Ageism Part II: Getting Fired
You're a middle-aged woman. Professionally, you’re at the top of your game. So...why are you being put on a PIP and getting fired?
This is Part II in a 3-part series on ageism. Part I, on hate speech, can be found here. Part III, on getting hired, is coming soon.
“Nobody tells women this. Nobody tells you, ‘Hey, if you do an amazing job at your company, and you are brilliant, and you have earned them so much money, at a certain point, you're just too expensive. You're expendable. Nobody gives a shit.’”
-Nicole Page, employment and entertainment lawyer in NYC
Here’s how it happens, when you’re a middle-aged woman in corporate America. (If you’re a middle-aged man, add on approximately ten years and an extra million or so of income.):
Your 50th birthday looms. Professionally, you’re at the top of your game. It hasn’t been easy. You’re a woman, after all, so you’ve had to learn how to be assertive without being dubbed pushy. Hard-driving without being labeled aggressive. Political without being seen as a brown nose. You may have cut short vacations, maternity leaves, recuperations, or periods of intense loss and grief to prove your dedication to your job. You have missed important life events and soccer tournaments, worked late into the night too many times to count, become intimate with the waffle iron at every Marriott Garden Inn in the U.S.
But now? At your age? You’ve got this. Finally. And it feels good. You check your 401K. You do the math in your head. Will you have enough money to head off into the sunset comfortably? Or will you be eating cat food and relying on the guest rooms of others? It’s a nail biter, because everything else in America has been unforgivably expensive: childcare, healthcare, college tuitions, oh my! Never mind that, according to the most recent census, the gender wage gap has only widened as you’ve aged. Your peak earning potential as a woman was at age 40. Your male colleagues? 49.
Patriarchy math: it’s all you’ve ever known.
Meanwhile, in your company’s back offices, the number crunchers are looking at two numbers: your age and your salary. Yes, this is illegal. They do it anyway. And don’t be fooled: you are not a person to them. You never were. All that talk of “We are a family” at the company retreat? The credo on their website, promising to treat all employees with respect and dignity? Corporate pablum, hollow doublespeak. You are an aging data point on a spreadsheet. Worse, because you leaned in and leveled up in responsibilities and salary, you have now become a liability.
The crunchers ask themselves, “Is she worth it?” They’re being squeezed by management, who in turn are being squeezed by either shareholders or private owners to decrease costs while increasing productivity. And because American labor law still favors them, not you; because at-will contracts are still the norm in the U.S; because NDAs and fears of never getting hired again have kept every women I interviewed for this story from going on the record—except Nicole Page, an employment and entertainment lawyer who deals with the fallout from these policies on American middle-aged women every day—nothing is keeping them from flicking you off that spreadsheet like a gnat. Not even the laws put in place to protect you.
Eventually, they reach their usual conclusion: you, a middle-aged woman, are too expensive. They could hire three kids right out of college for what they’re paying you! Surely you have a husband or partner or, well…someone who can pick up the financial slack, if they excise you from the spreadsheet. That’s the American way. Father knows best. Carol Brady’s in the kitchen with Alice, cooking dinner. You’ve come a long way baby!
But definitely not far enough to last in this game of musical chairs, which has been secretly stacked against you from the start.
Next, to get around those pesky discrimination laws, they put you on a PIP. That’s corporate-speak for “performance improvement plan.”
“Once you're on a PIP, you're waiting for your head to be chopped off,” said Page. “The whole purpose of a PIP is so that they can establish that you are being terminated for performance reasons so that if you try to sue them, they'll say, ‘Nope, had nothing to do with your age, your gender, your race or whatever. It was your performance.’”
How do they establish your sudden drop in performance, after years of excellent work?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ladyparts to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.