While redesigning my website and marketing materials recently, I started to type the words, “Nearly 20 years of writing, reporting and editing experience…” I stopped.
I hit the backspace button.
I started again: “Experienced writer, reporter and editor.” Had the nearly two decades I spent honing my craft become a liability? I was starting to feel they might. I had crossed the bridge between “young journalist” and its visions of energy, youth and scrappiness (think Lois Lane) and was hobbling closer to “seasoned curmudgeon” (Helen Thomas) and its image of grouchiness, rigidity and a tense smile stained by too many coffee-fueled deadlines.
This summer I turned 40, and I can feel the pendulum swinging. I spent so much energy early in my career trying to prove that my youth was not a liability, and now I could feel I was on the verge of the opposite struggle.
When I landed my first reporting job, I felt I had to constantly fight the image of what I was with the grit of what I could do. I was 22 years old and not only thrown into a beat I didn’t yet own, I was blonde to boot (and yes, there were many murmured jokes about that). Every time I asked a question that revealed my inexperience, I felt the ire of my sources, who were usually people in power (so usually male, middle-aged, pot-bellied and sometimes with an eye that had trouble staring straight at me instead of up and down).
When I was 26 I decided that to succeed in a man’s world, I had to strip away my femininity. The First Lady at the time (Hillary) was wearing pant suits and so did I. I cut my hair so short it felt stubbly at the neck. At city council and school board meetings, I boldly leaned in when groups of powerbrokers converged, shoving my reporter’s notebook forward and letting them know that everything they said could and should be seen in print the next day. I might have been “that young girl from the newspaper,” but I had power that might make or break people’s careers. I finally understood that and made sure they did too.
In my thirties, I charged through with a confidence born from experience. But then 40 crept up on me. The crow’s feet are cemented in place, and my lower back aches every time I put on a pair of power heels. Is my age now working against me?
“When people go hiring marketing people, when you hit 40, 45, you’re done unless you’re at the senior management level,” Sandra Holtzman, president of Holtzman Communications told me. I gulped. “Most people wind up being pushed out of the industry because they want young blood.”
This was not the first time I’d heard this. A standard part of reporting is to get a person’s name, age and where they live. These three questions fall naturally off my lips whenever I interview. But recently, I’ve heard this more and more often from the women I interview: “I’ll talk with you, but I won’t tell you how old I am.”
One woman was even more blunt: “Ageism is alive and well in corporate America,” she said. “So don’t ask me my age.”
So wait – are we suddenly supposed to blur, obscure or write around the fact that we have 20, 30, 40 years of experience in our field? Am I supposed to yearn for the days when I was young and cute but clueless as to how to actually get my job done in an efficient and accurate manner?
Holtzman felt the chill of ageism personally when going on a client call. On the phone, the client was very interested. It was a tech company, which in Holtzman’s experience is known for favoring young talent. They had already talked money; Holtzman just had to do the meet-and-greet and seal the deal. “I walked into the room, and there was dead silence in the company,” she says. “Everyone stopped talking and looked at me. I knew I was dead in the water. The discussion was over before it began because I was over 35.”
Can Holtzman really know this for sure? No. That is why ageism is such an insidious and hard-to-prove form of discrimination. Federal law prohibits discrimination against people 40 or older. Job ads can’t include age preferences or limits, and an employer can’t ask your age during an interview. But how can you prove you were turned down for a job or turned out from your company because of your age?
More and more employees are trying to do just that. In 2012, 22,857 age-related discrimination charges were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a 15-percent increase from 10 years prior. According to a 2013 AARP report, nearly one in five workers aged 45 to 74 says they were not hired for a job they applied for because of their age. Another 12 percent reported being passed up for a promotion, and 9 percent say they were fired because of their age.
This all makes me wonder – are there professions where age is actually an asset? When I was pregnant with my second child and met the new doctor who was assigned to cover for the M.D. who led the practice, I realized there was no way I could trust a physician who was without a doubt younger than me. I feel the same way about accountants, pilots and anyone spouting their opinion on a 24-hour news channel.
So, is there a way to make my advancing age an asset? After all, there’s no way to turn back the calendar. Each birthday will bring me further from young and closer to “mature.” All I can do is embrace it, prove that I’ve paid my dues and as a result am very good at what I do – and there is significant value in that. And, of course, I can just reiterate what I’ve had many women tell me: “A lady never tells her age.”