As she enters her senior year at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Victoria Hirsel is confident about her future. She wants to work in long term care management, with the goal of becoming a nursing home administrator.
“It’s a dynamic field and there will be plenty of great jobs,” said Hirsel, 21, a gerontology major and vice president of the all-female Gerontological Student Association on campus. “It will suit me; I have a caring personality and it’s my passion to help older people with successful aging.”
From college classrooms to the executive suite, women are seizing opportunities in the aging economy in large numbers and are increasingly well positioned to move into the careers of the future.
Lori Bitter, president and senior strategist of The Business of Aging, finds that classic female attributes are proving valuable.
“It’s my experience that people who are effective in this space are good collaborators, trust their intuition and relate well person-to-person, one-to-one. That’s where women shine,” said Bitter, who’s spent two decades researching mature consumers and consulting with companies and nonprofits seeking to connect with them.
“Women are comfortable in a complex and layered environment, and there are many shades of grey in the aging field,” she added.
More Than a Helping Profession
Because the field of aging services is so broad, there are no statistics about the gender breakdown of the full workforce. But across the country, the population of college students preparing for careers with the aging population skews female, with gerontology undergraduate and graduate programs dominated by women.
Many students are drawn to the field to make a difference, not just to make a living.
“It’s a constant story year in and year out, women transitioning careers to find more fulfilling work,” said Maria Henke, senior associate dean at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California. “They want a change after working in banking or computer science. Women seek the emotional gratification of working with older adults.”
Henke took “a fast count” of the prestigious program’s alumni list and calculated that 75 percent of its graduates have been women; her review of the 2016 list of Fellows selected by the Gerontological Society of America counted 302 women and 210 men.
“What we do sits at the intersection of caring and business but it’s perceived to be a helping profession. The nurturing aspect is considered a female attribute, but in reality, these people run multi-million dollar organizations,” said Henke.
Henke thinks women have a knack for balancing hard and soft skills.
“Our work goes far beyond providing empathy and sensitivity. We’re trained to analyze data, track trends, and bring scientific knowledge and insights to the aging population and the aging process,” she said.
Recruiting for the Future
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eight out of ten workers in health care and social assistance are women.
“Right now, the hands-on caregiving jobs with older people are heavily female. We know from many examples that women-dominated work is lower paid,” said Professor Cynthia Hancock, gerontology undergraduate coordinator at the University of North Carolina/Charlotte.
“Logic and history would say that if more men entered this field and did this work, the pay would go up.”
The senior living industry is making a concerted effort to recruit more men.
“When we have to fill so many jobs, it’s limiting if we are only looking at half the population,” said Brent Weil, vice president of workforce development for Argentum. The national trade association that represents owners and operators of senior independent and assisted living communities and memory care facilities produced a white paper on employment earlier this year. It found that that women make up 89 percent of the sector’s current workforce of 900,000. The analysis concluded the industry will need to recruit 1.2 million new employees by 2025 to accommodate expected growth.
In May, Argentum launched its Senior Living Works initiative, providing videos and fact sheets for its 400 “ambassadors” to use at career fairs and outreach events at colleges. Weil has observed a small but growing number of Millennial male candidates applying for jobs traditionally held by women.
“I can speculate that the shift in the economy has reduced or eliminated male-dominated careers in manufacturing and transportation and has made more young men look to opportunities we can offer,” he said. “Men can be successful in every career within senior living.”
Positioned for the C-Suite
Argentum’s research also identified a significant number of women at the top of senior living organizations. It notes that women hold 70 percent of management jobs, including in the C-suite of some of the nation’s largest senior living companies.
“Within our industry, there are examples of women leaders who worked their way up the ladder,” said Weil, pointing to Lucinda Baier, CEO of Brookdale Senior Living, Lily Donohue, CEO of Holiday Retirement, Brenda Bacon of Brandywine Senior Living and Patricia Will, co-founder and CEO of Belmont Village Senior Living.
“Women take a variety of routes into management, coming from hospitality, finance, health care and gerontology to get to executive roles at the highest levels,” he said.
That’s a trend that reinforces college senior Victoria Hirsel’s career decision.
Her upcoming internship will be at the same facility where she’s held summer jobs as receptionist and activity assistant. She’s well-acquainted with the female administrator who runs the center, whom she’s shadowed in the past.
“I admire her; I have a great, relatable role model. Watching her helps me see the potential in myself,” Hirsel said.