Long term unemployment and older women: a theory

A recent article in the New York Times reported that women over 50 have found it nearly impossible to re-enter the job market, even as the economy recovers from the Great Recession.  Theories abound – older women lack a rich pool of professional contacts to network; their job skills are rusty; they need flexible work schedules; they may not be able to relocate. But perhaps the real reason can be found in the picture that accompanied the Time’s article…

This is Chettie McAfee, 58. She lives in Seattle and was laid off from a job that she had 30 years. I do not know Ms. McAfee, but she looks like majestic – a force to be reckoned with. This is not the look of someone who suffers fools gladly. By hiring her – or someone like her – there is the very really risk that, some meeting, when a half baked proposal is made and everyone starts to run with it, she will speak up. She will want to understand the context. She’ll want to talk about long term consequences. She may do this in the nicest possible way. She may offer up alternatives and workarounds. She might, in the end, play along. But what she will not do, what she can not do, is play the part of the ingenue, and jump enthusiastically on a bandwagon just because everyone else is. In theory, this may be exactly what you want your employees to do, but isn’t it is just so much easier to hire younger people, people you can train?

The problem with hiring older women is that it’s like hiring your mom. Moms knows all about “multitasking in a fast paced, dynamic workplace.” Moms are self-starters, team players and individual contributors.  Moms know how wonderful, and foolish people can be. Moms know how to nurture. And Moms know how to get things done. But, it takes real courage to have your mom around.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review examined leadership effectiveness of men and women at all organizational levels across 16 core competencies. The authors of the study found that “at all levels, women are rated higher in fully 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership.” They recommended  “As leaders in organizations look hard to find the talent they need to achieve exceptional results, they ought to be aware that many women have impressive leadership skills…[that] are strongly correlated to organizational success factors such as retaining talent, customer satisfaction, employee engagement and profitability.”  In today’s economic climate, they concluded,  business leaders “would do well to avoid becoming complacent.” In other words, hire your mom.

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