Empowered Women 50+: Using Strategic Communication to Address Age Bias
I was shocked the first time I realized that my age had become an unspoken factor in a hiring decision. I was only about fifty-two at the time. I was fit, active, and thought of myself as being relatively youthful. I had an excellent background and was undoubtedly qualified for the fulltime college teaching position I wanted. I was prepared for my interview and had anticipated doing well.
Unfortunately for me, three out of the four people on the hiring committee were nearly young enough to be my children. I tried to engage with each of the interviewers, but it was quickly apparent that they didn’t see or hear me; they only saw an ‘older’ woman. I felt like the ‘real me’ had become invisible. While I had prepared for the interview, I wasn’t prepared for age-related bias.
I had another interview at a different college with an interview committee that had a similar age mix to the first committee. I intended to highlight my technical savvy and any other area that might have demonstrated that I was still “with it,” but I don’t think what I said even registered with the group. I might as well have been speaking in an echo chamber. The moment I walked into the interview conference room, I could see the faces of people who didn’t intend to hire ‘their mother.’
I started to feel discouraged and began questioning myself. What was wrong with me? Why was I being treated like someone from another planet? Was I really ‘over the hill’ and too old to be taken seriously? It wasn’t until I met with a third hiring panel at another college that things clicked, and I was hired almost immediately—and no surprise, all of the panel members were my age or older.
After starting my new position, I tried to convince myself that the age-related bias I had experienced during a couple of interviews was more of a fluke than a new reality. However, over the next few years, I became much more aware of how age bias continued to affect me, my choices, and how I saw myself. And, I did what a lot of other women did—I tried as hard as I could to hide my age to the best of my ability. I actually felt ashamed of my age and the fact that I was aging.
It took me nearly a decade to finally realize that I was allowing others to define me rather than defining myself. I had the power to reframe what aging means to me. When I started applying what I had learned from a quarter-century of work in the communication field as both an educator and researcher, I was amazed at the results. I am no longer ashamed of the fact that I’m aging. I love being an older woman (and I also love to flaunt it at times).
Before I retired from teaching, I started reviewing studies on aging and gendered age discrimination. I realized that it was common for women over fifty to experience age discrimination. I also began to realize that almost all women have the same power I do to embrace aging boldly and to live our best lives as a result.
Age Bias and Empowerment
Most women 50+ are well-aware of age-related stereotyping and discrimination (ageism), but very few know what to do about it. We may try to laugh when we get those ‘old age’ birthday cards as we hit milestone birthdays. We may put up with ‘over the hill’ kidding and other remarks about our age, but the truth for most women is that the thought of aging can scare the hell out of us.
The good news is that we do not have to feel deflated as a result of ageist attitudes and behaviors. We can use some of the same communication skills that we’ve honed over decades—but we must use those skills strategically.
Before we explore how to use strategic communication in a culture that is age-biased, it is vital that we first examine some of the ways that ageism affects us as women. It will also be helpful if we discuss some of the changes that occur around menopause and how those changes generally result in more ageist treatment towards women than men. Then we will briefly look at how ageism is communicated in both overt and subtle ways, and why women have permitted ageist treatment. After laying the groundwork, we will start exploring some deliberate strategic communication strategies you can start practicing immediately.
The Profound Effects of Ageism for Women
In theory, our fifties and most of the decades that follow could involve some of the best years of our lives. If we are still working, it is the time when we are more likely to feel like we are on top of our professional lives. Our children (if we have any) are raised (or nearly grown). And we finally have a little “me” time to explore what we want out of the coming years. Those coming years could end up accounting for the majority of our adult lives; if we reach our 65th birthday, the Social Security Administration projects that one in three of us will live until we reach at least ninety.
The reality is that ageism will profoundly affect our lives if we are not able to address it appropriately. Ageism affects our employment opportunities, our workplace success, our lifetime income, and future financial stability, our health, our healthcare, our emotional well-being, our relationships, our potential longevity, and our overall confidence. Ageism is a big deal and can be a huge challenge for women 50+.
The World Health Organization refers to ageism as one of the most prevalent prejudices in the world today. For many of us who have dealt with gender-based discrimination (and perhaps racism as well) most of our lives, ageism is one morel layer of discrimination that we must navigate. As women, we often become acutely aware of the devastating toll ageism can take about the time we reach menopause.
