Maybe it’s the silver & platinum hair trend. Or the growing demand for greater transparency and authenticity. Whatever the case, my recent blog about how I’d be perceived in the workplace if I let my hair go gray (or white) really resonated.
I heard from other professional women who told me the topic is frequently discussed in their offices. A hairdresser said she has the same conversation weekly with her clients. And a talent recruiter verified what we all know to be true: ageism is rampant, and when it comes to appearances, women are more harshly judged. It’s the age-old double-standard: a man with graying temples has gravitas, a woman who no longer colors her hair is ‘letting herself go.’
Employees too young to retire want to know ‘What’s next?’
Our youth-obsessed, social media-driven Western culture renders older generations, especially women, invisible. In the workplace, age discrimination is exacerbated by the fast pace of technology development, which can make people feel obsolete well before they’re ready to retire. The New York Times just reported on a new resort in Mexico that offers retreats to help ‘elderly’ tech workers—as young as 30—cope with our rapidly evolving digital economy. Tech and startup industries, particularly in Silicon Valley, have always favored the young and bold—and that workplace culture is bleeding into other industries.
So I completely understand the women who told me they wouldn’t dare stop coloring their hair for fear of looking older, being treated differently by colleagues or being unable to find another job if necessary. I get it: women over 50 have very little job security and are the most likely demographic to experience long-term unemployment. Women face a triple jeopardy: ageism, gender discrimination and superficial prejudice based on appearance alone.
Are there professions you don’t age out of?
Which got me wondering… Is there an age-proof profession? Tenure and life-long appointments allow professors and judges to work into their 80s (if they desire). Aging lawyers can slot into ‘Special Counsel’ roles. In professional services, there will always be a role for senior consultants who have the maturity and experience to advise high-level executives. Sales and real estate offer older workers opportunities for second careers.
What about marketing and PR? The industry pub Ad Age reported late last year that advertising has an ageism problem, or as a senior ad writer described it, ‘discrimination on steroids.’ Digital advancements, cost efficiencies and a lack of positions other than management for experienced workers end up squeezing out ‘older’ professionals: In 2018, 62 percent of workers in advertising, public relations and other related services were under 45 years of age.
Are women complicit in age discrimination?
Which is why I’m clapping hard for the senior creative designer in LA who told me via LinkedIn that she let her gray hair grow out as a form of rebellion. ‘The only way to blast through age discrimination is to blatantly wear my age,’ she said. Her attitude got me thinking. Is it possible women are unwittingly complicit in the perpetuation of ageism? By continuing to color our hair, botox our wrinkles and Spanx the bulge, are we reinforcing the connection between our worth and appearance? What if we rebelled en masse and proved that age and competency go hand-in-hand? That women of all ages—and looks—have valuable contributions to make to the workplace?
My intent isn’t to blame the victims of age discrimination, but rather to find another way to chip away at the cultural forces that deny women opportunities. Going gray won’t be for everyone—I’m not even sure it’s for me. Every woman should do exactly what makes her most comfortable and confident in and out of the workplace. At the moment, I’m committed to going forward with my hair plan, empowered in part by the support I’ve received, including my friend Linda who said she takes inspiration from French women who don’t strive to look younger, but rather to be best version of themselves at every age. I’m going to embrace who I am at this moment in my career by rocking a trendy cut and getting some new glasses. And because it’s not all about looks, I’ll keep updating my skills and stay on top of news, trends and key issues in the industries I work in.
Time to blast away.