Excerpted from Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence & Claim Workplace Power.
“With the kids I’d worked with for a while, it was almost like a gentle teasing, which I got and I could laugh about. If somebody mentioned Abe Lincoln, the comment would be, ‘Oh yeah, Susan. You went to school with him, right?’ So, that’s the ha-ha. I can laugh at a joke, but you think, Ugh, it’s just another thing. It’s one other aspect of being old and a woman in that environment.”
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This is just one of the experiences I heard about from an accomplished woman while researching my book, Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence & Claim Workplace Power.
Every day women over fifty hear ageist, sexist comments. They may not be directed at them specifically, but they still sting. “Oh my god, she’s over sixty. That’s so old.” “Oh my god, she’s a dinosaur. She’s aging out.” Or “She’s too old to change. She’s an old thinker.” One woman I interviewed told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she was taking off work to get a root canal, the comment back was, “Oh, that’s an old-person thing.” Really? We can’t even talk about our root canals without the fear of being labeled as old? Come on, my kids have had root canals.
A senior member of a legal team for a global company shared with me that she’s often referred to as being “such a mom.” Whether or not she’s a mom, the ageist comment pigeonholes her into a role that has everything to do with her age and nothing to do with her function at work. Or she’ll be the target of subtle jokes about some old music: “I’m sure you know that oldie, right?” The younger employees mock her with demeaning comments like, “Oh, look at you on Snapchat!” as if some unwritten rule states that Snapchat can be used only by people under 30.
How to Fight Ageism and Sexism in the Workplace
Is there a politically correct comeback for a comment like that? I can certainly think of a few that aren’t PC, but I’ll keep them to myself. You can use your imagination to fill in the blanks.
When sexism intersects with ageism, it feels like a real slap in the face.
The underlying message of these wisecracks is that being old isn’t respected or valued at work, and it can be both a joke and a liability. Consider this: rarely are comments and jokes with racial, religious, or sexual overtones tolerated in today’s workplace, but awareness of and sensitivity to ageism aren’t on par with that of other discriminatory behaviors. And when sexism intersects with ageism, it feels like a real slap in the face. Quite simply put, older men aren’t subjected to the same derogatory comments about aging as older women are.
So, how do you respond to such comments? You have a choice: you can let them go and just laugh along or you can let people know how these comments make you feel. I highly recommend the second choice, depending on the situation.
Some of these comments are made in jest. And people don’t realize their impact on you. They may not even be aware that they’re ageist. Give them the benefit of the doubt, a dose of reality (gently), and let them know how you feel.
Here’s the tricky part. You need to hold back from being equally snarky, however tempting a snark might be. When someone says you are “over the hill,” you may feel like saying, I have more wisdom and talent in my pinkie finger than you’ll ever have. Since when are you the authority on my competence? But remember that you don’t want to piss everyone off or get fired. The goal isn’t to match their hurtful statement with an equally caustic comment.
Don’t Give Away Your Power
On the other hand, you don’t have to give away your power by laughing along with whoever made the comments, or take it on the chin and walk away without addressing how crappy it made you feel. So, you have to balance how to own your power with being direct and assertive. Leave your sarcasm for your journal at home.
To tap into the best mindset to deliver a firm but respectful retort, first take a deep breath and let go of everything you’re thinking that’s pissing you off. An angry tone of voice won’t help the situation. Be mindful and chuck it before you open your mouth. On the other hand, a cowering response is a surefire way to end up being treated like a doormat. So here’s the thing. It’s important to understand where you’re at emotionally to maintain your power position and size up the situation before you rush to a response that may further ostracize you or cause your dismissal.
Let’s size up the situation. First, who made the comment? What’s your relationship with that person? Your response may differ depend- ing on how much power and influence they have. Was it a colleague or a supervisor? Second, where was the comment made? Was it directed at you? Was it said in jest to a larger group? When a colleague directs the comment to you, it’s appropriate to respond directly. If it’s made in a group setting, it’s advisable to speak to the person one-on-one afterward.