Menopause and Ageism
Many of us may think it will never happen to us, but almost all of us will experience age-related bias (ageism) —especially as we start undergoing some significant physical changes around menopause. Generally, women tend to go through this change process around the age of fifty, if not before.
Research has demonstrated that women’s faces start aging more rapidly than do men’s faces around the age of fifty. Although it doesn’t happen overnight, eventually, our faces begin to droop, and our necks start to sag. As our faces start to look flatter, our noses and ears begin to look larger. Also, we’ll probably start developing telltale brown spots around our eyes and on our upper cheekbones.
According to a Pew Research Poll, Americans value women most for their appearance (compared to men who are valued more for character). Because our culture places a premium on women’s appearance, losing our youthful looks undercuts our perceived value. When we are not seen as having the same value as we did when we were younger, it is easy to start feeling discounted or even invisible. In fact, feeling as though we are invisible is a common complaint that other women have shared with me. And it is also one that is frequently mentioned in the literature on women’s experiences and aging.
Aging in an Age of Denial
In addition to changes in our appearance, our bodies change in ways that we might not have imagined once we hit menopause. When these changes start to occur, it becomes more challenging to maintain our sense of self-worth – especially in a culture that devalues women who dare to age.
For many women, keeping weight off becomes more difficult, and the fat we do carry often gets redistributed around our middles. Our bones get weaker, and the likelihood of a devasting fall increases. Our eyesight may start to weaken, and, especially if we have had children, we may start experiencing bladder difficulties after menopause. To add insult to injury, our recall will likely slow down, and it may be more difficult for us to focus from one moment to the next. Also, our years of stressful living may have finally compromised our health to the point that we are more prone to chronic health conditions after menopause. When a few of these alarming (but predictable) changes start happening to us, we may think, “How could this be happening to me?” “I refuse to get any older!”
We may react to some of the physical changes we are undergoing with a sense of panic and denial. Out of desperation, we may seek cosmetic antidotes in the form of products or even surgical procedures so that we can at least present a ‘younger than reality’ image to the world.
‘In Your Face’ Ageism
Marketers and advertisers have capitalized on our fear of aging. The cosmetic industry now offers us expensive “anti-aging” and “age-defying” potions and lotions that are supposed to turn back the clock and make us look young again. At one time, my bathroom shelves were filled with such products. I tried one product for a couple of months, and then I tried another—always in search of a fountain of youth that didn’t really exist. No matter how much money I spent on products, I still aged.
When some of us realize we are still going to age, no matter how much money we spend on various products, peels, and other non-invasive procedures, plastic surgery may sound like an attractive option. It should be no surprise that women are the ones who are most likely to undergo facelifts. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2018, about 90% of the 121,531 facelifts performed in the United States were on women.
When I was in my early sixties, I seriously considered having a facelift. I was tired of how people treated me as an older woman. I was still actively engaged in life. I regularly jogged 5-6 miles at a time and was stronger than many people a decade younger than I was. I wanted people to see the real me – the vibrant, enthusiastic person that I still was. But I felt like people were starting to treat me like I was either invisible or feeble and frail. I hated it.
Even though I was a department chair, some of my younger colleagues started talking over me during meetings and leaving me out of some of the casual conversations that I used to enjoy. And some of my younger students started making subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) digs about my age. When I shopped in my community, a couple of the local grocery store clerks started using a child-like tone when addressing me, or they would call me “honey” or “sweetie.” One time, a store clerk held a bag in front of me with two cans of green beans, a quart of milk, and a small head of lettuce and asked, “Do you need help with this bag, sweetie?” I looked at her and calmly said, “Why would I need help?” She handed me the bag.
When I met with a plastic surgeon, he stood behind me as I faced a mirror. With his gloved hands, he gently pulled and lifted my neck and face slightly up and back. “See how much more youthful you can look?”
I’ll admit, I liked the younger view of myself because what I saw reflected how I felt inside. I met with the office manager and learned that it would cost me about $11K to turn back the clock a few years. Even though I would have to put myself in debt, I was feeling desperate and gave surgery some serious consideration. However, as I thought about it more, I realized that I was considering having my face rearranged for all the wrong reasons. I concluded that there was nothing wrong with being an older woman— I realized I could love being older once I got the hang of it. (And fortunately for me, I did figure out how to love being an older woman.)
