OVER 35 and looking for a job? Forget it. In Hong Kong, you are considered over the hill by most employers. It's a rude wake-up call to find that experience, a mature outlook and accumulated skills are not what employers are necessarily looking for. And as the territory's population grows older, so the problem of age discrimination is set to become even more pressing: for women and for men. The Government plans to conduct a survey of 'ageism' in the job market. But to trade unionists, women's groups and almost anyone over the age of 35 who is looking for work, the results are already obvious. A flick through the newspaper classifieds reveals the problem is rife. Most employers prefer youth, looks and vitality to maturity. To test this, the Sunday Morning Post posed as an employer looking for a receptionist. Selecting at random two employment agencies, we did not specify age, sex, or required experience. Despite this, all the candidates offered by both agencies were women under the age of 35. One obligingly gave physical descriptions such as 'pretty lady' or 'young but stable girl'. One candidate was described as a 'mature' 29-year-old. 'How much more proof does the Government need that this is a serious problem?' legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk asked. 'The perception that you are brain-dead at the age of 35 exists across the board. It's the same for everyone from junior secretaries to senior executives.' Ms Wu has received 2,000 letters from women complaining of the problem, and is sponsoring a private member's Equal Opportunities Bill aimed at eliminating it. She is not the only one taking action. A recent US State Department report on human rights in Hong Kong singled out age discrimination for special concern. Women's groups in the territory have also put it at the top of their list for the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in September. Even some employment agencies admit discrimination is a problem. Deborah Morgan, area manager for Drake employment agency, said she was shocked when she arrived in Hong Kong three months ago. 'In Australia they no longer ask job applicants to give their age, or marital status or how many kids they have - all our job application forms have been changed [for Hong Kong],' Ms Morgan said. 'Image is much more important than skills in Hong Kong. My consultants always go for image. I am trying to train them never to ask how old the applicants are - it's quite a problem.' Administration consultant at Bradstreet Management Consultants, Michelle Yan, said age was a definite concern for many women searching for work. 'Most clients require younger people,' she said. 'Once a woman gets to 40, it's quite difficult. Often you fax five resumes and if they want to interview just three women, it's the one who is 40 who will be last to get the interview - even if she is better qualified than the others.' She said clients usually asked for photographs or written appraisals of applicants' physical appearances. 'If the applicant is fat we mention it. We also comment on whether they wear glasses. The clients also like to know if the applicants are Chinese or Western. 'We sometimes ask the job applicants to wear a little make-up and we usually advise them to wear a suit and make sure their hair is clean and tidy.' Women have chained themselves to railings for less. But Lindy Williams, who heads her own employment agency, says such an approach is practical. 'I can understand why a company would not want to employ a 40-year-old secretary,' said Mrs Williams, who has been in the Hong Kong employment business for 19 years. 'Chinese employers feel that age is more of an issue than European clients. Anyone over 40 is considered old.' She admitted people in their early 50s 'are very hard to place' but defended a company's right to discriminate. 'There are many valid reasons for employing a younger person,' she said. 'The whole department may be younger than 30 and an older woman would not fit in. 'If we couldn't specify what age or sex a job applicant should be, it would make our job very difficult. It allows the advertiser to fulfil their needs.' And what about physical appearance? 'We don't specify about weight or whether the applicant wears glasses - we're not that sort of agency. All that is relevant is that they be professionally attired. 'But I would mention to the employer if someone had a major disability, such as a limp or if the person was an albino. We wouldn't want them to be shocked when the applicant walked in.' And what about men? Lindy Williams' consultant manager, Doris Chan Lai-shueng handles male applicants. 'There are certain age limits for men working in banking and finance,' Ms Chan said. 'They need to work long hours, often from six in the morning until 10 at night. It's too long, too much of a headache, and too much pressure for older men. 'Older men may not pick things up as quickly as younger men. They may not have computer skills,' she added. 'If the man is fat we will tell our client first,' she said. 'Some clients are very concerned about company image and ask for a physical description. 'We have had requests for pretty girls. There is one bank which is well known for only employing tall, beautiful young women. They say it impresses their clients.' An experienced headhunter, who asked not to be named, described the age problem as 'rife'. 'I currently have a superb engineer on my books. He has worked for several major US corporations and as a university lecturer. He speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese. But he is 58. I can't even get him an interview.' There are also huge barriers in trying to place women in traditionally male fields.