Be aware of your internalized prejudices


Older women calling out
ageism is the next #MeToo movement

Bonnie Marcus, executive coach and author (image by John Abbott)

I stepped into Bonnie Marcus’s commentary in the Chicago Tribune a few days before getting to know her. It was one of those serendipitous (but inexplicable) moments when two “strips” of reality overlap. Bonnie is an executive coach, a Forbes contributor, and the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead

In her commentary about age-related discrimination, it took her three words and one hashtag to catch the attention. The concept of “The Next #MeToo” summarizes perfectly well the sex-based, age-related harassment whose awareness has not developed yet. As she pointed out, while 64 percent of the women surveyed by a 2018 report of AARP said they’ve been targeted or witnessed age discrimination, it is estimated that only a meager 3 percent of older workers have made an official complaint. 

The truth is that more often than not, we breed ageist behaviors and thoughts within ourselves. That’s why we tend to take them for granted. But it’s a narrative that holds us back. It’s the line we draw between the things we think we can and cannot do, the comments we accept or refuse. Because of her corporate and coaching experience, Bonnie had witnessed these situations first hand and she is writing about them in a new book. In Be a Badass at Any Age, she gives aging women suggestions on how to keep their job and be marketable. The books is also the occasion to call out our unconscious bias. That’s why I find that “next” in The Chicago Tribune so powerful, think what we could achieve with an injection of awareness.

Talking about aging, work and women, what have you learned so far?

I learned that not only women face a double-whammy for gender and ageism, but they deal with age discrimination earlier than men. We know that our society values the youth, but we are never prepared for the approaching of demeaning comments that come with the age of 40 or 50. 

When I started my corporate career, I was not even aware of ageism, of comments like, “You look so young for your age.” Besides, think about all the birthday cards that mock people for their age, equalling the passing of the time with stupidity and how we just accept them. The awareness for sexism is increasing, but ageism is rarely included in training about unconscious bias.

It’s not only the words: the work place can be discriminatory, correct?

Yes, in the workplace, many aging women are subjected to a redistribution of the workload; they are marginalized and pushed out. If they are terminated, it’s very hard for women to be re-hired and this affects their financial situation. 

It seems that a natural reaction to gender ageism in the workplace is shame and that brings silence. What suggestions would you give to address this type of situations?

This is a big problem and silence doesn’t help. We need to begin to bring awareness and call people out diplomatically. Remarks like: “You’re such a dinosaur” cannot be accepted passively. I suggest to talking privately with the person, to point out that we are proud of our history and age. A lot of people are not aware that they make the other person, especially women, uncomfortable with their comments or jokes. It will take time to change the assumption that women over 50 aren’t valuable, but it’s important that people understand what happens to talented women in the workplace

What are the negative side effects of being silent?

When we internalize ageism, we loose our confidence, we diminish ourselves, we believe that we are unable to learn. We make ourselves less visible, less marketable. We need to realize what we’re doing to ourselves. We need to understand what story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Women are fearful of losing their jobs. They do not respond so as not to bring attention to their age. In Silicon Valley if you’re 35 you’re considered old. If you have kids, you’re in a different category, too. It’s such a mother - grandmother - over the hill situation. Many women feel the pressure to look younger. They try to prolong their youthful appearance. Why can’t we age in peace?

Do you think that ageism in the workplace is a sort of bullying?

It’s a form of bullying, but bullying is not illegal. You have to prove that the bad behavior is the result of your age. The problem is that it’s the victim’s burden to prove the discrimination. 

If we equate ageism to bullying, how do we respond in order to stop the spiraling of this dynamic?

It depends on the situation. If it’s one-on-one and it was not malicious, say something explaining why the other person’s words made you feel uncomfortable. Take the person aside; be politically savvy. If it’s a repetitive demeaning comment or behavior (like, young people get promoted, get a bigger office instead of a small cubicle), document the situation, talk with HR. If you’re suffering, consult with an attorney. A lot depends on the relationship with the person and the situation, if it requires a bigger action or not.

As a coach, what suggestions do you give to women to frame gender ageism in the workplace?

I invite women to declare their ambition and share it with their managers who, most often than not, assume that they have no goals after a certain age. Women need to understand their value proposition and communicate it. Not everybody has a mid-life crisis. What makes it difficult for women is that they take time off to care for the family, but especially to navigate the options of on-boarding and off-boarding, it is necessary to clarify one’s purpose and goals. 

Even if we are not the object of ageism, what can we do to protect our colleagues, make them feel accepted and stop ageist behaviors in others?

It is important to raise awareness, especially with people who seem clueless and to create a safe environment. Companies that have cross-generational groups can facilitate discussions about age. Diversity training doesn’t generally include ageism, but statistics can prove that it’s real. For instance, the gender pay gap gets larger as women age. 

You drew a parallel between age and power. How can we use it for our career and our lives?

We need to stop apologizing for our age. We have to be proud of our history and experience. I have my clients write their current stories, what they tell themselves about themselves. Is this story really serving you? Write a power story about you, your experience, competence, and own your story. What you think about yourself keeps you back. We need to recognize who we are; we can’t sit back. 

How has working on your book impacted on your relationship with aging?

It has been a great eye opener. I realize how ageist I was myself. I was apologizing about being older and this was holding me back. As I invite my clients and readers to do, I re-wrote the story about myself and it paid. I’m proud of who I am.