The truth is, we are all going to continue aging. Yes, we’ll face new challenges, but we also have new and unique opportunities to explore and enjoy. We don’t have to let advertisers or others define us and tell us who we are and how we must look to be acceptable. We can choose to define ourselves. But first, we must be able to identify different ways in which ageism is communicated before we can be empowered to change the narrative and live our best lives.
Ways in Which Ageism is Communicated
Because ageism is so prevalent in our culture, many people may not even be aware that they do hold biases—especially against women 50+. In reality, we don’t tend to talk about ageism like we do other forms of prejudice and discrimination, such as racism and homophobia. In fact, only a small percentage of major organizations include discussions about ageism as part of their diversity training programs. So, when we are confronted with ageist attitudes or remarks, it can be difficult to identify it and deal with it.
At times, ageism can be overt, such as when someone says, “You don’t look bad for your age,” or maybe a doctor doesn’t take your medical concerns seriously but instead dismisses your concerns with, “You’re an older woman. How do you expect to feel at your age?” Or maybe someone in the workplace comments on how you probably wouldn’t be interested in learning new technology at ‘your’ age.
One time a manager of a temp employment service told me that some companies used ‘code’ language to communicate age preferences for jobs. Words like “energetic,” “enthusiastic,” or “tech-savvy” suggest youthfulness.
Language can also serve to stereotype women such as phrases like “the elderly women” or other generalized terms that might be used when describing all women who are sixty or older. The truth is, we all age differently, and none of us are the same. As Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism said in her TED Talk, “If You’ve seen one eighty-year-old, you’ve seen one eighty-year-old.”
In our culture, we tend to use language in polarized ways such as you are either “good” or “bad,” young” or “old,” etc. Being young is good, but being old is bad. Language can be used to frame aging as something negative. Advertisers have mastered this framing strategy to create fear and to sell “anti-aging” and “age-defying” products, particularly to women, as we start noticing the first visible signs of facial aging.
Sometimes people will start using terms like “sweetie” or “honey” when addressing older women. These inappropriate terms of endearment may be reinforced with a sing-song or child-like tone of voice and even touching.
When I was about sixty, a dental assistant referred to me as “sweetie” when she escorted me to the examining room. She also touched my back while talking to me like I was a five-year-old. I turned around and looked at her and told her (using a calm but firm voice) that my name was not “sweetie” and that I probably didn’t need assistance getting to the examining room. Looking back, I wish I would have added that I didn’t need any help because I hadn’t started smoking pot yet that afternoon. (So that you know, I don’t smoke weed but do love an afternoon glass of good wine.)
Ageist communication can also include ways in which we are ignored in plain sight. I’ve known women who have not only been excluded from discussions at work but have been excluded from family conversations. One woman shared that a couple of younger relatives turned their chairs away from her to talk with others rather than including her—literally leaving her sitting on the outside of a family circle looking in.
Other women have shared how they’ve noticed that younger women often get better customer service than they do. Again, these women have described these experiences in terms of feeling invisible as older women.
Women May Tolerate More Ageist Treatment
Women are the ones who are most likely to experience more frequent ageist treatment. In part, we experience ageist treatment more often than do men because of societal assumptions about what gives us value as women. Even other women may disparage older women—in part—some aging experts suggest—to separate themselves from other women who represent something they both find undesirable and even fear.
Another significant reason why women tend to experience more ageist treatment than men is that we allow it. When most of us were growing up, we were taught to be polite and to be sensitive to other people’s feelings. Unfortunately, the rules of engagement many of us learned aren’t universally understood or fully appreciated. Those gendered rules we learned also didn’t prepare us for years of gendered assumptions and later ageist treatment that becomes compounded because of our sex.
I am not suggesting that we throw out polite communication or thoughtful behaviors. Instead, I am suggesting that we rethink how we use the basic communication skill set we’ve already developed—just in new ways to more effectively address ageism. The key is knowing how, when, and where to use communication as a positive force for change. As women, we represent more than half of the U.S. population. We do have a lot of power to change the narrative on aging- especially when we do so strategically.
