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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

July 2024

NIH offers training, resources to combat age discrimination

Patricia Fletcher, Ph.D., discussed new initiative to support employees over 40 years old during Diversity Speaker Series lecture.

Employees who are 40 years and older are valuable members of the workforce, yet many are discriminated against based on their age, according to Patricia Fletcher, Ph.D., principal strategist for the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Aging Employment Portfolio. Fletcher discussed the new initiative during a Diversity Speaker Series virtual talk May 23. The NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) sponsored the event in recognition of Older Americans Month.

Patricia Fletcher, Ph.D.
Fletcher shared steps employees and managers can take to identify and reduce age discrimination at work. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Fletcher)

“We are so pleased to have Dr. Fletcher with us for this addition to the Diversity Speaker Series, and to bring the launch of this new portfolio directly to NIEHS,” said OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D.

Approximately 77% of NIH staff members are at least 40 years old, said Fletcher, and are legally protected from discrimination by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The aim of the new portfolio (see sidebar) is to build awareness and understanding of discriminatory practices against older Americans and to foster inclusivity through educational programming, she said. The initiative launched May 7 under the direction of Kevin Williams, Esq., in the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).

“We are excited that we are one of the first agencies that launched this focus, and we hope it creates a model for other federal agencies,” said Fletcher.

What is ageism?

After a career in marketing and communications, Fletcher said that she stumbled into gerontology before she began caring for her aging mother.

“My passion in this space is not only from an academic standpoint; it’s also very personal,” said Fletcher, who holds a master’s in gerontology, and a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies of public policy and social change. She is a leading age influencer and has extensive experience across organizations, including state and federal government, not-for-profit entities, and private companies.

Fletcher noted that the word “ageism” was coined in the 1960s by Robert Butler, a gerontologist, psychiatrist, and founding director of the National Institute on Aging. She explained that the World Health Organization further classified the term to include stereotypes (how we think about aging), prejudices (how we feel about aging), and discrimination (how we act as a result).

“Despite it being a form of prejudice and injustice, ageism is often not taken seriously and considered one of the last socially acceptable prejudices,” said Fletcher. “It’s the prejudice that people think it’s okay to joke about.”

Aging in the workplace

Fletcher also discussed institutional ageism, which occurs when individuals are discriminated against in the workplace based on age. This includes passing over older applicants in the hiring process or assuming older employees don’t have specific skills compared to their younger counterparts based on age.

Myths about older workers, according to CDC studies, are that they are slow, expensive, resistant to change, and inexperienced with technology, she explained.

“The reality is that older workers have more accumulated knowledge and more experience handling organizational changes, which can enhance their ability to adapt to a new situation,” said Fletcher. “Older workers may get higher pay, but tend to stay in their current jobs longer, saving employers time and money on recruitment and training. Consequently, the higher pay for some older worker may balance the savings achieved by retaining them.”

Training opportunities at NIH

EDI leaders from left to right: Kevin Williams, Esq.; Patricia Fletcher, Ph.D.; Danny Dickerson, director, NIH Division of Inclusion and Diversity; and David Rice, branch director, Special Emphasis Programs.
EDI leaders from left to right: Williams; Fletcher; Danny Dickerson, director, NIH Division of Inclusion and Diversity; and David Rice, branch director, Special Emphasis Programs. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion).

Fletcher encouraged NIEHS managers to pursue individual and team-focused training in age inclusivity through the NIH EDI. She recommended the following to managers.

  • Offer opportunities for professional development to all employees.
  • Include employees of all ages on group projects.
  • Plan age-inclusive team-building activities.
  • Avoid the word “senior” when describing older adults.

For more information, connect with the NIH EDI office at edi.nih.gov, by phone (301-496-6301), or on social media (X, Instagram, and YouTube).

(Lindsay Key is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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