Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 24, 2023
by Barbara Bry
Woman interviews for a job. Great resume, but you are a little “too young.” Or. Terrific work history, great resume, but you are just a bit “too old.” OK, let’s get real. Life for a woman should not be a continual replay of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The porridge is too hot or too cold. Only the third bowl is perfect. So what exactly is the third bowl for a woman in the workforce? Turns out there isn’t one.
A disturbing article in the Harvard Business Review points out the double whammy that women face. “No age was the right age to be a woman leader,” concludes the authors of “Women in Leadership Face Ageism at Every Age.”
The authors consider “young” to be under 40, “middle age” to be between 40 and 60, and “older” to be over 60. They surveyed 913 women leaders from four U.S. industries — higher education, faith-based nonprofits, law and health care.
According to the authors, young women are often told they are not quite ready to take the reins. Middle-aged women are often passed over because of family responsibilities, they may not have aged well and do not look vital — all perception issues that may not be grounded in reality. And older women are expected to leave quietly so younger workers can take over the leadership posts.
In contrast, older men are often viewed as more valuable because of their years of experience.
This issue is important because it is a given that age and gender diversity in the workplace lead to better performance/outcomes. The authors contend that organizations with diverse teams perform better, earn more and have lower turnover.
So, where is the third bowl?
As a woman who has spent over 50 years in the workforce in a variety of industries, I have experienced the spectrum of ageism. In my early 30s, I was one of the first women at my employer to have a child, and I was passed over for a management role for which I was qualified. My response: I pursued a new career opportunity. In my 40s, I was passed over for a senior management position. The man who was hired didn’t work out. By then I had moved on. Later in my career, I heard comments like “she’s too old, out of touch, etc.”
I’m not bitter. I’m a realist and an optimist. I’ve always seen the glass as half full, not as half empty. I’ve had an amazing life, I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunities that I’ve had and for the people with whom I’ve worked and partnered and for the many women and men who have supported me.
I believe that we are more powerful if we band together, that as a group we can accomplish more than as an individual. That’s why over 25 years ago, I started Athena San Diego to empower women in the innovation economy, to provide a safe place where they could share both personal and professional challenges and issues. Today, Athena has more than 500 members who come from big companies like Qualcomm and Intuit and small companies like Arcturus and Cue Health. It’s why I started Run Women Run to elect more San Diego women to government positions.
My experiences with large organizations are a major reason that I became an entrepreneur. In a small company, I believed that I could have more control over my life. I have never been a victim, and women in the workforce today should not have to hide their passions and skills.
The authors of the HBR article provide concrete actions that organizations can take to combat gendered ageism and to encourage enlightenment.
First, recognize that there is a problem and include ageism in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Second, address “lookism” to make sure that the pressure to look young and attractive is not used as a hidden metric for hiring, promotion, or performance evaluation.
Third, cultivate creative collaborations by developing teams composed of mixed genders and ages. For example, pair younger women with older mentors and sponsors.
And lastly, a call-out to the men. Fear us not. After all, in a lot of situations, we are the ones making the porridge.
Rule No. 773: Bring a big spoon.