One of the most potent ways we can live our best lives in an ageist culture is to use communication strategically. Before I discuss strategic communication as a positive way women can address age bias, it is essential to explain what I mean by communication.
I am aware that it is common for people to believe that mindless talk or sending meaningless text messages are forms of communication; that is not the kind of communication I’m talking about.
A Complex Process
While some may believe we cannot ‘not’ communicate, that view is somewhat contrary to the way I am going to define communication. For the most part, I will define communication as verbal and nonverbal messages that are both sent, received, and responded to with the hope of creating a certain degree of shared meaning. For example, “anti-aging” advertisers know that the very language they use sends us the message that aging is bad. When that language is coupled with images of youthful women using ‘anti-aging’ products to retain their youthful sex appeal, the goal is to play on our fears about aging to sell products. This type of communication strategy has worked quite effectively for decades. Those of us who have made purchases based on such advertising promises have responded to the sent messages that we received.
When I talk about verbal communication, I am generally speaking about just the words themselves. How we emphasize a particular word, the volume we use, the rate we speak, the “ums” (or other disfluencies) we use when speaking, etc. are all elements of nonverbal communication that help us understand how to interpret the meaning of words we hear.
Nonverbal communication can include everything but the words themselves. Nonverbal communication generally includes facial expressions, eye behaviors, tone of voice, volume, rate of speech, movement, gestures, use of space, attire, physical setting, anything we can smell, anything we can see such as body shape, age, etc., and so forth.
Communication in Context
We are constantly faced with different types of communication contexts where ageism can bubble up, such as during interpersonal, group, public meetings, and so forth. We may be in a situation where we are both receiving and sending messages as listeners (through verbal and nonverbal communication). We may be interacting with a mediated form of communication such as through a social media site or television where older women are often portrayed (if at all) as feeble or needy. Beyond our interaction with others, we are also engaged in regular self-talk (or intrapersonal communication) that can be influenced by all the various messages we are continually receiving from others; when we start using intrapersonal ageist communication, we may be internalizing negative believes about aging and ourselves.
Using Strategic Communication to Address Harmful Age-Based Messages
Strategic communication refers to communication that is purposeful and is often related to a goal or mission. As individuals, we may not be mindful of our communication most of the time. But if we choose to address age-related biases effectively, then we need to think about our communication choices based on the situation and the audience involved.
For example, most of us are in a culture (or situation) where we, the audience, are continually being exposed to age-biased advertisements. If we choose to mindlessly ignore these messages, then we could be choosing to internalize them. If we see a few ads showing women who have “embarrassing” crepe-like skin hanging from their arms, we might think twice before we allow ourselves to wear a sleeveless blouse. However, if we recognize those messages as age-biased, we can challenge them and choose to wear our favorite sleeveless tops without thinking twice about normal, aging skin.
I personally refuse to let advertisers define what I’m supposed to look like as a sixty-eight-year-old woman. I also know that when I wear my sleeveless shirts in warm weather rather than covering up my arms in shame, I am also signaling to other older women that they also have the same choice.
Sometimes we can anticipate age-biased situations and strategically plan how we are going to communicate. As I mentioned earlier, I had attended some meetings while still working, where younger colleagues tried to talk over me. Later, I realized that I had allowed myself to feel invisible. Once I realized I had communication choices, I became a woman on a mission.
The next time I attended a similar meeting at work, I chose clothing that would convey a sense of confidence and personal power. I intentionally sat up straight rather than slumping during the meeting. I had prepared a few points I planned to share rather than ‘winging it.’ And when someone again tried to interrupt me while I was talking, I held up my hand, palm facing the offender, and signaled that I was not through talking yet. I also listened to others and responded appropriately. I was fully engaged and made some solid contributions and encouraged others to do the same—I anticipated being a good team player, and I was.
In the coming chapters, we will take a deep dive into strategic communication as a way to address age-bias in different situations and with different audiences. We will talk about practical approaches you can use immediately.
This post is a draft of my first chapter for a book I am writing. I need your help. If you have insights or experiences related to this topic that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you. If you have feedback or suggestions, I would also appreciate your thoughts.