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Women in the workforce are *never* the right age.  (Or “right” anything else.)

Why are women still so underrepresented in positions of power?  In the US, for example, why do women still make up only a meager 10% of people running Fortune 500 companies? Take heart, there’s always a reason. (Content warning: this article, just out in the Harvard Business Review, may raise your blood pressure.)

The authors of “Women in leadership face ageism at every age” surveyed 913 U.S. women leaders across four industries (higher ed, faith-based nonprofits, law, and health care). Their conclusion? “There was always an age-based excuse to not take women seriously, to discount their opinions, or to not hire or promote them.”

• Women under age 40 are patronized or face a “credibility deficit.” That’s what happening “if ever you’ve been asked, ‘Are you sure that’s right?’ or been disbelieved after making a statement,” explains researcher Amy Diehl,  who coined the term with Leanne M. Dzubinski for their book GLASS WALLS. The two coauthored this study with Amber L. Stephenson.

• Hoping for a sweet mid-career spot? For women there’s no such thing. “Women between ages 40 and 60 in our study fared no better than their younger or older counterparts,” the authors found. Fertility’s a problem (“too much family responsibility”), as is its demise (“menopause-related issues” could be “challenging to manage”).

• Over 60? Expect to be passed over. Because you’re unworthy, unattractive, “not vital,” outdated …  

In other words, “No age was the right age to be a woman leader.”

One clarifier: the authors describe this discrimination as “youngism,” “middle-ageism,” and “oldism.” Those categories distract and divide. It’s all ageism—which is any judgement on the basis of age—and as this study  documents so well, all women are up against it, all the damn time. Unlike our male counterparts, who spend decades “in their prime,” women get no prime time. First we’re too cute; then we’re too fertile; then we’re not cute or fertile and that’s all he wrote.

But wait! It’s not just age. Women are often perceived as “never quite right” across a range of other traits as well. As the researchers wrote in a separate article for Fast Company, “30 critiques holding women back from leadership that most men will never hear,” just about any characteristic was used to question a woman’s competence and leadership potential. They were “too short or too tall, too pretty or too unattractive or too heavy. They had too much education or not enough.” Women lost out because they were single. Or married. Or divorced. Introverts didn’t have what it takes to run an organization, and extroverts were “aggressive.” Racial bias made barriers to promotion even higher for women of color. Ableism was yet another hurdle.

The authors of the study urge individual women not to take this personally. To resist our conditioning to internalize criticism as something to “fix” about ourselves. To contextualize the comment by “flipping” it:  Yes, men face workplace bias too, but when when’s the last time one was be asked to smile more? Or denied a promotion for becoming a father?

Yes, organizations can do better. They can recognize gendered ageism, which is still largely absent from DEI agendas. They can focus on actual skills (imagine that!) when hiring or promoting. They can foster age-diverse teams.

But the workplace won’t change without culture change. If men were gonna change things, they woulda. “The personal is political” was a feminist rallying cry in the 1970. In other words, don’t take it personally, take it politically. It’s so not about you. It’s about the double whammy of gendered ageism, which disempowers all women. It’s about patriarchy: a system in which men have more power and use it to hold onto it. And it’s about prejudice, which pits us against each and distracts us from the fact that all women face the same barriers all our lives—ageism, sexism, and patriarchy. That’s what’s going on when women vie for the few “seats for women,” instead of going after all the damn seats. Or when older and younger colleagues treat each other badly because they resent how unfairly social and professional capital are allocated. Being young is hard! So is aging while female! What makes both so much harder than they ought to be? Overarching systems:  ageism, sexism, and patriarchy.

Solidarity is a pact, a commitment to taking responsibility for each other and joining forces across difference. The sisters of this sisterhood must represent all ages. All races too, I hope. The women’s movement has long focused on issues that predominantly affect white women. We white women need to change that.

White women need to relinquish our white privilege; keep in mind that problems play out differently for different people; learn how to be allies; accept that outcomes will differ from what we might have chosen; and act in ways that that don’t come at the expense of other women. Recent US history offers harsh lessons. Middle-class white women were instrumental in electing, and attempting to re-elect, an overtly racist president who bragged about degrading and sexually assaulting women. The  people who’ve benefited most from the affirmative action policies struck down in June by the Supreme Court are white women, yet most white women oppose it. They see race before gender. They choose the shelter of whiteness over liberation for their sisters—and true liberation for themselves. “Leaning in” to crack the glass ceiling perpetuates patriarchy; it will never set us free. The gender wage gap, for example, has barely budged in decades. Shocker: it widens as women age.  

