Leader SpeakLeader Speak with Stela Lupushor, Dismantling Ageism at Work Stela Lupushor, Interviewed by Team Meytier 

Meytier is honored to partner with Stela Lupushur and amazing.community. Stela's fascinating career and commitment to uplifting women continue to awe us. Stela is the founder of amazing.community, an organization with a vision to expand the work horizon for women over forty-five. She is a passionate supporter of older women in the workforce and fierce advocate for their potential in the modern workforce. We’re pleased to share this newest Leader Speak installment with Stela, on her work, her organization, and her vision for the future of work.

You’ve had such an amazing career at the intersection of technology, analytics and HR. Tell us a little more about your journey and how you got to where you are.

“Women between 55–65 constitute almost half of long-term unemployment.” The first time I read this statistic, I was forty-five 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 something had to be done, I needed to be part of the solution. For me, that solution would be found by forging partnerships between women and organizations. Four years have passed, and the situation is still dire. Since February 2020, the unemployment rate for women over fifty-five 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 more).

Having spent my career in Human Resources, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that older women are so impacted 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, or to support a partner’s career path. In the current pandemic environment, women have exited the workforce in record numbers. When ready to re-enter the workplace, women suffer from outdated skills and stale professional networks, making it difficult to find meaningful employment and long-term job growth. Biased job descriptions and selection algorithms add to these challenges.

The difficulties women experience finding work at an older age doesn’t just impact their income needs, it makes it challenging to retire. Less time at work means less personal savings and 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.

Tell us a bit more about the Amazing Community? Who should look to join it and why?

amazing.community is a nonprofit organization with the vision to expand the work horizon for women 45+. Our community is made up of women navigating career transitions and those who are passionate about helping said women. We are a community of individuals (of all genders) who are passionate about dismantling ageism in the workplace. We help build skills needed for a modern work environment, increase technological literacy and support one another in pursuit of individual and collective goals. Our work is targeted in three main areas:

  1. Returns: women who are returning to work after an absence. We focus on helping our members understand how companies hire (use of keywords, LinkedIn profile, networking tips, resume refresh etc.)
  2. Pivots: women who are pivoting into a new direction that is different from their previous career or experience. This is where we believe technology is the superpower that will enable women to transition their strength into new work streams or activities.
  3. Start-ups: women who would like to start a new venture or business and need both strategic (vision, product, go-to-market strategy etc.) and tactical (incorporation, setting up the accounting or building the website, content development etc.) support.

When we do surveys and focus group discussions with job seekers, we find that ageism in hiring is alive and accepted. We hear many heartbreaking stories of discrimination - especially from women who are looking for new opportunities or looking to return to work after taking breaks for caregiving. Tell us more about Amazing Community and how you are addressing this problem.

First and foremost, our goal is to provide a supportive community so women can regain confidence that may have faltered along the way through career pauses, job rejections, lay-offs, and isolation. We do this by offering opportunities to build an arsenal of skills (digital fluency, analytics, design thinking, product design, communications etc.), to establish and grow a local network of like-minded individual, and by curating resources, training, services, events, and work opportunities. We recognize that transitions are very unique, and every member will have their own specifics and needs and interests. We aim to provide an array of options in how we support women.

  • Think of us as a triage - we curate content, events, networks, jobs, etc. so we can expose our community to different age-friendly offerings based on their particular needs.
  • We provide small-cohort experiences ("circles") to help women 45+ have supportive conversations about navigating the unique challenges of their transitions
  • We partner with organizations that align with our values for job opportunities, discounted digital tech courses, bootcamps, communications and confidence building training, and a variety of learning opportunities and events to advance their ability to find employment or stay in the labor market.
  • We create experiences to expose our community to new digital technologies and influence their design through feedback and research opportunities.

What should companies do to change mindsets within their organization to hire older employees?

Ageism is a deeply internalized and personal bias, at times unrecognized. It goes in all directions, and is not just discrimination of older but also of younger people. Just think how many times you've heard people say "this is a quote from xyz movie... but I am aging myself..." or "I am too old for this stuff", or "these Millennials are so entitled." We must recognize that ageism impacts everyone. After all - age is something we all have, aging starts from the moment you are born, and it is a unifying human experience. To start the change, we first need to look inward and assess how each one of us contributes to the bias.

