Ageism: It’s On You (And Me Too)
(We Can’t Lean In Without Looking Back)
Last week, I met with a woman that I would call a very seasoned copywriter. She’s what people in or around the advertising/marketing industry would call a ‘creative’ — a ‘creative’ with an extensive resume. She has significant client experience working for Fortune 100s and Fortune 50s. She’s done considerable brand work across a variety of industries and has a long history in advertising, having worked at some of the most prominent agencies in this market. Overall, her career path has been nothing short of admirable and successful. Yet, she has found herself now to be professionally undesirable — she can’t even get in the door these days to speak to anyone about how she can continue to create good copy and ideas and do good work.
And it primarily has to do with her age. She’s older.
Frankly, I’m stunned that age holds any weight over brilliance, skill, or creativity. The fact that anyone would assess a person’s ability to contribute to an organization based on their age is offensive to me.
Culturally speaking this isn’t new. Women have been criticized, commented upon, dismissed, and disregarded forever based on their age. Lately, women have been getting fed up and are pushing back. Most recently, Amy Schumer made a video with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louise Dreyfus mocking ageist Hollywood and the sunsetting of aging actresses. It was funny and wildly popular. It was also painful. Because it was true.
We Are Not Without Responsibility
Here’s what I struggle with the most:
While we — women — are being more vocal about gender equality, professional recognition, the need for respect in the workplace, and more, we may also be contributing to this kind of discrimination.
We can’t ask to be equal unless we recognize how we’re participating in marginalizing communities or others within our community. We can’t expect a place at the table unless we’re also willing to look around to see who else is not at the table. We have to invite them and represent them until they get there.
I’m calling on women because we tend to be hard on each other and to judge each other harshly. Whenever I say this out loud I run the risk of women being offended and pushing back or denying it outright. But inevitably, when I do say it out loud, women nod in agreement. We’ve all been on both sides of judgment. We’ve all felt it. We’ve all done it. I have often felt excluded from the female conversation. I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in. Only recently, having been a scrappy entrepreneur for years, have I enjoyed the benefit of professional audiences who actually care what I have to say. Now I don’t feel as excluded. And luckily, I am in a position where that judgment matters less and less to me. But it happens. I can feel and see it happening all around me and we’re fooling ourselves if we suggest that it doesn’t. Women are participating in the diminishing and marginalizing of women, especially in professional contexts.
What Can We Do?
Think about diversity in its broadest definition. Real diversity has more facets than sex, gender, race, and religion. When we embrace the different experiences and wisdom that comes with age, we start to broaden the ways we see people and how they can show up. We can start by valuing multi-generational contributions to perspective, effort, and energy.
Look at ourselves. Frankly, I think we have to challenge ourselves to think outside the cultural stereotypes and norms that have been established by the media. We have to stop believing that Millennials are the only generation of value. Non-Millennials matter to the economy, the culture, and the future in immeasurable ways.
Support each other. We have to help each other. We have to give credit when it’s due. If you’re a leader inside of an organization, provide opportunities for other women around you to lead.
See past age. We have to look at willingness, skill set, capacity, capability, and energy. We have to look past all the things that have been and currently are barriers for our success.
Stop seeing people as disposable. We’re not seeing people who are over a certain age — who are struggling to find their place. We’re not seeing them. Not because they can’t add value, or because they’re too seasoned, or because they can’t contribute. We simply don’t see them because our culture tells us we shouldn’t.
If we don’t shift how we’re thinking, we’re going to keep contributing to the victimization of marginalized communities across all professional landscapes.
We’re perpetuating the cult of Ageism.
Here Is My Plea
I’m making a personal plea. I’m asking all the women who are getting ahead in their careers by leaning in — by tapping into the strengths of their networks and their partners and their successes — to recognize that the work did not start with us. The work has been happening for ages. Many women who came before us sacrificed their dignity, their professional ambition, or their families. One way to pay these women back is not just by succeeding and continuing to build on what they started, but by inviting them back to the table to contribute.
There is something to be said for valuing ourselves enough to want to help and work with and value the people who worked before us — those people we might be overlooking now.
We have to put an end to what’s happening culturally. We do. Our culture is not kind. But individually we can be.