Two Paths Lead to One Amazing Community
- Connections, Culture & Society
by Stela Lupushor & Nicola Palmarini
“Women between 55–65 constitute almost half of long-term unemployment.”
The first time I read this statistic, I was 45 and it felt very personal. I vividly remember thinking “I only have 10 years to do something about it before I become a statistic!” I knew I needed to do something. I needed to be part of the solution and for me that solution would be found by forging partnerships between women and organizations. Working together, that’s where the energy would flow.
Over four years have passed, and the situation is far from getting better. Since February 2020, the unemployment rate for women over 55 has almost doubled, from 3.5 percent to 6.1 percent and nearly half of this population are considered long-term unemployed (out of work for six months or longer.)
Having spent my career in human resources, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that older women are impacted more greatly by long term unemployment. I’ve seen the societal norms at play that make it more common for women to step out of the workforce or decline opportunities to take care of children, ailing parents and/or to support a partner’s career path than men. (Case in point, in the current pandemic environment, women have exited the workforce in record numbers.) Often when ready to re-enter the workplace, women suffer from outdated skills and stale business networks which make it difficult for them to find employment or long-term job growth. Biased job descriptions, i.e. “someone early in their career” and selection algorithms add to these challenges.
The difficulties women experience in finding work at an older age not only impact their immediate income needs, it makes it challenging to retire. Less time at work equates to not only less in personal savings but also to smaller social security payments.
These are our moms, our sisters, our girlfriends, us. If we don’t respond by addressing some of the societal challenges that make it difficult for women to work, many will face financial insecurity and will potentially be pushed into poverty.
Determined to address this problem, I talked to anyone who would listen, trying to figure out an easy solution (there should be one, right?) and was eventually led to someone equally passionate about this topic, Nicola Palmarini who at the time was working for MIT IBM Watson AI Lab.
I made my way to a small coffee shop on Binney Street in Cambridge, MA where for an hour Nicola and I were pouring out our perspectives, finishing each other sentences, ferociously agreeing with the state of ageism in our world, an almost silent unconscious bias, a discrimination so subtle and deeply widespread in our cultures to be yet clearly recognized and coded in everyday life, and ending on an agreement. “We have to do something about it.”
Since meeting, our journey has been full of conversations, miles (and miles!) driven between Boston and New Jersey for workshops, focus groups and countless brainstorming sessions with the purpose of coming up with a response to gendered ageism in the workplace. We discovered a lot of incredible people who have made it their mission to address ageism in their own ways. We also learned that ageism is an issue that is made invisible by the media, by societal norms, by workplace policies and by self-isolating tendencies. We knew we needed to shine a light on ageism and invite all to join in on the solution. We needed to build a community that worked together to support women as they re-enter the workplace, pivot to a new career or stay competitive in their current job no matter their age.
Starting in 2013, I had begun research for a book that I would later publish in 2016 titled “The infiltrators”. The book stemmed from trying to understand the reasons why so few women (behaving like infiltrators in an enemy field, therefore, the title) were involved in STEM careers (with a focus on T&E disciplines). A phenomenon that seemed to me increasingly clear and troubling even in light of the dizzying progression of some new technological domains, their opportunities and ethical issues. Not to mention the related skills, dominated, ça va sans dire, by men.
Exploring the context in which these issues are grafted, it’s inevitable to come across the broader and more complex scenario related to women’s discrimination in the workplace, the recurring confusion between diversity and inclusion, and a sort of self-referential narrative often centered on leadership rather than the full lifecycle in careers. This research dovetailed with my everyday work exploring issues related to ageing and longevity and complemented my focus on identifying the reasons for ageism. Studying these issues, and bolstered by the work of researchers like Liat Ayalon and Tracey Gendron, it became evident to me that ageism does not operate in isolation from other categories but rather alongside them. The sexualization of women’s value in youth was a clear proof of this. As Itzin & Phillipson said: “gender on its own is an insufficient explanation of the discrimination experienced by women in organisations”.
The more I got into the matter, the more it became clear to me that the issue of so-called “gendered ageism as a double jeopardy” was a crucial issue for organizations and, therefore, by definition, whether we like it or not, for men. They, we, and therefore, I, as Catherine Ashcraft and Wendy DuBow said, have the role of “advocating for changing the environment, advocating for individual and systemic change, advocating for altering systems”. However, what does “advocate” mean?
For me, “advocating” theoretically wasn’t enough; I felt the need to do rather than talk. I’m sure if I hadn’t met Stela, I never would have been able to do on my own what we’re telling you about in this post. And not because I didn’t have the energy or the desire, but for the simple reason that it takes others to believe in yourself and vice versa. Starting from scratch on your own with an idea and good intentions is not enough. You need to believe in the case of encounters, in the intelligence of the person in front of you who until a minute before you didn’t even know, in the beauty and importance of ideas, in the need to try and change things, in the rule that we are all responsible. And of course, everything is easier if you find people already with an “amazing” idea in their head and an “amazing” set of skills.
Stela and Nicola’s Story
In 2017, Stela and Nicola established amazing.community as a place (both virtual and physical) to focus on the intersection of gender/age/technology and to help smash the barriers that keep women 45+ from taking their place at work. Along with a core team of Board members and volunteers, they hosted conferences, learning events and webinars, all designed to support women in their quest to get and stay meaningfully employed.
A lot was accomplished. But, as long as gendered ageism exists, they knew there remained so much more to do.
In 2019, Nicola stepped aside from his role as an amazing.community Board member but not from his commitment to tackle ageism. He assumed a new position as Director of the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) which has given him the chance to see that issues related to women and ageing impacted those on both sides of the pond. He couldn’t help but think that with the widespread challenges of ageism and sexism, a widespread solution would make sense. Stela couldn’t agree more. Why not launch a community where women and men from different cultures and geographies can develop solutions through exchange?
And that is what they have done.
In March 2021, they announced a partnership between amazing.community and VOICE, the innovative NICA organization focused on healthy and intelligent aging. Their fervent hope is that this global partnership will help to positively change the narrative about age and work.
So, what’s next?
Amazing.community, enhanced by synergies gained from its partnership with VOICE, will focus on the following objectives:
A. Empowering women 45+ so they can regain confidence that might have faltered along the way through career pauses, job rejections, lay-offs, and isolation by offering them opportunities to:
- Build a toolkit of skills (digital fluency, analytics, coding, design thinking etc.)
- Establish and grow a local network of like-minded individuals who support each other and
- Navigate the digital world with access to curated resources, training, services, events, and work opportunities.
B. Inviting organizations to help create an environment where women 45+ can get and keep the job by advocating for mindful consideration of the following:
- How work gets defined and the importance of flexibility in work schedules
- Office space design and the need to enable physical accommodations
- Inadvertent bias in hiring algorithms and the rest of employment lifecycle
- Existence of unconscious biases and how to hold each other accountable.
In short — through this new partnership, Stela and Nicola plan to continue passionately advocate for an inclusive workplace where work WORKS for everyone.
Stela Lupushor, Chief Re-framer at ReFrame Work, co-founded amazing.community and serves as its Board chair.
Nicola Palamarini, Director of the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Aging, co-founded amazing.communiy and is a former amazing.community Board member.