Challenges of landing an academic job as a middle-aged woman (opinion)

I am a loyal worker—giving my all to bosses and institutions, refusing to quit even through less-than-ideal circumstances—because I’ve believed my hard work would be rewarded.

To pay for college, I waited tables at a casual steak restaurant chain, scheduled at odd times and durations. Tasked with closing the restaurant one night and opening the next day, I covered shifts for hungover co-workers when they were too busy or had a previous bad experience with a customer. Even though I waited my last table in the 1990s, I still have hectic dreams of serving people—struggling to remember the large table’s order, who had ranch dressing and who had French, which table wanted ketchup and which had asked for A.1.

To pay for my master’s degree, I worked for two years at a television station at a smidge above minimum wage and saved what little I could. Then, while studying for the degree, I was a graduate teaching assistant and researcher. I graded student essays until my eyes burned and my contact lens prescription degraded.

After receiving my master’s degree, I became a word I hadn’t encountered much during my education but that would soon become all too prevalent: an adjunct. I took a job at a community college teaching five classes each semester and made less than I did as a full-time master’s candidate with a teaching and research stipend. Yet my declining salary did not dissuade me from pursuing my ultimate goal: a Ph.D. I applied and was accepted after one year of being a harried and underappreciated adjunct.

Once I finished my doctorate, I was sure that a myriad of options would present themselves. I wanted to be among the women who scheduled their babies’ births to coincide with their summer breaks so that I could happily overwork myself in the service of something I loved.

I was awarded my Ph.D. at 35, a time when my spouse and I were fulfilling our dreams to have a family. My husband, with a bachelor’s degree, was further along on his career path in the more lucrative field of video gaming, so I continued along on the adjunct track, deferring my dreams and ambition in order to be the more consistent caregiver. For too many years, I contributed to a university that denigrated the majority of its workforce with low pay along with inconsistent and undesirable assignments—the early-morning, late-evening and weekend ones tilting to the introductory and overenrolled courses. The psychic rewards were real, but the pay was abysmal.

I was lucky to find happiness and economic stability in marriage. My husband’s income subsidized my standard of living and was, also, the ironic counterpoint to the self-sufficiency I envisioned would arrive with a terminal degree: caregiving required me to limit my career workload and pay, which caused me to be more dependent on my husband’s income, which caused me to defer my career needs to his.

Which brings me to our midlife geographical change, a move required because of my spouse’s job. I arrived in an unfamiliar city in need of employment after giving up my full-time work to relocate with my partner and teenage children. Now that I’ve reached a point in my life where I can finally put my first career, I’ve discovered that the available job openings do not flow to middle-aged women.

Corporate literature screams with titles such as “Gendered Ageism Is the New Sexism,” “‘Why Age Discrimination Is Worse for Women” and “Why Do Women Appear to Bear the Brunt of Ageism at Work?” But, wait, isn’t an academy different than the corporate workplace? After all, we are the ones who study and champion diversity. College and university human resources departments have strived to codify interview questions so that all candidates receive a standardized experience. With such nods to equal opportunity, then, how have we also propagated gendered inequalities? How have we arrived at our current she-cession, in which higher ed is similarly implicated?

I remember an emergency budget-planning meeting at a former job, where an executive mentioned ways to save money to counteract our dwindling revenues and stave off a crisis of insolvency: replace retirees with youthful hires. The gap between the outgoing higher pay and incoming lower salary requirements would reap loads of savings.

Co-workers around my age and older at this college could not help but notice that new hires were young. We took note of the hiring justifications but were told that it wasn’t age discrimination, per se, but the fact that college students expected their mentors to resemble them and be aspirational for the kinds of jobs waiting after graduation.

It also did not escape my attention that I was over the acceptable age threshold when, while sitting in a lobby waiting to be brought back for a job interview, the person tasked to escort me looked at me and then went to the receptionist to ask where the candidate was. Besides the receptionist, I was the only one in the room.

A growing body of literature tells me to reinvent myself, rediscover lost loves and lost purposes. Recent television programs like The Rookie and Carol’s Second Act also embrace that theme, showing middle-aged people choosing to start over in another field of employment. What is untrue about those portrayals is the unsaid claim that middle-aged people are mere hobbyists, trying on different jobs—not people who need and are worthy of employment opportunities. Moreover, the advice to reinvent oneself has the frustrating patina of rendering an individual solution to a structural problem.

Since individual solutions to systemic problems are not realistic or fair, I have a few suggestions that, while they won’t solve the problem, might contribute better outcomes for older applicants—especially women, who are judged more harshly than aging male candidates, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Don’t allow stereotypes and bias to stand. A friend mentioned a frustrating experience of serving on a university hiring committee. Following an interview with a candidate supposed to be, based on her résumé and appearance, in her late 40s or early 50s, members expressed doubt that her technical skills were up-to-date or that she would have as lengthy a tenure as someone younger. In a university committee–style interview designed for standardized fairness, such ignorance should not be allowed to stand without rebuttal or rejection.

Indeed, accurately predicting how long someone will stay in a job calls for forecasting tools I am not aware of. People learn new skills when required for success. They get laid off or fired, leave for personal or family reasons or for better opportunities, or are sometimes simply not good fits. Until a person has the job, you can’t know how they will perform. Don’t foreclose on candidates’ potential without offering them an opportunity to prove their worth.

Don’t assume that the pay scale is unacceptable to an experienced candidate. As most job seekers realize, applying for jobs is difficult. To manage the process, many target their searches by applying for jobs that most align with their qualifications and salary expectations. While a job may pay less than my former job, don’t assume that I am not aware of that or amenable to the lower salary. The decision to accept a job is the candidate’s to make.

Don’t require or question things not pertinent to the job. Being asked to interview is an honor. From all the possible candidates that meet the hiring qualifications, only a certain few can be advanced. However, even with committee-based hiring, members are often allowed to ask follow-up or clarifying questions. And in my experience, the follow-up questions are not meant to clarify but to cut—to have “evidence” that a middle-aged or older candidate is not up to the task. For example, one gentleman asked me what neuroscience research I had personally conducted for a position coordinating tutors. The job description was curiously silent about that requirement!

We’ve all probably witnessed the territorialism and one-upping some people in higher education have exhibited. But committee members should stick to adjudicating the candidate on the published criteria. If someone steps outside that line, other committee members should call them out. Moreover, candidates should be able to refuse to answer ad hoc questions that do not illuminate their fit for the job, or seem arbitrarily or arrogantly posed, without it harming their chances.

I am still a loyal worker—willing to give my all to bosses and institutions and refusing to quit even through less-than-ideal circumstances. The question is, those bosses and institutional decision makers will see my résumé, listen to my answers to interview questions and envision me as part of their workplace? If they do, they will see my creativity and work ethic—instead of my age—and be rewarded.

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