Ageism: Reflections on the Oscar Season

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As I write this, in March 2023, we have just had the most recent iteration of the Oscars and there has been some backslapping, I would say, about the fact that an older woman has won an Oscar.  It is very interesting to see the way that awareness of promoting older women has grown within the acting community.  Coincidentally, I listened this morning to Desert Island Discs, the Michael Caine celebration, where he was talking about his life and his continuing role as an actor into his late eighties, early nineties. 

Do not underestimate the power of culture and media to influence our attitudes to older people.  There is a very interesting test has been developed to consider whether films are harmful and neglectful of women over 50.  The study that looked at this was developed by the Geena Davis Institute, based in California and sponsored by Tena, the popular female personal hygiene brand. 

Testing the presence of older women

The questions they ask are these:

  • Does the film have at least one female character who is 50 plus who matters and is tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect?
  • Is the female character, who is 50 plus, presented in humanising ways and not reduced to ageist stereotypes?


This study revealed that only one in four films passed these two questions.  It showed that women over 50 are often lacking in having fully realised lives and simply serving as scenery in younger people’s stories.  The study analysed the previous year’s top-grossing films from the US, UK, France and Germany and they found there were no women over 50 cast in leading roles in 2019’s top films. 

When older women did appear as a character on screen they were consistently cast in an unsavoury, stereotypical way.  For example, stubborn behaviour was tracked in 33% of the films, 17% portrayed older women as unattractive, 32% as grumpy and 18% as unfashionable.  They were also often depicted as senile, homebound, physically inactive or feeble.  Very few romantic relationships between people over 50 were depicted.  Characters under 50 were also three times more likely than characters over 50 to be picked in sex scenes, sending the message that older bodies are not as worthy to be shown in a sexual way.  The study suggests that older adults are stereotyped as mentally feeble or senile, inflexible in thought and manner and old-fashioned in morality and skills.

Geena Davis was an actress who founded the Geena Davis Institute in 2004 after spending years speaking about the importance of gender equality and is now looking at prejudice against older populations of women.  When you look at the age test for male actors of the films analysed by the study, women made up only 25% of characters over 50, compared with 75% of men.

Applying the test more widely

  • What would be your test in your industry?
  • What would be the similar kind of two-part or three-part questions you might ask in the environments in which you are operating?
  • What might this mean for TV or radio, for the law, for the finance function, for artists, for academics?  
  • How could you start to think about a similar test in your world?


Until we start asking these questions in a way that is sensitive to the context in which these different professions operate will never get to the bottom of ageism. 



Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.