AGEISM AND SEXISM IN THE LIVES OF OLDER WOMEN
How do social representations (gender stereotypes, prejudices) about older women affect their economic, social, and political situation in different areas of life?
This module is about ageism, stereotypes and prejudices resulting from affective and cognitive processes regarding older women. Stereotypes about older women are mostly negative. They exist on all levels and in all areas of social life, impacting the group perceptions and older women’s lives. Stereotypes about older people stem from a primitive way of thinking. They impact emotions, cognition and behaviour of older women, as well as our relationship with older women. On the economic level, women face unjust social circumstances. They are often less well off than men, more at risk of poverty (income gap). Creating stereotypes about women starts particularly early, as we can see from beloved childhood fairy tales. When women get older and they pass their reproductive age, they mostly become socially invisible.
Module in a nutshell
The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.
Unit 1. The negativism of stereotypes and their consequences in older women’s lives
We can define stereotype as a belief that certain attributes are characteristic of members of a particular group. Stereotyping occurs when a perceiver infers a preconceived set of traits based on group characteristics, and this may occur quickly and unconsciously, based on limited knowledge of the individual. The use of stereotypes appears to be universal, and stereotype creation starts early. Moreover, life and biologically based stereotypes, like age and gender, are formed earlier and remain stronger than non-biologically based stereotypes. Age and gender are broad social categories that are generally the first aspects perceivers notice when meeting a person. Ageing is a highly individualized and complex process, yet it continues to be stereotyped, especially in Western cultures. Stereotypes of ageing in contemporary culture are primarily negative, depicting later life as a time of ill health, loneliness, dependency, and poor physical and mental functioning.
Women tend to live longer than men, and thus typically have more interactions with the healthcare system in old age than men do. Ageism and stereotypes of older people in general impact older people’s physical and mental health and well‐being. For example, internalized negative stereotypes can produce self‐fulfilling prophecies through stereotype embodiment and contribute to weakness and dependency.
Mass media also plays an integral role in developing and perpetuating gender-based stereotypes. An on-going study of stereotypes in advertising conducted by media agency UM in association with Credos revealed that almost a third of interviewed women of all ages feel patronised by advertising, but this sentiment is felt most keenly by older women. Older women also agree that “society expects them to vanish from public life as they get older.”
In regards to the attitudes towards menopausal women, the study found that half do not believe this stage in life has been authentically represented on any channel in popular culture.
And they regard advertising as one of the worst offenders, saying ads fail to portray menopausal women with any sensitivity. Included among the harmful, age-related female stereotypes are ads that portray them as being out of touch with technology, along with more overtly offensive “mumsy/frumsy” and “mutton dressed as lamb” depictions. 
Menopausal women attribute the current lack of awareness to a lack of understanding since people tend not to talk about menopause. And this might explain why men are not sure what it is. Yet importantly for brands, UM said they are missing out on huge, untapped, commercial potential because a quarter of menopausal women say they spend more time and money on fitness, skincare and holidays.
Not to mention that six out of ten women believe advertising plays a role in challenging stereotypes in society more broadly. Despite some recent powerful and award-winning campaigns, female audiences want more accurate and sympathetic reflections of women like them in their many roles and stages of their lives.
Unit 2. The results of low income in older women's life
Europe is ageing. More than 130 million people in the European Union, or about a quarter of the total population, receive a pension. By and large, the national pension systems make sure that older citizens receive a stable income after the end of their working life and that they aren’t at risk of poverty. In fact, the risk of being poor in the EU is lower among older people above age 65 than the population below age 65. However, while older people are well protected against poverty, there are clear differences between men and women across much of the EU.
Severe inequalities among older people are largely a product of poverty and disadvantage throughout life. Poor education and work opportunities, and lack of social connections can have long-term consequences, often made worse by factors such as reduced income in retirement and the impact of having many long-term health conditions. The often-substantial gender gaps in pensions reflect the gender gaps in remuneration, working hours and time spent working that women faced during their working lives. Pay differences may be rooted in education and skill levels, as well as various forms of gender segregation and discrimination. Household and caretaker duties relating to children and frail older relatives fall mostly upon women. As a result, they experience more career interruptions and part-time work than men. Finally, the statutory retirement age for women is still lower than that of men in some pension systems, which leads to shorter contributory periods and can result in lower benefits.
Moreover, in all Member States, the average pension income of a woman is currently lower than that of a man. At the same time, women tend to live longer than men and require income for extended periods. For the EU as a whole, the average pension of women stood at 60% of the average pension of men.
The only way to modify this situation is to ensure equal opportunities and reduce inequalities of outcome, including measures to eliminate discrimination and to empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, economic status.
“Inequalities accrue and get reinforced over a person’s life. They come home to roost in later years, often exacerbating each other and causing greater disadvantage.” (Jolly, 2014)
Unit 3. How stereotypes /prejudices affect holistic health of older women
Health and long-term care is directly related to old age and ageism, since older adults often need access to it.
Both positive and negative stereotypes of ageing can have enabling and constraining effects on actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, the holistic health of an older adult.
Ageist beliefs and stereotypes can interfere with health care seeking and diagnosis and treatment recommendations. They can, for example, contribute to gender disparities in the health care of older adults if older women are perceived as too frail to undergo aggressive treatments. Ageism also results in the disrespectful treatment of older patients, which is communicated through baby talk and other forms of infantilisation, or even the shrugging off of patients’ complaints and concerns as “just old age”. Intersectional identities can result in a cumulative burden for older women patients who may have a history of disrespectful treatment for other reasons (e.g. sexism, racism, bias against lesbians). Reduction of ageism and sexism and promotion of more realistic and diverse views of older women could improve doctor–patient relationships, facilitate treatment adherence, and reduce disparities in health and health care.
Given that ageism and negative stereotypes about older people are ubiquitous, it is not surprising that healthcare professionals also exhibit them. Studies of physicians show that their attitudes are “complex and mixed” (Meisner, 2012, p. 61). That is, they may express both positive and negative aspects of stereotypes of older people, and their reasons for not liking to work with older people are also complex. Those reasons might have to do with distancing, perhaps as a terror management strategy ('A Terror Management Perspective on Ageism'. Martens, Goldenberg, & Greenberg, 2005), or, in the United States, they might have more do with economics, given that Medicare reimbursement is less than physicians get from private insurance for the same services (Meisner, 2012). Furthermore, physicians are trained to “cure,” and, in general, they prefer to work with patients who have acute illnesses that can be cured, rather than with patients who have chronic illnesses that can only be managed (often with mixed success) (Taylor, 2012).
More research is needed into age, gender, and other disparities in health and health care, with special attention given to the intersectionality of identities.
Both professionals and older patients need more education. Older people also need education about ageism and stereotypes so that they can recognize and resist them. Positive self-perceptions can benefit physical health and well-being (An inconvenienced youth? Ageism and its potential intergenerational roots - North & Fiske, 2012) and reduce the likelihood of negative stereotype embodiment. Older women might be especially likely to benefit from assertiveness training and other forms of empowerment. If older women are unafraid to tell their doctors about their symptoms and able to insist upon getting the information they want, the quality of their healthcare might improve.
Jolly, R. (2014). Inequality and ageing. Facing the Facts: The Truth about Ageing and Development. London. Age International.
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