Breaking Barriers: How to Challenge Age Stereotypes In the Workplace

UPDATED: April 24, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 26, 2024
Younger staff singling out a more mature colleague exemplifying age stereotypes

Every comment that includes “OK, boomer” or “These Gen Z slackers…” just proves that ageism is alive and well in 2024. Age stereotypes are a cross-generational problem that, despite anti-discrimination laws and policies, rears its head in companies of all sizes. Its ripple effects are especially felt among professional female managers and employees.

What is ageism?

Age stereotypes, or ageism, refers to how we think about, prejudice and discriminate against other people, or even ourselves, based on age.

Harvard Business Review released survey findings that uncovered just how pervasive gendered ageism is. The survey revealed that women, both young and old, were likely to face ageism throughout their careers. As a woman myself, I’ve seen this play out again and again.

Early in my career, I was the one looking for opportunities. I was willing to learn from anyone and craved advancement. I applied for roles at the company I worked for regularly, and I heard the same script every time: “Not now. Your time will come.” Why? It wasn’t because I wasn’t ready—I consistently received positive feedback from managers and colleagues. The reason was simple: I was too young to be seen as credible.

My response to this constant barrage of ageism, like so many other women just beginning their careers, was to navigate the naysayers and try to act older to enhance my perceived authority. When it was clear that I couldn’t “act” my way up the ladder at my first job, I left. Interestingly, my next employer apparently hadn’t gotten the gendered ageism memo––it wasn’t long before “my time” came there, despite my youth.

Understanding the heart of gendered ageism

I share this story to highlight the fact that ageism affects all female employees, not just those who are older. Though workplace ageism is often stereotyped to describe veteran employees, it’s just as challenging for younger workers. 

A study coauthored by researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom showed that Gen Z and millennial workers were more likely to feel age bias than their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts. I get it. I’ve been there. It’s an uphill climb when you’re starting out as a young woman in business.

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However, there’s little time to rejoice when you reach middle age. The moment you have a couple of decades under your belt or managing experience, some employers may consider you “over the hill”—and less promotable because of it. 

A recent survey that illustrated the U-shaped trajectory of gendered ageism showed that 77% of women under age 35 reported being judged as too young, and 88% of those who were ages 59–64 concurred. Essentially, gendered ageism seemed to spike at either end of the spectrum.

I find both gendered ageism and its traveling companion, imposter syndrome, beyond frustrating. Put simply, imposter syndrome is the feeling that  you’re (somehow) just not good enough for whatever position you’re in. Women are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome, with a KPMG study revealing that it affects roughly three-quarters of female executives. Add gendered ageism into the mix and imposter syndrome only gets worse for professional women, regardless of position or longevity.

Chief among my frustrations is the simple fact that aging isn’t a choice. We can’t stop the clock. We’re all destined to be young, just as we’re all destined to get older (if we’re lucky). Consequently, we have to find ways to challenge stereotypes and discover our voices in the workplace.

How to combat age stereotypes in the workplace

Fortunately for female managers and employees, there are several targeted ways to combat ageism and advance your career. To effectively tackle the workplace challenges posed by ageism and impostor syndrome, consider the following steps:

1. Embrace authenticity and self-worth

Most women I know have played the “fake it ‘til you make it” game until they’re blue in the face. They feel they have no choice but to adopt different styles to fit in or seem authoritative. The professional world can make us feel like we must take on alternative personas to get ahead rather than embrace who we are and lead with authenticity. It’s a vicious cycle that makes it very difficult to bring our unique voices and perspectives into our work—perhaps most notably when we’re in male-dominated industries and roles.

Personally, I recommend that all women start by facing their perceptions about getting older. Even practices such as looking at yourself in the mirror or reflecting on the positive aspects of getting older can help you learn to stress less. Age is just one part of anyone’s identity; focusing on it too heavily allows women to mistakenly believe that it’s the primary characteristic that defines them. It’s better to concentrate on personal facets that are more meaningful, such as talents, experiences and credentials. If you believe in your own worth, it becomes easier to convince others.

2. Prioritize support and unity among women

It’s also essential for women to support other women and break free from systemic female rivalry, sometimes referred to as Queen Bee Syndrome.

Women who want to break ageism barriers need to recognize, acknowledge and embrace the experiences and perspectives all women bring to the table. They need to advocate for and hold onto belief in themselves rather than feel like they have to prove their worth.

It’s a tall order, I know. As reported by Pew Research, 58% of Americans feel that women have to constantly go the extra mile at work to be seen as equally capable as the male employees around them. Nevertheless, working against this belief and following more authentic strategies will help women of all ages advance their careers and be able to shed the trappings of ageism.

As a manager, encourage women who are younger. As an employee, seek out older women to connect with and learn from. No woman should feel like she has to go it alone to succeed in business or shake up the status quo.

3. Be vocal and take action

Finally, I call upon everyone to speak up when they see or experience gendered ageism in the workplace. Nothing changes when a problem isn’t identified. By respectfully calling out ageism when we see it, we give the practice less power and control. At the same time, we have the chance to help those around us rise and bring new energy and ideas to the table.

When a popular Canadian TV anchor was fired in 2022, journalists questioned whether ageism was at play. After all, women who have surpassed the 40- or 50-year mark are often considered “old,” especially in the world of TV and film. In contrast, men behind the news desk look “distinguished.” This disparity in perception extends far beyond the media industry. Many workplaces share this unspoken bias, so it’s imperative to recognize and challenge these stereotypes.

By initiating conversations and promoting practices that encourage diverse representation in all sectors, we can drive change. Even as an employee or manager, you can be proactive by really getting to know the people on your team and talking about the values you have for the work environment (such as how we show up as a team and support one another, how we appreciate the uniqueness and differences each person brings or expectations around communication). When people know you care, it’s an opportunity to create comfort by talking about the uncomfortable.

I believe most people have the best intentions and don’t realize they may be perpetuating ageism, bias or stereotypes. A respectful way to increase awareness is to challenge assumptions. You can do this by simply asking, “What assumptions are you making (about this person or situation)?” A negative assumption or stereotype typically causes the person to reflect, which increases awareness and reduces the chance they’ll do it again.

Mid-level managers and employees play a pivotal role in transforming workplace culture. By challenging age stereotypes and advocating for a more inclusive environment, they not only pave the way for their own advancement but also create opportunities for others, regardless of age. 

Age discrimination has long been due for an overhaul. As more people work toward eliminating it, we can bid discrimination farewell—and give it the retirement it deserves.

Photo by megaflopp/

Gloria St. Martin-Lowry is the president of HPWP Group, a company that promotes leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching and problem-solving. HPWP is driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.