Age discrimination laws don’t protect older women as they do older men

Release Date: June 18, 2020

Portrait of UB economist Joanne Song McLaughlin.
“Age discrimination laws may be ineffective or less effective for older women. These women are falling through the cracks. ”
Joanne Song McLaughlin, PhD, assistant professor of economics
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Older women in the workforce should be considered collectively as a unique demographic group that includes both gender and age if they’re to receive adequate protection against workplace discrimination, according to a new paper published by a University at Buffalo economist.

“Age discrimination laws may be ineffective or less effective for older women,” says Joanne Song McLaughlin, an assistant professor of economics in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “These women are falling through the cracks.”

The effectiveness of these laws is critical, not only in protecting against the inherent injustice of employment discrimination, but in ensuring the viability of Social Security.

“We expect to see a continued decline in the ratio of workers to retired individuals in the near future as the population ages,” says McLaughlin, PhD. “This increase in dependency ratio poses a serious Social Security solvency issue. Employing older women who want to continue working is one way to influence that ratio.”

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) are part of a collection of state and federal laws intended to provide equal employment opportunities. ADEA prohibits age discrimination while Title VII prohibits gender discrimination.

The two laws, however, function independent of one another and do not work well in concert, because each is a separate statute. The courts subsequently do not usually allow cases that combine them.

It’s either age or gender in cases of discrimination, which fails ultimately to guard against the circumstances faced by older women: intersectional discrimination, the point where multiple demographic characteristics are responsible for limiting opportunities.

McLaughlin says previous research suggests the laws seem to protect older male workers. She also cites studies showing differential treatment against older women and the role of appearance.

“These theories could explain why employers may demonstrate adverse treatment against older women that may be different from older men,” she says.

And while the existing literature has examples of research looking exclusively at either age or gender discrimination, McLaughlin’s paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Labour, is the first to examine the gender difference in the effect of age discrimination laws on job outcomes for older workers.

To test her hypothesis on the potential ineffectiveness of the antidiscrimination statutes, the current paper relies on two identification strategies examining the laws’ effects on older men and older women at both the state and federal level.

“The evidence indicated that both state age discrimination laws and the ADEA improved the labor market outcomes for older men, but had a far less favorable effect on older women,” says McLaughlin. “In some cases, I found that age discrimination laws did not improve the labor market outcomes for older women at all.”

The paper’s robust findings support creating a new protective class of workers for older women.

“I conducted numerous tests looking for alternative explanations about the gender difference in age discrimination laws,” says McLaughlin. “All my results consistently find that age discrimination laws were far less effective for older women compared with older men.

“Older women’s intersectional discrimination must be recognized as a separate cause of action,” she says.

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