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Marks of bias

If you're an older woman looking for a job, be prepared to try harder and apply more places.

Discrimination against older workers is rampant, says Joanna Lahey, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University whose yearlong study of St. Petersburg and Boston area employers was released this week by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston University.

She found women 35 to 45 years old who applied for entry-level jobs in St. Petersburg were 43 percent more likely to be called in for an interview than those who were 50 to 62. Results were similar in Boston.

That's not to say winning an interview was easy for either group. Just one out of 16 applications generated an interview for the younger women, while it was only one out of 23 for the older group in St. Petersburg.

"Any policy that depends on older people finding work to maintain their quality of living, such as changing Social Security benefits, needs to consider this demand side," she said.

Lahey, who is 28, said a classroom discussion of Social Security's woes prompted her study. "My professor said, 'Obviously we need to cut Social Security and get all these lazy old people off the golf courses and into the labor market again.' I thought 'maybe these older people want to be in the labor market but can't. Maybe it's not their choice.' "

Lahey said nearly all the research she found on older workers focused on men.

Her response was to design a yearlong study sending pairs of fake resumes-one from an older woman and one from a younger woman-to apply for nearly 4,000 jobs. Most of the jobs were selected from classified ads in the St. Petersburg Times and the Boston Globe. Others were identified through random calls to companies listed in the Verizon Superpages for St. Petersburg and Boston.

Although she has never visited Florida, Lahey said she chose St. Petersburg because its age mix is similar to what the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the nation as a whole will be like by 2020. Boston's selection was simply a matter of convenience. The study was part of her doctoral thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Because it can be difficult to separate age from experience, Lahey limited her study, conducted in 2002 and 2003, to entry-level or near entry-level jobs and the fake resumes contained no more than 10 years of work history. The resumes included high school attendance dates, the sole age giveaway. She did not fill out company application forms.

Her applicants had bland popular names such as "Linda Smith" and "Mary Jones," attended Midwestern high schools employers wouldn't be familiar with, used addresses in middle class neighborhoods and had telephone numbers that connected to answering machines.

Lahey said she found differences among occupations. Employers were eager to interview any applicant for some jobs, she said. "In Boston, the job that was always hiring was dental assistant. In Florida it was nail techs. The problem is nail techs don't make much money."

Lahey found age discrimination in the high-demand field of health care, but said "they're hiring so many people that if you really want a job, you can get an LPN and have a great career."

She said some companies, particularly in blue-collar fields and male-dominated occupations such as trucking, showed a preference for older workers.

Although gender discrimination wasn't a subject for her study, she said her phone calls to Florida companies proved it is alive and well. "I'd call these companies and they'd say 'I'm sorry, honey, we're really looking for a man for this job.' That was kind of a shock."

Directors of two Pinellas County programs that help middle-aged and older women get back into the work force have different takes on the issue.

"I think it depends on the job," said Sharon Coil at Women on the Way at St. Petersburg College. "I deal with women who have just finished their degrees in education, nursing, legal assisting ... and they've been able to find jobs."

Kathryn Schoen at Resource Center for Women in Largo said she thinks the older women who come to the center for help are having more difficulty with their job searches. "Most of the women who take advantage of our career development classes are older women. They come for help with resume preparation, interview skills and job search strategies. Our other classes tend to draw women of all ages."

The study design allowed Lahey to test employer response to various factors from typographical errors to the inclusion of volunteer work.

Some resumes included the statement "I am willing to embrace change," but Lahey said it actually hurt older workers.

"If you're an older worker, you shouldn't say you're flexible,'' she said. "But demonstrate it by taking computer classes and doing volunteer work."

Helen Huntley can be reached at or (727) 893-8230.


What works

Here are some tips for older women from Joanna Lahey, left:

- Replying to a specific ad works better than calling companies asking about openings.

- Blue-collar and male-dominated occupations prefer older women.

- Listing volunteer work on your resume is a plus.

- Listing only the last 10 years of work experience is the standard.

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