Those of us who want equal rights for all women need to come together in outrage, resistance, and ongoing collective action. A workforce—and a world— that advances women of color is better for everyone.

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Enough with the headlines about age! Not for the reason you think.

Age and age discrimination have never gotten more media coverage, especially in the wake of President Biden’ announcement that he’s running for re-election. If there’s anyone who should be delighted, it’s me. I’m in the age-and ageism business, after all.

Instead, it’s making me mad.

Many of the headlines are alarmist clickbait. (“Biden Would End His Second Term at 86. What Could That Mean for His Brain and Body?) Many of the stories, like that one, which ran the in the New York Times and another that ran in the Wall Street Journal, say little more than what I and countless geriatricians have to say: if you’ve seen one octogenarian, you’ve seen one octogenarian.

There are countless reasons to ignore age when it comes to choosing political candidates. More consequentially, these stories distract us from real issues that actually matter. Climate disasters. The economy. Racism. School shootings. Police brutality. Forced pregnancy. World War III. Why are obsess over age? It’s an ignorant, biased, costly smokescreen.

I have a policy of not following elections until the calendar year in which they take place. Most of the coverage up until then is side-show stuff (and it’s a real time-saver). If that’s too much to ask, how about holding the media accountable for the coverage we—and the real issues—deserve? There are so many more important things to think about.

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Becoming less ageist can *reverse* cognitive decline.

A growing body of fascinating research shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how our minds and bodies function. People with more positive feelings about aging—fact- rather than fear-based, that is—walk faster, heal quicker, live longer, and are less likely to develop dementiaeven if they carry the gene that predisposes them to the disease. Much of the research has been conducted by Yale’s Becca Levy, the author of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live.  Her latest finding, published on April 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is remarkable: positive age beliefs don’t just help prevent cognitive decline. They can reverse it, and improve memory.

Scientists tracked 1,716 individuals aged 65 and up, for twelve years, to see if they could predict who would experience MCI as well as who was most likely to recover from it. MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) refers to “mild changes in a number of cognitive functions, including memory and attention,” Levy explains. “It’s a performance-based measure, and cut-off points have been established and validated.” Participants were tested on how well they performed at various cognitive tasks at different points over the twelve years. People with low scores who felt good about aging were more likely to return to the “normal cognition” range.

Does feeling good about aging seem like a reach? If so, it’s because we live in an ageist culture that barrages us with negative messages about growing old—like the myth that cognitive decline is inevitable. Confronting ageism means changing the culture. That’s why Levy is “very interested in social movements to overcome ageism.” That’s why I do what I do.

Many aspects of aging aren’t under our control, but we can control our attitudes. Unlearning isn’t easy, but it’s free and it’s doable. How about aiming for an accurate understanding of the years ahead—an attitude based on facts rather than fears? Based on an understanding of where the myths and stereotypes come from, and what purpose they serve. Based on the abundant evidence that late life is a time of growth and meaning.

Where to begin?

  • Levy recommends keeping an age belief journal for a week: recording how age is represented on television and in social media and conversations, and whether and how olders are part of the conversation.
  • Noodle around the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse:  hundreds of free resources to educate people about aging and ageism.
  • Read about Levy’s study showing that more accurate age beliefs protect against Alzheimer’s disease.  
  • Check out a 2022 National Poll on Healthy Aging, published on June 15 by JAMA Open Network that linked exposure to “everyday ageism” to higher levels of mental and physical health problems.
  • Reflect on your own attitudes towards age and aging. Ageism harms our health, and we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it.

If you aspire to a long and healthy life, it’s worth it. Equating aging with disease and decrepitude makes us more vulnerable to exactly what we fear.

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A seemingly simple question—”Is the term ‘senior abuse prevention’ ageist?”— turns out to be a beast.

I hardly ever cross-post questions from my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog here. I’m making an exception because the question below below occasioned such a meaty discussion during this week’s Old School’s Office Hours meetup. It also helped me understand why the phrase “parenting your parents” is unacceptable. Colleague and Office Hours regular David Wilson (@oldscoolmoves) contributed a great deal to this response.

