Gender and age bias in the workforce: what can we do about it?

Building a diverse workforce is crucial for high-performing businesses, yet we continue to see roles and industries skewed towards certain age groups or genders. To change these patterns, we need to understand why they exist.

Our 2023 WTW Workforce Analytics report found there are more men than women in higher-grade roles, like business unit heads and country managers, executives, middle managers and senior professionals.

This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘gender leadership gap’ or ‘glass ceiling'. It’s a complex issue influenced by a combination of historical, cultural, societal and organisational factors.

Achieving gender parity requires commitment from leadership

Additionally, the majority of workers in leadership positions (75%) are aged between 45 and 59, while the average age of workers across all industries sits at 41. Industries tend to differ in their age distributions due to the nature of work and required skills.

Why do we see more male-dominated roles and industries?


Work/life balance and family responsibilities

Even today, women typically take on a greater share of family and caregiving responsibilities.

Balancing demanding leadership positions with family responsibilities can be challenging, especially in companies that don’t offer a flexible culture, leading some women to opt for roles that offer more flexible schedules.

Organisational culture and policies 

Company cultures that prioritise long hours and inflexible work arrangements can disadvantage women who often have additional responsibilities outside of work.

Embrace the glass balcony to ensure equitable outcomes

Education and skills development 

Historically, certain fields and industries have been dominated by men. This can lead to lack of representation of women with the skills and qualifications necessary to progress to senior roles.

Years of service 

Higher-grade positions tend to have employees with more years of service and men, on average, have more years of service compared to women.

For example, male employees with over 20 years of service represent 60.9% of the group. This is due to women experiencing more career disruption due to maternity leave or childcare responsibilities.


Why do we see roles skewed towards certain age groups?

Age distributions in different roles can be influenced by factors such as experience needed, career growth paths, industry trends, and societal norms. Some roles demand expertise, leading to later entry, while others require skills that can be gained earlier. Considerations like industry type, company size, and location also affect these age patterns.

It’s worth noticing too that the retirement age has increased over the years in the UK. People are working longer before retiring, leading to a higher proportion of older workers in the database.

During economic downturns and with a rising state pension age, older employees might delay retirement due to financial considerations, while younger workers might struggle to find job opportunities.

Also, improved healthcare and longer life expectancy mean that people are healthier and able to work longer, affecting the age distribution in the workforce.


What steps can we take to see a better balance of ages and genders across the workforce?

Organisations should strive to build inclusive cultures that offer flexibility and opportunities based on ability, rather than simply years of service – and at all levels including leadership. Offering more learning and development opportunities internally - particularly related to returning from career breaks - rather than relying on external qualifications is a way to bridge the gap that has often led to under representation of women.

Diversity, equity and inclusion heads need consistency

Hiring individuals from different age groups contributes to a well-rounded workforce.

Managing this diversity effectively, harnessing skills from various age groups, and offering continuous learning opportunities are key for organisations to adapt to industry changes.

All of these changes will require organisations to be more thoughtful about support mechanisms such as line manager capability (avoiding unconscious bias), recruitment (avoiding only recruiting in specific demographics) and employee engagement (i.e not assuming reserved individuals are not interested in opportunities).

Using employee listening to understand if or what barriers these groups face and what might be impacting the recruitment of talent across gender and age groups, utilising sponsorship programmes to support the progress of diverse talent and using effective governance and measurement to oversee and track DE&I activity are all ways we can build a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

All organisations have a vested interest in ensuring a more rounded workforce as this helps to ensure that a spectrum of experiences will bring out the best – not only in a multi-generational workforce but also in meeting the needs of an often multi-generational customer base.

It’s in everyone’s interests to do more.

Lindsey Norton-Bugg is associate director, Rewards Data Intelligence, WTW