The Whole Mother/Grandmother Putdown
If they call you a grandmother, it’s ageist as well as sexist, and meant to be demeaning. The best approach if your colleague made the remark lightly is to acknowledge the comment, let them know how you felt about it, and then, if possible, reframe it positively to demonstrate your badass power. For example, if someone derogatorily refers to you as a “mother” or “grandma,” don’t immediately launch a counterattack. Address the comment and let them know how you feel about it. By acknowledging what was said, you’re letting them know it’s not acceptable.
If they call you a grandmother, it’s ageist as well as sexist.
You might respond with something like, “You know, I feel very fortunate to be a mother/grandmother. It’s helped me in so many ways to be better at my work. My experience raising children has given me the wisdom and experience to be a better employee and offer tremendous value here.”
I love Nancy Pelosi’s thoughts on this topic: “Being a mom, what are you? You’re a diplomat in interpersonal relationships. You’re a chef. You’re a chauffeur. You’re a problem solver. You’re a nurse. You’re a health-care provider. You have so much, and that’s just with the children, not to mention the other aspects of family.” Pelosi recognizes that motherhood made her much more efficient and valuable to her work, and you can’t find a more powerful role model than her.
Who Thinks Maturity is a Bad Thing?
And what if you’re not a mother and grandmother? Does it piss you off when people assume that because you’re a woman, you must have children? We are women after all. Isn’t that what our purpose is? Well, not necessarily and that assumption reeks of sexism. And if they call you a grandmother, it’s ageist as well, and meant to be demeaning. In that case, I’d acknowledge the comment by saying, “I get that you think I’m a mother/grandmother, but I have chosen a different path and I feel your comment is insensitive.” Wow. Right on. I think they’ll get your message.
What if a coworker makes an ageist wisecrack like that one mentioned earlier about being friends with Abe Lincoln or something similar? Again, you may want to remain silent or counter with a nasty remark, but it’s wiser to demonstrate your maturity with a better comeback. “Ha! I certainly wasn’t around then. But you know, I’m very proud of my years of experience. My experience enables me to bring both wisdom and value to my work and to this company every day.” A response like that subtly acknowledges the ageism and places you in a strong position, one where you own the power of your age and history.
You’re not putting people down, although your inner child may be screaming to do so. You’re not apologizing for your age either. You’re standing in your power and demonstrating your maturity—exactly what you deliver every day. Don’t let them forget it and don’t you forget it.
How to Talk to Your Boss About Ageism and Sexism
Making ageist jokes is so common in our culture that many people have no idea they’ve offended anyone.
Discussing ageism and sexism with your boss or anyone else in a position of authority is gnarly, especially if they are treating you unfairly. You want to be professional yet let them know that their comment is inappropriate. And certainly, the tone and content of this conversation will depend on how strong your relationship is with your boss. If talking to your boss is impossible because of their toxic behavior or if there is an ongoing pattern of ageist comments and actions, I recommend first speaking with a Human Resources person. But if you feel that your boss is reasonable and perhaps unaware that their remarks and/or behaviors are biased, a straightforward conversation is a good place to start.
Here the same approach is advised. Acknowledge the comment, and let them know how you feel about it. Say it like it is. However, avoid starting your discussion with “You said this” or “You did that.” Those fighting words will immediately put them on the defensive. When you’re in an attack mode, people shut down and can’t hear a word you’re saying. Try something like, “I felt it was inappropriate when you made the remark about older women. I found it offensive and it made me feel uncomfortable.” If they aren’t aware of their ageist comments, you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt and helping them by pointing out their bias.
Keep in mind that making ageist jokes is so common in our culture that many people have no idea that they’re offending anyone. But when you let them know how you feel, you’re also putting them on notice. Ageism is not acceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated, and you certainly do not tolerate it. Believe me, although you may be challenged by raising the topic, this conversation is nevertheless critical. Be direct, be tactful, and sister, show them you are no pushover.
If you feel your boss discriminated against you by not promoting you or not offering you opportunities or perks that younger workers receive, if ageist comments persist or are not made in jest—such as telling you outright that you’re too old and need to move on—then take a more strategic approach, including consulting with an employment lawyer and filing a complaint with Human Resources.
Award winning entrepreneur, Forbes contributing writer, and executive coach, Bonnie Marcus assists professional women to successfully navigate the workplace and position and promote themselves to advance their careers.