I sit at a table for the “Prevention of Senior Abuse” (I didn’t choose the name). As I was thinking about it, I was wondering if this concept is itself ageist? Does having initiatives directed at preventing abuse of olders equate olders to children? I don’t want anyone to face abuse and I think abuse prevention is a valid undertaking, I just wonder if abuse prevention specifically adressing abuse of olders is actually inherently ageist.

This is a tough one. Like “child abuse,” the term “senior abuse” tethers a life stage to vulnerability. It’s ageist—and ableist—to suggest growing old inherently makes people vulnerable to abuse, and infantilizing to suggest that olders have the same needs as children. Virtually all children require some protections, but the same is not true of all adults. Most older people can recognize what is likely to harm them, are used to having agency, and are reluctant to relinquish it. Furthermore, as geriatrician Louise Aronson writes in Elderhood, a higher level of risk than the one set by institutions and healthcare practitioners is often good for olders.

Yet some developmentally disabled young adults may require the same protections that kids do. The same could be true of older adults who are cognitively impaired. But that does not turn them back into children. In the words of Elizabeth Loewy, when she was the Assistant District Attorney in charge of New York County’s Elder Abuse Unit, “So many people especially when starting in the elder abuse field will compare it to child abuse. And the medical and legal issues are completely different. Individuals who have lived a full life, even if they are impaired, should not be compared to a child.” (This is also what makes the phrase “parenting your parent” unacceptable. Responsibilities may change, but caring for a child is different from caring for an adult. It is condescending, infantilizing, and misleading to equate the two.) Nor is impairment always in play when it comes to preventing abuse. Some olders are vulnerable not because of cognitive issues or physical frailty, but because they’e afraid or unwilling to confront their abusers. 

In other words, it’s really complicated. As you say, abuse prevention is a valid undertaking, and many good people do this difficult, underpaid, and undervalued work. I think “Preventing Abuses of Vulnerable Adults” would be a slightly better name for it, but not by much.

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What would the world look if our work were done?

In her new year’s missive, my friend and ally Janine Vanderburg, Director of Changing the Narrative, reminded me how important is to have a vision. Here’s the one she and her colleagues came up with in December:

Scanned Document

We’re making real progress. In 2022, ageism made its way into many more conversations and headlines than ever before. Onward!

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IMDb now lets people remove their birthdates and birth names from the site. That’s no substitute for culture change.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) has been waging a years-long legal battle with the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to stop the site from disclosing the ages of screen actors. Last June GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, signed on to support SAG-AFTRA in preventing IMDb from publishing performers’ private information. Six months later IMDb caved. On December 13 they initiated a new policy that allows industry professionals to self-submit and/or verify their birth year, birth name, alternate names and other demographic information, and choose whether to display the information.

The decision was framed as a major victory for both SAG-AFTRA and  GLAAD. It is indeed an inspiring example of how marginalized groups can make change by joining forces.  It’s terrific that people are now in charge of their data, and that transgender people will no longer be called by a name they’d prefer no one use, or “deadnamed.” It’s indisputable that being outed as a member of a marginalized group puts people at risk of discrimination, as both SAG-AFTRA and  GLAAD argued.

But not everything about this decision is progressive. In fact, it’s largely performative. Where’s the outcry about the increase in violence against transgender people? Where’s the call for older actors to be cast in proportion to the percentage of older people in society? What does this decision do to remediate transphobia and age bias in the culture at large? If publishing actors’ ages fuels ageism, as SAG-AFTRA contended in their lawsuit, isn’t supporting age denial the opposite of a remedy?

I asked Mariann Aalda, who’s been acting since 1978, how the absence of age on IMDB might affect performers. “The same way being in the closet affected gay actors,” she replied. “In the short-term it was a boon. Long term it became a burden. Keeping secrets is stressful. It’s making something ‘wrong’ about being your authentic self.”

It’s wonderful that  trans people can now be represented on IMDB as their authentic selves. We need to do a lot more work to ensure they feel safe doing so. Also a lot more work against age shame, so we can be our authentic selves at any age.

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“Too old to be president,” Take Umpteen

Wondering how to respond when people equate a political candidate’s age with their fitness for office? You’ll find plenty of answers in “Biden is now America’s first octogenarian president. Here’s what that means,” which appeared in Salon today. The writer reached out to experts like physician Louise Aronson and demographer Jay Olshansky, who warned against ageism. I called out ableism: “It’s appalling to mock Biden for a stutter he has worked to overcome his entire life. And it’s disgusting to make fun of him for falling off a bike. It’s commendable that he rides a bike and stays physically fit.”

