Age, Women, and Hiring: An Experimental Study
Older women were less likely than younger women to be offered interviews for entry-level positions, despite having resumes with matched characteristics.
Women face a wide range of barriers to economic gender equality, and age discrimination may create particular obstacles for older women. For example, older women are more likely than older men to live in poverty, and those who are widowed see an average 30% decline in living standards.
Legally, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers age 40 and older from discrimination in hiring, wages, and retention, in organizations with 20 or more employees. However, discrimination in hiring is difficult to judge. Older workers may encounter statistical discrimination—in which an individual is judged according to group stereotypes, such as an assumption that older workers will struggle to learn new technologies—or taste-based discrimination, which is an outright preference for younger over older workers.
This field experiment tests for age-based discrimination among women applying for entry-level jobs, as might be characteristic of women re-entering the workforce. By using computer-generated resumes with matched qualifications but varying ages—suggested by varying high school graduation dates—the author was able to compare employer response rates based on age.
Older women, whose high school graduation dates implied an age of 50, 55, or 62, were significantly less likely to receive interview offers than younger women, with implied ages of 35 or 45, for an entry-level job in Boston, Massachusetts or St. Petersburg, Florida, which was chosen because it has a similar demographic mix to what the US Census projects the US to have in the 2020s as baby boomers reach retirement age.
- In Massachusetts, 3.8% of older women (ages 50, 55 or 62) received interview offers, compared to 5.3% of younger women (ages 35 or 45). In other words, older women needed to submit 27 applications on average to receive an interview offer, compared to 19 for a younger woman—a 42% increase.
- In Florida, 4.3% of older women received interview offers, compared to 6.2% of younger women. In other words, older women needed to submit 23 applications on average to receive an interview offer, compared to 16 for younger women—a 46% increase.
- For each additional 10 years of age, a woman in Massachusetts would need to submit 5 additional applications on average and a woman in Florida would need 3.5 additional applications on average to receive an interview offer.
- The author hypothesized that human resource professionals would show less preference for younger workers (taste-based discrimination) because of training and knowledge of discrimination. However, HR professionals in large firms were no less likely to interview older applicants.
- Similarly, though younger employees might be more likely to prefer younger applicants, differential interviewing by age happened equally across geographic areas with younger and older workers
- Resume elements designed to counter common stereotypes about older workers, such as computer certification or high-energy sports, produced no clear evidence of statistical discrimination due to group stereotypes.
In short, these findings show that older women face significant age discrimination in the entry-level job market. This evidence suggests that cuts to benefits such as Social Security or Medicare programs for retired and elderly individuals might leave older women with difficulty finding alternative sources of income.
The audit study submitted paired resumes for women ages 35, 45, 50, 55, and 62 to entry-level job openings at 3,996 companies in Boston, Massachusetts, and St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2002-2003. A computer program generated resumes with randomized but similar characteristics other than implied age, indicated by date of high school graduation. Resumes showed current entry-level employment and a maximum of 10 years of work history. In each city, 40 job openings per week were randomly selected from newspaper want ads and 10 per week were identified by calling companies randomly selected from a phone book. All jobs required no more than one year of education or experience. Resumes were submitted via fax, email, or online application. The authors tracked interview responses as well as positive responses suggesting employer interest.
Resumes also varied elements including an attendance award, a statement on existing health coverage, computer certification, sports activities, volunteer work, a statement regarding “willingness to embrace change,” and same-occupation experience to check for statistical discrimination. To test for taste-based discrimination, the author tested whether larger employers that are likely to have HR departments were more likely to interview older applicants. Additionally, the author examined younger employees preference to interview younger applicants by testing whether areas with a larger proportion of workers under age 40, over 50, and over 61 were more or less likely to interview older applicants.