Never surrender to age discrimination


The only way to change ageism is to stop running from it, and that means all of us, across all the age groups

Sheila Callaham, contributor, author, speaker, and inclusion and diversity consultant

With a longstanding experience in managing an inclusion and diversity program for a multinational company, Sheila Callaham is now seeing first-hand the other “side” of the ageism spectrum. After she moved to a different state for family reasons, Sheila’s dealing with the ups and downs of looking for a new corporate job past the age of 50

As a person who wore many hats during her life, Sheila has no intention of accepting the status quo. On the contrary, as a contributor and a life coach, she’s educating companies and professionals on how age-based discrimination impacts the work environment and what can be done about it.

I find particularly promising that, despite a rigid job market, Sheila is constantly riding at the top of her learning curve. We rarely think about it, but I guess that aging implies the capacity to become our own measuring stick without being dominated by self-reference. So, here’s her story.

If you think about your life like a movie, what was the "inciting incident" that brought you where you are now?

After spending over a decade managing diversity and inclusion for a major pharmaceutical company, I resigned to spend more time with my four sons who were growing up too quickly. I've loved the extra quality time I've had with my family, and the flexibility to pursue other creative outlets.

Three years ago, I moved to Texas from North Carolina and decided the best way to integrate myself into my community and make new friends was to look for employment. Week after week, month after month, I applied for jobs and actively networked through social media channels and in person. I even hired a career coach. But after three years of reaching out to targeted companies and organization, I'm still freelancing.

What can you tell us about this job searching experience?

I'm stunned with what I have observed about the applicant process. It's truly broken and needs to be fixed. While protections are in place for race, gender, and disability, age is overlooked. It's this observation, along with my subject-matter of expertise in diversity and inclusion, that led to my joining as a contributor. I love having this platform to educate and increase awareness on topics of diversity and inclusion and to influence change, especially as it relates to older workers.

Do you remember the first time you realized that older workers are excluded from the concept of "diversity and inclusion"?

I guess this has been the biggest shock for me, since my previous employer for whom I branded and grew diversity and inclusion from a seedling US-concept to a global initiative, was age-friendly. For example, we had employee affinity groups for older and younger workers whose strategy included many collaborative efforts, such as mutual mentoring. It took me some time to realize that I was being excluded from employment opportunities due to my extensive experience, which directly relates to age. 

In one of your Forbes article, you pointed out that 92% of companies are unaware of age-bias in their D&I programs. Why is that so?

Generally, companies are going to prioritize efforts where they see the greatest liability risk. As a result, the impetus of D&I has been focused primarily on race and gender issues. In the last 15 - 20 years, the LGBTQ community has made great strides, and it is unbelievable to me that there are still no federal protections in the US. Thankfully, many cities and states have added protections for this historically disenfranchised group. I give a tremendous amount of credit to the Human Rights Campaign and the Corporate Equality Index, which measures American businesses on their treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees, but also to consumers and investors for moving the needle. This is exactly the demanding focus we now need on ageism. 

Moreover, age discrimination is widely under-reported, primarily because it is difficult to prove. Until people begin reporting suspected ageism to the EEOC and dragging companies into court to make things right, change is unlikely.

Do you have the feeling that older women tend to be excluded more than men or have we finally reached parity on something? 

There are lots of data showing older women are disproportionately impacted by age bias, and we still make less than men for the same work. Bottom line, we've got a long way to go.

Do you think that because ageism is the most common, subtle, and accepted form of "ism" this makes it more difficult for mainstream media to communicate effectively about it?

I believe people fear getting older, so how better to forget about this natural phenomenon than to ignore what is happening to the older generation, en masse? I read a story in the New York Times by writer Leslie Kendall Dye where she's describing a phone interaction with her mother who is suffering from dementia. At a point of meltdown, Leslie responds, "I’m yelling because you remind me of everything I fear: aging, sickness, fragility, bad luck, loss, impermanence, you-name-it, if it’s scary, you remind me of it!"

Granted, Leslie is not dealing with an older person in the workplace; this is her mother who lives in a facility because she is losing her sense of self. That is scary, no way around it. But here's the deal, in the workplace as soon as the first hair starts to gray or a wrinkle appears, we start running for hair dye and Botox. Why? Because it has been programmed into us that youth is good, old is bad.  

