04/15/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ageism: The Silent Career Killer?


Women have been heroic in the battle to defy nature -- between Botox, Brazilians and Booty Boot Camps, they have fought hard to feel and look younger. With the help of an industry built on developing "age-defying" potions that deliver "ageless beauty," there has been no other time in history for women to be armed with what they need to look their absolute best. As we transition from our precious 30s into our fabulous 40s, most have access to science, time and money for the pursuit of suspending the aging process. However, how about the transitions of the precarious 50s and 60s? That transition has seen more unfortunate casualties. Some women, especially those in the public eye, have chosen to pull out the big guns to conquer aging. These are the ones whose lovely and unique features have faded, only to be dominated instead by freakishly puffy cheeks, accentuated by the the ubiquitous pouty lips (attractive at no age, might I add).

So as we wait to join the Golden Girls, with their glorious gray hair, cheerfully loose moo moos and enviously comfortable shoes, most women want and need to work past their 50s and well into their 60s. Despite the rise of heart disease and stroke, traditionally afflicting more men, women still continue to outlive their male counterparts. Either due to death or divorce, many women find themselves being single, with an income gap that only increases with age. Women find themselves in positions where they need to stay vibrant and viable in the workplace.

There have been many studies done on the effect of attractiveness on success, even demonstrating that it provided an advantage in job interviews. What's the impact of age to potential employers? Does the perception of attractiveness change as one ages? Does it change by gender? Hollywood is one industry that has been most vocal on this topic. Aside from being my celebrity crush, George Clooney represents a long list of 50-something men who dominate the screen. With deep-set lines in his forehead, wrinkles radiating from his eyes and perfectly salt and peppered hair, Clooney has miraculously gotten better with age. Female actors on the other hand, tend to disappear from the screen as they age. As Tina Fey recently said at the Golden Globes, "there are still great roles in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60". Granted most other industries do not rely so heavily on looks, it does signal or perhaps reflect cultural attitudes.

Besides Hollywood, do you know who else is reluctantly talking about ageism? It's many women who are trying to get back into the workforce that I've met while doing workshops on personal branding and networking. For whatever reason, they have found themselves out of a job. I'm not saying ageism had something to do with it but difficulty in finding a job certainly appears to play a role. Either on a break or in a whisper, I've been asked over and over, could their age may be making it difficult for them to secure their next job? It's a question that comes with no easy answer.

The truth is that every employer is going to think about your "runway" with their organization. Your age may or may not play a factor. The timeframe in outgrowing a role for example is something that has an impact on fit for some jobs, as well as your potential for a role beyond this one. If you are concerned that "organizational runway" could be an issue, talk about the number of years that you're excited to commit to an organization or to a role. Be direct. Are you looking at wrapping up your career in such a role, or looking to advance either laterally or with a promotion? It might be an refreshing option for prospective employers who may be evaluating Gen X applicants who may be seeing the job that they're applying for as an 18-month gateway to the CEO's job. The alternative is not hearing back and wondering if something unsaid had something to do with it.

Demonstrating vitality and drive is not about how you look or your ability to run a marathon. It's about the intellect, energy and enthusiasm that allows you to strive for a satisfying and sustainable career throughout your life. Being open and direct may give you a chance at job that will allow you an opportunity to contribute your phenomenal talents to the workplace that might not know how much they need them.