Gender and Ageism

Ageism has an impact on both men and women. Studies have been conducted concerning the negative stereotyping of older women and older men. However, most of the ageism research has studied "the older adult". Thus, the differential effect of ageism on men and women has not been well examined. The research that has been conducted concerning ageism as it relates specifically to older women and men will be discussed below.

Even though women make up the majority of the older population, they have largely been ignored (Block, Davidson, & Grambs, 1981). References to older women usually take the form of generalizations despite the fact that the older population is characterized by its heterogeneity. These generalizations often take the form of stereotypes with the older women traditionally stereotyped as inactive, unhealthy, asexual, and ineffective (Block et al, 1981).

The sexless older woman is a common theme particularly in humor and greeting cards. Jokes concerning older women usually ascribe to the older woman the following characteristics: she is viewed as lonely, frustrated, and shriveled (Palmore, 1971). Palmore (1971) asserts that these attempts at humor merely reflect real societal attitudes. Hultsch and Deutsch (1981) state, However, that the factor having the greatest impact on sexual activity in old age is the availability of a socially approved and sexually capable partner. Sexual interest and ability generally do not decrease with age for women.

Older women are often viewed as unhealthy. Interestingly, older men are perceived as being healthier than older women (Riley & Foner, 1968) even though, on the average, women live seven years longer than men. Women are also perceived to be hypochondriacal. However, on measures of perceived physical health, no differences have been found between old men and women or between an older and a younger population (Ross, Tait, Brandeberry, Grossberg, & Nakra, 1986). In addition, Ross et al. found that older women rated themselves as having greater body competency than either older men or young adults, both male and female. Therefore, the image of the older woman as unhealthy or hypochondriacal is a myth.

In addition to the view that older women are physically unhealthy, older women have been found to be diagnosed with psychological problems 3 to 4 times more often than men (Beeson, 1975). This may represent an ageist bias within psychology and psychiatry. It has been hypothesized that the large number of women seeking psychological support may be a consequence of increased social stress on the older woman. Larson (1978) indicates that subjective well-being is most influenced by environmental factors. The factors having the greatest influence on well-being are hypothesized to be health and socioeconomic status. In 1990, 50 percent of White women had incomes below 646 per month, African-American women had incomes below 419 per month, and Hispanic women had incomes below 426 per month. With a poverty line for seniors of 437.91 per month) in 1990, it is clear that many women live near or below the poverty line. Therefore, they are at risk for psychological difficulties.

Older women are also often viewed as ineffective, dependent, and passive. This represents an extension of the view of all women being ineffective, passive, and dependent, i.e., sexism (Block et al., 1981). Often times, women will find this role difficult to shake. This is particularly true for an older women whose sole identification has been with her husband (Payne & Whittington, 1976). This image of the older woman can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly for new widows who are finding it difficult to deal with independence (Block, et al., 1981). In addition, as female, women continue to experience sexism during old age and are placed, thus, in double jeopardy.

Interestingly, women's self image shows greater improvement with age as compared to men (Clark & Anderson, 1967). It is hypothesized to result from increased social contacts that are characteristic of older women. Lowenthal, Thurnher, and Chiribaga (1975) propose that older women's self image improves as they become more assertive, less fearful, and less dependent.

Older men, however, are perceived as becoming more "feminine" with age; femininity being equated with psychological dependency and timidity (Silverman, 1977; Woolf, 1988). Silverman (1977) conducted a study examining age differences in sex-role stereotypes for men. College students were asked to complete the Sex-Role Stereotype Questionnaire (Rosenkrantz et. al., 1968). Subjects were asked to rate either an average 25, 35, 45, 55, and 65 year old man. Two control conditions were included: women in general and men in general. The results indicated that women in general and men aged 65 were rated significantly higher in femininity (particularly on those items rated feminine but socially undesirable). Therefore, the perception of men undergoes a shift; older men are perceived as experiencing greater timidity and dependency during later life. It should be noted that the study does not look at how the older woman is perceived, nor does it include older adults as subjects. Woolf (1988) corrected for both of these problems. See The Effects of Age and Gender on Perceptions of Younger and Older Adults.

Nuessel (1982) has examined the language of ageism. Ageism is readily apparent in language against both men and women. The terms with which older women are described are representative of some of the more common stereotypes of older men and women. For example, the term little old lady suggests incompetency and impotency based upon age and gender. Old hag or old witch commonly refer to a woman who is physically unpleasant to look at and who has a disagreeable personality. Old men are commonly described by such terms as old coot and codger. These terms suggest that old men are slightly odd or quaint. The commonly used term, dirty old man, suggests some sort of unnatural sexual perversion in older men. Therefore, much of society's negative attitudes are reflected in its language.

Language may be more negatively ageist with respect to women than to men. Nuessel (1982) states, "ageist vocabulary for women is more derisive because it represents them as thoroughly repugnant and disgusting" (p. 274). This may represent the double jeopardy for older women as they are subject to both ageism and sexism.

In summary, both men and women experience ageism in the form of stereotyping. In addition, women experience not only ageism but sexism. Men are stereotyped as increasingly feminine, and women as asexual, unhealthy, and dependent. However, these stereotypes are not supported by empirical data regarding older men and women.