually every country worldwide.
Children as early as three years know the difference between someone young versus someone older. And they have also learned there are negative perceptions about being older.
Throughout our lives, we are bombarded with messages that cultivate negative attitudes about age and aging. These messages can be about aging (think birthday cards), fears about the aging process exacerbated by anti-aging products, or messages that marginalize older people by conveying that being younger is better–or vice versa.
Here’s another age-related truth: age bias, myths and stereotypes have the potential to amplify the impact of bias across other dimensions of diversity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or ability.
As an example, for a Black or Brown woman, ageism creates a triple threat for potential bias and discrimination.
Intersectionality was defined in 1991 by law professor Kimberlè Crenshaw as the cumulative impact when a person identifies with multiple marginalized groups. Living and maneuvering in the intersections drains energy and can create hardships.
“Employees at the intersection of age, race and gender experience hyper-vigilance,” says Dr. Nicole Washington, “Finding yourself always on guard is exhausting. More importantly, the intersectionality of age, race and gender can be potentially dangerous if bias is not addressed and averted.”
Dr. Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist, works with organizations on wellness development, speaks on mental health topics and trains organizations on developing inclusive procedures for all, regardless of age, gender identity, race, or ethnicity.
“The consequences of ageism, racism and sexism can have a compounding effect on an individual and interfere with mental health and overall job satisfaction,” says Dr. Washington. “Poor job satisfaction can lead to higher turnover, lack of employee morale and decreased productivity.”
The tendency to ignore the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender and age has potentially obscured important differences in how health is maintained and undermines efforts to eliminate health disparities. This is reflected in a study by Columbia professor Lee Goldman, who serves as executive vice president and Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine.
“Whereas White Men had the lowest disability levels at baseline, White Women and racial/ethnic minority Men had intermediate disability levels and Black and Hispanic Women had the highest disability levels. These health disparities remained stable with age—except among Black Women who experience a trajectory of accelerated disablement.”
In the workplace, Dr. Washington emphasizes that diversity is nothing without equity and inclusion and offers several suggestions for supporting those at the intersections.
"Culture comes from the top. And every leader wants what's in the employee's best interest," says Dr. Washington. "Minorities, women and people over 50 are impacted at higher rates than other categories. Women at the intersection of those three characteristics are the most vulnerable. What business leaders do to address this impact sends an important message–not only to those at the intersection–but to everyone."