In terms of organizational actions - there are a few I'd suggest starting with:

  • Add age as a diversity component (only 8% of organizations currently do so)
  • Revisit your organization’s end-to-end employment journey and examine if there is age bias that somehow made its way into workplace decisions. This is where having measurements will help. For example:
  • Are you inclusive in how you attract and hire talent? What defines an ideal candidate? Are you inadvertently excluding certain age groups or signaling age preference by using in your job descriptions statements such as: early in career, 2-3 years post college, energetic, eager self-starter, at least 15 years of experience, and so on. Review the demographic breakdown of your hiring activities. Is the funnel of prospective hires age diverse? Are you excluding certain talent pools by deliberately choosing outreach channels that are favored by certain demographics (Snapchat or TikTok)? Are managers aware of age-bias and ensuring that candidates are assessed for interest and abilities, not judged based on personal perception? We all heard different version of these stories: "I want someone who has another 10 years in them" or "they are overqualified and will get easily bored with this job."
  • Are you equitably investing in talent development, or are you prioritizing the High-Potentials, who are typically "early in their career"? After all, in this fast-changing world we all need skill development. Prioritizing one group over others will create disparity of access to opportunities and long-term career viability.
  • What are your retention practices? Are you predominantly trying to retain technical talent or those early in their careers? Are you retaining older women? Older women can serve as role models and mentors to younger female employees, which can have long-lasting positive impacts on the workforce.
  • Are pay structures and compensation practices equitable, especially for women in their post-child-bearing age? The pay gap compounds over the years and ultimately leads to a smaller "nest egg' or savings and less social security income.
  • How is your workplace designed? Examine the ways you structure teams, focus on diversity of skills, backgrounds and age.

More recently, with the massive demand and supply gap that companies are seeing, do you think hiring experienced workers is changing for the better? Are companies launching programs to attract older workers?

Increases in life expectancy, population aging, and women’s labor force participation — all impact the workforce composition and how organizations adapt to them. Despite the tight labor market, sizable segments of older workers and especially women continue to go untapped, underutilized, underpaid, or unemployed. When re-entering the workforce, women struggle sustaining their income level, let alone growing it. On the other hand, women 55+ represent the single fastest growing age-gender segment of the American population in the labor force. They will account for more than 1/3 of additional workers entering the labor force over the next decade. This is a perfect example of a segment along with retired workers or seniors with big potential for companies to attract.

Research published by AARP reveals that age discrimination has increased since 2018, increasing from 61% in 2018 to 78% in 2021. In a Harvard Business Review article, Ofer Sharone describes the results of a series of interviews he conducted with workers and recruiters from 2013 to 2015. Many respondents agreed that older workers in the job market experience age discrimination. One recruiter attributed this to the perceived learning ability of older workers, compared to younger ones. Another noted that having more than the maximum suggested years of experience was a "problem," because of salary requests or the length of time the company expects the worker to stay. This is sometimes referred to as the "success bias." Furthermore, 7 out of 18 top Silicon Valley companies have a median age of 30 or younger. A study conducted by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank showed that callback rates about jobs were lower for older applicants, with women having lower callback rates than men.

For companies looking to improve diversity overall, how should they approach the problem? We know it’s a question that deserves its own blog! But we would love your perspective.

Over the past decade, with hopes to satisfy shareholders in a lackluster economy, companies have focused on cost reductions, which often include a workforce reduction under the guise of skills obsolescence. With the turn to global growth and with fewer digitally-savvy candidates in the market, companies now have to rethink their workforce and hiring strategies and invest in upskilling their workforce. HR has an opportunity to shape these strategies. They can forge partnerships with educational institutions, the public sector, and with startups, form coalitions with other organizations, lessen credential requirements, or a combination of all. Most of these efforts will still be about investing in technical skills. Opportunities will lie in supplementing those with soft skills such as design thinking, accessibility, communications, collaboration, and foundational skills. Upskilling is not only good for the business, but it's also a responsible way to uplift communities and have a positive impact on your brand, which in turn will attract more high-quality talent. Win-win for everyone!

We invite all 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. We can change processes and tap into the opportunities of distributed work that will provide us with access to talent, and more flexibility.
  • Office and workspace design and the need to enable access and accommodations. We need advocates of accessibility and that covers both the physical space and digital space.
  • Inadvertent bias in hiring algorithms, in processes and decision criteria along the entire employment journey. We must focus on creating inclusive workplaces (teaming, culture, diversity of thoughts experiences and backgrounds)
  • Existence of unconscious biases and how to hold one another accountable

In conclusion, while the focus of amazing.community is on women 45+, ageism impacts everyone. We should strive to create inclusive workplaces that work for everyone, regardless of their age, ability, aspiration, or life stage. Work is a huge part of our identity, and we should not look at the relationship between the workers and organizations as purely a transactional exchange of time and talent for monetary rewards. Every human deserves to have the ability to contribute, make an income, grow their skills, and realize their full potential.

Meytier is partnering with Stela and Amazing.Community for their upcoming event, Age @ Work: The New Revolution. This evening will be an opportunity to deepen the dialogue about the future of work for the rapidly growing 50+ population. The event is October 12, 2021 at the Mark O’Donnell Theater at The Actors Fund Arts Center, Brooklyn, NY. Click here for tickets or keep an eye out here for the video replay after the event.

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