Ageism and ableism rear their ugly heads every electoral cycle. The lead-up to the 2022 mid-term elections featured an outbreak of major media stories that blamed “gerontocracy” for our broken democratic system. The “Take Umpteen” in the title of this post refers to “Here we go again with ‘too old to be president,” written when “old guy” Bernie Sanders was on the campaign trail. I said it then, I said it to Salon, and I’ll say it again:

Generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more acceptable than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

The country’s first octogenarian president is considering running against someone only slightly younger. It’s bringing the haters out. To challenge their ageism and ableism, we need expert evidence. I’m grateful to Salon article for marshalling so much of it for today’s article. “Does age matter?” from the International Council on Active Aging is another good resource. So is this blog.

No matter what candidate is under scrutiny, the issue is a political system that prioritizes corporate interests—not the age of the wealthy men who benefit most. The issue is a culture that stigmatizes disability (see this post about Senator Diane Feinstein)—not the age at which we encounter it. The issue is capacity—not age.

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Do it like Nashua!

Holly Klump, Assistant Librarian at the Nashua, NH, Public Library, put together a nifty event last week. Most of the 42 attendees were from RISE (Rivier Institute of Senior Education), an educational program run by a local university, as was the facilitator who led a discussion after the group watched my TED talk. Holly loved the audience reaction: “laughter/stunned silence/murmurs of agreement, etc.” Next the group watched a couple of my short Yo Is this Ageist? video clips. By the time I showed up—virtually—45 minutes into the program, the group had prepared some tough questions for me.  Heidi had also made sure the library and university had copies of my book.

“We heard lots of great feedback about the program,” Holly reported back, “and hopefully it will create more discussion and action. You certainly gave me lots to think about as well, especially how to address everyday ageism that I hear all around me. I also really appreciate and respect that you don’t shy away from talking about the other ‘isms.’”

Thinking of putting together an event about ageism that’s free and open to the public?  I work hard to make my ideas available via my This Chair Rocks blog (which is searchable by topic), my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog, videos, and extensive interviews—all available via my website. You can find hundreds more free resources of all types in the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.

If you do your part—gather a decent-sized audience and ask them to engage in advance with some of these ideas—I’ll do mine: show up for a virtual Q&A. I’ll also ask for an honorarium payable to Old School, which is a nonprofit, and if you can’t manage one, I’ll show up for free.

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 “Ravages of age,” really? That phrase has got to go.

This week’s New York Times Magazine opened with an essay by Elizabeth Nelson about whether we’re missing out on when elite athletes—Roger Federer and Serena Williams in this case—retire from their sports.     

Photo illustration by Mark Weaver

This sentence in the first paragraph made me groan:  “The ravages of age, culminating with a recent knee surgery, finally persuaded [Federer] to retire.”

This sentence in the second paragraph—“Sportswriters are required to use phrases like ‘ravages of age’ when discussing an athlete in decline”—made me howl. The hell they are! It’s a lazy habit journalists need to break. It’s also bigoted and misleading.

The following sentence did nothing to calm me down: “Truth be told, it’s a bit of a reach when describing Federer’s goodbye. Trim and suave . . . he scarcely gave the appearance of a man facing down senescence—just a man acknowledging the fact he can’t go five sets deep with Novak Djokovic.” Indeed.

Humans lose speed and strength as we move into midlife. This loss is more acute for athletes, whose careers are built on physical capacity. Federer is making this transition with grace and skill, not “facing down senescence.”

We age well by adapting to the way our bodies change over time, not by pretending it’ll never happen to us or by experiencing these changes as betrayal. It’s ageist and ableist to describe them as “ravaging.” Synonyms for “ravaged” include “destroyed,“ “devastated,” and “ruined.” Federer likely has decades of active, meaningful life ahead of him, not to mention countless lucrative opportunities.

Disease ravages. Grief ravages. Fear ravages. These experiences are part of being human, from childhood on. To blame them on aging is to blame them on living.

Language matters. Journalists need to stop relying on offensive, misleading phrases like “ravages of age,” and we need to keep calling them out until they do.