The only way to change ageism is to stop running from it, and that means all of us, across all the age groups. We must work together to value everyone, regardless of where they are on the age spectrum. That's asking a lot, but ultimately it's the only way.

Studies show that children as young as fourth grade already have negative views of older people, due to the environments to which they are exposed – family, schools, and media. As the professors Jeff Greenberg, Jeff Schimel, and Andy Martens wrote in their 2002 paper, “anxiety is a common response to older people among the young, and the main reasons seem to be that old people remind us what may, or likely will, happen to all of us eventually.”

We live in a youth-driven society. If you think about it, people who are overweight or not considered particularly attractive struggle with the same problems of exclusion.

So with aging, it's all about avoidance of the obvious without thought or concern for the person being outcast, which is exactly why companies need to train employees around unconscious bias. We must come to understand the internal programming that says older people are not part of the "corporate culture."

Media can get on board by stopping the perpetual representation of older people as forgetful, clumsy, and always in the way. We need more stories about older people living ordinary lives just like anyone else, rather than make it seem "amazing" that they work, or downhill ski, or start a business in their 70s. It's not a big deal anymore.

What is the most surprising or unexpected thing you have learned so far about aging and inclusion?

What I find the most mind boggling is that hiring managers don't want candidates who bring the most to the table; in fact, they often limit the candidate pool through their own biases and stereotypes. It's got to stop. I cannot imagine running a company and not always wanting to hire the most experienced, the smartest, the most innovative person who brings multiple levels of skill and talent to the game.

This is an exciting time to create change. Age ambassadors leading the way (Ashton Applewhite, Elizabeth White, Cindy Gallop, to name a few) are challenging cultural mindset in ways that will (hopefully) reshape how people accept and embrace aging. It's like you wrote in your recent article, Fight ageism, not aging, and these women are helping people understand not only why it's imperative to do so, but what it looks like in words and actions. 

Talking about you, how do you feel about aging?

I love who I am right now. I'm creative, energetic; I'm always learning something new. In fact, I just began learning the violin, something I have always wanted to do! I tell my 17-year-old son all the time that, while I wouldn't mind having the flexibility I did in my younger days (I'm a dancer), I would never give up the wisdom I have accumulated over these years to get it back. With every decade I live, I look back and see how far I've come, how much I've learned, and that is a gift. 

Do you have a role model for aging? Can you tell us about it?

Not unless it's Ashton Applewhite. I love the way she articulates these issues around ageism and why it's important to address.

How has your relationship with aging evolved considering your professional experience as a coach?

When I was training almost ten years ago to become a personal development and motivational coach, I thought it was because I needed the tools and techniques to see me through the transition of leaving an amazing career to dedicate myself full time to my family and writing. That was a huge change, not just for me, but for the whole family. Coaching was certainly helpful during that early transition, especially as I helped my high-school sons realize that $200 tennis shoes were out of the question!

My skills as a coach have served me every step of the way. As my youngest son enters his senior year of high school, I'm thinking about how I want to experience life over the next 50 years! I coach myself all the time to connect to the vision of how I want to interact with others and contribute to the world around me.

What are the biggest stereotypes about aging that women need to debunk?

There is no age limit to living life to the fullest. Whatever kind of life a woman might envision is exactly the life she should seek to create. If it's traveling the world–live it up. If it's running a global company–go do it!

On the other hand, how has aging impacted on what you do and the way you do it?

My focus is living to the fullest of my abilities. I love challenge so I'm always learning something new. Five years ago I began learning Argentine tango and dance weekly no matter what state or country I am visiting. A couple of years ago I tackled investing and now self manage a significant portion of my IRA. Earlier this year I completed an HR Certification that took several months of focused effort. And, as I mentioned earlier, I am now learning the violin. 

A growing number of professionals have multiple careers: what advice can you give for those who do not intend to retire?

They can always freelance as I do while re-inventing themselves. Go out often and make lots of friends. Who knows, that may be the path to your next job!

One last thing, how would you define your philosophy on aging?

Age is not a liability; it's a wisdom platform.