In my twenty-five plus years career as a scientist, I have revised my resume several times. Each time, I updated it with new credentials, additional skills and enhanced responsibilities. However, when I recently revisited my curriculum vitae, I did something very unusual - I deleted the part where I mentioned the years in which I was awarded my degrees.
Was it a deliberate choice or an unintentional act?
I am not sure.
My resume has always been a source of pride for me. My biggest accomplishment as a woman in STEM lies in the fact that I have remained in the workforce despite a series of changes that involved marriage, motherhood and moving countries, some of which happened more than once. Yet, now as I look at my CV, I feel a bit conflicted.
My educational credentials are stellar and my work experience extends across companies, geographies and cultures, but explicitly drawing attention to my age, the least favourable of my attributes, in today’s competitive work environment, didn’t seem like a good idea.
Is age just a number?
Almost two decades ago when I interviewed for a job in India, I was openly asked “How young are you?” It was a light-hearted paraphrasing of the uncomfortable question of my age. I was shocked. I had just returned to India after having worked in the US for several years after my Ph.D. There I had undergone rigorous interviewing skills workshops in which HR had emphasised that questioning potential employees about their age, ability and a variety of other aspects were strictly forbidden. And here I was, facing one of those dreaded questions!
I responded honestly but reluctantly to the question then. I am not sure how I would feel in the same situation now.
During the pandemic when I exclusively worked from home, I made a conscious decision to grow my grey hair. Although I had periodically used henna to cover my silver strands, the forced hibernation of the lockdown offered a period of time to become more comfortable with my appearance which featured two wings of grey on both sides of my head. And two years later, those wings have expanded into large swathes of grey.
If I enter the job pool at this phase of my life, would I be considered fairly or would I face discrimination?
What do surveys say?
In Singapore where I currently live and work, there is a big push to upskill or reskill senior citizens so that they stay employable well into their seventies and later. Given its small size and global reputation as a business hub, the government offers citizens subsidized courses to assist with job changes and career progression.
J, a woman in her late fifties who had worked as a freelancer editor, interpreter and translator in Singapore for over two decades went through a rigorous training program to switch to an alternate career in healthcare. While her ability to be a compassionate caregiver was a definite plus, she was unable to fulfill certain physically taxing aspects of the job and had to give up on her new career. A small tweak of her job responsibilities may have helped her continue but the circumstances didn’t allow for such flexibility. An individual, after all, can do only so much.
The larger problem lies with how employers perceive older workers. Although elders are generally regarded with respect in Asian cultures, recent surveys in a multicultural society such as Singapore showed that the most common form of discrimination faced by job seekers is age, which ranks higher than race, nationality or sex. Even though each one of us is getting older with every breath, the ‘young’ discriminate against the ‘old’ because when we are young, we believe we will remain immune to the universal condition of ageing.
S, a woman in her mid-fifties, with decades of experience in project management in the construction sector lost her job during the Covid-19 pandemic. It took her almost two years to find a new job partly due to the slow recovery of the sector itself but also because of the drawback on account of her age despite having noteworthy credentials in her long career.
Bias, like grey hair, creeps in unnoticed. There is a tendency to equate an older person with a lack of enthusiasm, energy and eagerness to work. While some jobs may require the latest technical knowledge or a high level of fitness, there are very few substitutes for the value of cumulative experience that older workers can apply to solving complex problems.
Approaching a task holistically requires lateral thinking and ability to synthesise information from various sources (not all of which can be found through google) and predict outcomes. These skills are acquired over years and can’t be expected from young graduates with little life experiences.
A workforce that has multiple age groups working cohesively is more stable precisely because of its diversity. At a given time, not everyone has the same needs. Young singles may be willing to stay late while parents of school-age children may require more flexibility in case they are summoned at short notice to attend to family needs during work hours. Middle-aged employees may be most predictable in terms of showing up at the office at regular hours and senior workers can be a source of long-term institutional memory as well as a visible reminder that one can be a valuable member of the workforce for a long time.
Walking the talk
Over the years many younger (usually female) colleagues talk to me about their struggle to return to work after maternity leave or of balancing job needs while caring for a sick family member. In most cases, they find a way to make things work, but when they go through a rough patch, as a senior colleague I willingly listen to their problems and sometimes I am able to offer practical suggestions, based on my own experience.
My presence itself is proof that one can endure both unique and universal challenges and still manage to have a fulfilling work life. Governments can form task forces, run media campaigns and pass legislation to offer protection to subsets of workers but the final proof of these practices being effective is the sight of diversity in every workplace.
The undeniable truth that both S and J confirmed during my discussions with them was that it is economics that finally decides whether a workplace is discriminatory or not. In countries where manpower is scarce and niche skills are in demand, employers are willing to fill available positions without regard to age, race, gender and other aspects. Since older, more experienced workers in general deserve to be paid higher wages, when it ultimately comes to the final decision, the bottomline trumps personal considerations.
As I consider a new phase of my work life, will I be valued for what I bring to the table or will I be summarily dismissed as being unfit for the role without being explicitly told that my age is the problem? I don’t know. Yet, I will persist in adding value in whatever way I can. Whether that involves having one on one conversations with young women to help them stay in their careers or by writing articles like this.
Because we can tackle discrimination only when we are able to identify and acknowledge bias when we see it, within ourselves and in others.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training and a writer by avocation. She is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After - a memoir of divorce and discovery. She lives in Singapore.