DENVER–It was the stiff tone of such a casual question that still sticks out in my mind: “Are you comfortable working with people in their 20s?” I wondered if I’d heard her right. I hesitated before responding because I was rattled by the question. My interviewer was only 23–I’d done my online due diligence beforehand–but she seemed strangely serious in her tone on what I thought was a rather innocuous question.
“Sure,” I finally said. “I work with 20-year-olds all the time.”
I was 42 and was at local magazine interviewing for a position as an intern. After taking eight years off paid work to raise my kids, I was looking to get back into the workforce. I wanted a short-term, part-time position in a different field than the one I’d left when my son was born, where I would gain experience yet still be available to care for my kids before and after school.
After the odd question during the interview, it occurred to me that maybe I had misjudged the magazine and the opportunity. With two graduate degrees and a decade of work experience behind me, was an internship the right thing for me? If not, what was? I felt like I was in uncharted territory. No one actively advertises that they’re looking for a stay-at-home mom who wants to rejoin the workforce.
I began to doubt myself and felt like I had just walked into the pilot episode for “The Younger” a show where a woman in her mid-forties pretends to be two decades younger to compete on the job market. I kept thinking, was this the norm for someone like me who wants to reenter the workforce? Did I have to pretend to be a 20-year-younger version of myself to get back in the game? While I was changing diapers, other women were progressing in their careers. Basically, I was starting over at middle age.
After I told her that I was comfortable working with 20-year-olds, I added that most of the people I used for childcare were in their 20s and I was friendly, even close to them. It was an honest answer and I didn’t want to sidestep the elephant in the room–the fact that I was older, a mom and had been at home with children for many years (or as she probably read it: boring, old, mom and not young, creative, hipster). Apparently, my answer was too honest. And based on her reaction, not the right one.
It’s been several years since that interview and I now have a job at an art museum that is incredibly supportive, allowing me flexible hours so that I can be there for my family. Still, that question from the interview haunts me. When I was in my 20s teaching as a graduate student and later working in public relations and then sales and marketing, no one asked me if I was comfortable working with people in their 40s.
The night after the interview, I was chatting over the odd question with a friend. “Um, that’s blatant ageism,” she said, You know that right?”
I had thought the question was unusual and maybe even a little offensive, but, honestly, I hadn’t thought of it as ageist. At 42 I didn’t feel old enough to be the target of ageism.
Last year, when I was interviewing Jean Kilbourne, a pioneer in the study of women in media, for a story on she-files I began to think more deeply about women and ageing. Ms. Kilbourne began looking at images of women in advertising in the late 1960s and speaking publicly about the “misogyny and emphasis on physical perfection” that was rampant at the time. (If you’ve never seen the creepy and sexist ad for Love’s Baby Soft that has an overt Lolita-esque vibe, it will make your skin crawl.) She mentioned something about older women and how our society treats them as invisible, especially in advertising. Like the odd question in my interview, it haunted me.
Ms. Kilbourne told me that, “what happens to women as they grow older is horrifying in our culture.” She was quick to add that she started talking about that when she was still young and considered beautiful (she was a model before she began speaking out against how the media portrays women). “It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time, but nothing fully prepares you for the shock of the invisibility,” she said.
“Swell,” I thought. “So now in addition to all the prejudices that I was fighting as a 40-something woman who quit paid work to stay at home and wanted to return to work in a flexible, family-friendly position, I’ve got that to look forward to too.”
Before that conversation with Ms. Kilbourne, I hadn’t thought much about what happens to women in our society as they age other than the obvious push from beauty product companies to drink from the fountain of youth—miracle creams, Botox, and so on.
Spurred on by another conversation with friends about whether older women are in fact invisible, I went looking for proof. I wanted facts that I could insert into a conversation if it came up again. I discovered a 2016 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism that found that older women, at least in television and movies (which whether we like it or not have a massive impact on cultural norms in our society), are indeed invisible. 74.3% of all characters 40 years of age and older are cast as male. It’s worth mentioning that the study reported that the “landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed” too.
This is not news. Actresses like Meryl Streep and Salma Hayek have been vocal about that very thing for years and my she-files co-founder, Ginanne Brownell Mitic, wrote a piece about age bias in musical theater so it isn’t just on the screen.
Despite the evidence, I’m hopeful. Movies like “Three Billboards” and “The Post“ with ageing women as central characters were both up for Oscars this year. And Frances McDormand, an actress who is vocally against plastic surgery and in favor of respecting the ageing process, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Three Billboards.”
I’d l like to think that the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements will morph and expand to shine a light on the inequalities of ageism specifically targeted at women in addition to sexism, sexual assault and harassment. It might be a big ask, but once we’ve begun to break down prejudices of one sort, it seems a logical next step to dismantle others. Women deserve employment opportunities at any age in whatever capacity they desire without the fear of being shamed.
Photos: Courtesy of Shutterstock.