Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2019 by Bonnie Marcus
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dominates the headlines each week. At 78, her power and political influence has earned her respect and admiration. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of two newly released films, is an icon at 86. Glenn Close, 72, received a standing ovation when awarded the Golden Globe for best actress.
With all the media attention on accomplished older women, one might assume that women over 50 are now vigorously embracing their age and rejecting society’s ageist assumptions.
However, here’s the truth of the matter: Beyond the celebrities who are in the spotlight right now, there’s a tribe of older women in the workplace who are struggling to keep their jobs due to ageism and sexism. These women suffer in silence as they are marginalized, passed over and pushed out.
“Look around you. Everybody in the company is young. You’re too old,” Blair David-Garett’s 34-year-old supervisor at Anthropologie told her. David-Garett, 52, was initially thrilled to work there, but subsequently experienced ongoing age discrimination then retaliation after she complained on the company hotline. She was fired and eventually filed a lawsuit.
“Blair isn’t the only one who’s gone through this,” her attorney, Brian Heller, told a Manhattan three-judge panel in October, “This is the next #MeToo movement.”
According to a 2018 AARP report, 64 percent of women say they’ve been the target of or witnessed age discrimination. But it’s also just a tip of the iceberg. It’s estimated that only 3 percent of older workers have ever made an official complaint to a supervisor, human resource person, or another organization or government agency.
One woman I spoke with, youthful and hip at 50, had a 22-year track record of excellent performance. A managing director for a bank, she was subjected to demeaning comments from her younger colleagues and subsequently fired. The company said they were downsizing. She suspected otherwise, yet she left without a fight.
Similar to the shame women felt about sexual harassment prior to the #MeToo movement, many professional women remain silent when subjected to ageist behavior in the workplace. They choose silence, afraid to complain and draw attention to their age for fear they’ll lose their jobs. Because then what? For many, it’s almost impossible to get rehired as a woman over 50.
“I’ve been in this emotional slump but for no reason other than my own anxiety,” another woman confided in me. At 62, she uses Botox and filler to hide the signs of aging. She is an executive in the fashion industry, where looks and age matter. “I can’t breathe at night because of the fear,” she said. “If I lose my job, (who’s) going to hire me now? And it’s this fear, this gripping fear.”
The stress and fear of losing a job just as it’s becoming more difficult to get rehired is one critical part of the equation. But the humiliation older women feel about aging compromises who we are as women. We’ve adopted society’s ageist assumptions that we need to be young and attractive to succeed. So we hide our age, and as a result, we relinquish our power.
Researchers have come to the conclusion that aging is a gendered process and that women face grave challenges and discrimination during the aging process especially when it comes to financial and work-related matters. Women understand that with every new wrinkle they lose more credibility. Their once sought after opinions are ignored; their workload reassigned.
In a recent study, economists sent about 40,000 invented resumes to employers who’d advertised jobs, then analyzed which applicants got callbacks. “The callback rate declined with age. But the age factor proved even stronger for women.”
This should be our time. We’re 50 and beyond. We’ve endured the demanding juggle of work with family time for decades. Most likely we’ve had to play the political games at work, danced the #MeToo tango to survive. And now we’ve reached a point where we have the time and passion to do the work of our lives and we’re cut down because we no longer look 20.
Frustrated, David-Garett told me, “I just wanted to work. I wanted to move up. I wanted a career. I just wanted what everyone else wants.”
The next #MeToo movement calls for older women to dispel the myth that they no longer have value. It’s time for us to overcome the fear and shame about aging, to emerge from the shadows to celebrate who we are, and proudly claim our history and experience. Now that’s real power.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., is an executive coach and author of “The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead” (Wiley 2015).