The thing women struggle with most at work isn’t sexism, it’s ageism

Who’s afraid?
Who’s afraid?
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The statistics are often repeated—women make 80 cents to every dollar that men make, that women do 2.6 times more unpaid work as men, that if progress continues at this rate women in the US won’t achieve economic equality for 208 years.

But those numbers don’t capture the lived experiences of women at work. In practice, inequality plays out in a lot of different ways, including aspects of a person that go beyond her gender.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a survey conducted by The Riveter, a gender-equal coworking space now in seven cities across the US. According to the whitepaper published today, the organization, along with partners Xerox and YouGov, surveyed 1,550 women “across racial groups, professions and caregiving roles,” and followed up with about 100 interviews.

One key statistic: 58% of the women surveyed said that they thought their “identities and/or physical attributes impact their experiences at work,” according to the report. And out of all identity factors, age was the most popular answer among the women surveyed, playing a bigger a role than gender in the workplace.

the riveter at work
Image: The Riveter, A Work Force for Change: Driving equity in the workplace and beyond, November 2019

These findings build on a growing number of studies about the effect of ageism at work. Twenty-one percent of workers over 40 say they’ve faced age-related discrimination. Older workers have fewer job opportunities, are given less responsibility at work, and are sometimes even pushed out of their jobs. While some studies and surveys show that men and women are affected by ageism at similar rates, others show (pdf) that women are more affected by age discrimination.

“I think what [our paper] adds is we asked women directly about their experience,” Amy Nelson, founder and CEO of The Riveter, tells Quartz, adding that she and others behind the survey were really surprised at how prevalent and important ageism was in the results (the survey didn’t focus on women who are part of The Riveter, instead using a “representative sample” across the country).

Of course, age is just one factor of a person’s identity, and it can be hard to clearly attribute biases women experience at work to age. “Race, age, body type and other identities cannot be separated from gender,” the report reads. “Gender unites women but is just one of many factors.”

The whitepaper details other results from The Riveter’s survey, including unequal pay, maternity penalties, and work-life imbalance. But the way women are perceived at work, along with biases against those elements of their identities, underpins many of these continued inequities.

While the paper authors suggest several ways companies can make workplaces more equitable, it all comes down to listening to women, Nelson says. “I doubt that any of the solutions around all the issues of women at work will take rocket-science ideation,” she says. “We think that, writ large, the first solution is starting to ask the questions. We don’t think there are a lot of workplaces asking women what they think and acting on those changes. And that’s really the first step.”

Correction: This piece previously stated that The Riveter had office locations in eight cities, citing a January press release. A company spokesperson has informed Quartz that its plans changed since the publication of that press release, and it has offices in seven US cities.