• Fri, Jan 20 2012

Dying Your Gray Hair Is, Unfortunately, A Career Power Play

“The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries or the way she combs her hair.” - Audrey Hepburn

A few months ago a 52-year-old former manager of a branch of a real estate firm said she was fired because she wouldn’t dye her gray hair, nor would she wear “younger fancy suits,” as requested by her boss. It seems when the branch moved its office to an upscale area of the city, the boss thought it was time for this manager to step up her appearance. She refused to comply and was “replaced with a woman who is 10 years younger.” Although the woman filed an age discrimination suit, her former employee,  is saying her age was not a factor in her dismissal. Instead, it was a customer who no longer wanted to work with the woman, so her job was no longer necessary. However, the customer’s reason for “refusing” to work with the woman has not been disclosed. The question is, can gray hair and signs of aging in general be a career killer for women?

A recent UK survey found that more than 50% of executive women dye their hair, compared with just 3% of men. The survey comments included: “Gray hair makes a businessman look distinguished but just makes a woman look old.” In the U.S., of the 93 women in Congress, only five have grey hair and of the 15 female executives of Fortune 500 companies, no one has grey hair or rather has allowed it to be grey. According to a 2005 Procter & Gamble survey, 65% of women had colored their hair in the previous year, several times as many as in the 1950s, which is why going gray has become a difficult and an equally fraught choice for modern women to make.

According to Fiona Smith of The Financial Review, it is very rare to see a woman in the work world sporting grey hair unlike men, who wear their silver manes like a badge of honor. She pointed out that Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, who wears her gorgeous grey hair proudly, is a rarity amongst professional women. Smith wrote, “Some may shrug and ask what is the issue. Changing the color of your hair is a matter of personal choice. If some women dye, so be it.”
We asked our readers if it was necessary for women to dye their hair in order to help their careers. A surprising 60% said no and that society can just suck it up if they don’t think it looks good. Heck, media personality Kelly Osbourne, who is in her early 20′s, is voluntarily gray right now as part of a fashion statement. But 10% said they do think it is important for women to not go grey as long as possible and 30% found that there was nothing wrong with wanting to look good, especially if it helps your career. But what does it really mean to sport grey hair as a professional woman? We talked to some experts:
Vera Pell, the Owner/Director of Learning and Development at  Evergreen Learning Designs, told The Grindstone:

“I had called my hairstylist yesterday about getting my hair colored again and posed the question of what about letting my hair color go back to natural because it costs so much to keep coloring it and I’ve unemployed now for five months. She told me that as long as I was still looking for work that I need to keep coloring it and she would work with me on cost.

I have had numerous occasions where recruiters have just gushed over my credentials and then want to meet with me but when we do I get this “look” on their face. I know that “look”. I even had one who told me in just an off the cuff comment “I sounded younger on the phone”! I know they are not supposed to get away with that but it happens all the time. My husband on the other hand has gradually moved into a status of “distinguished looking”. Think of George Clooney. Isn’t he gorgeous with gray hair? Would anyone advise him to color it? Nah! I think not! I mean they don’t even call it “gray”. It’s “silver”, thereby distinguishing it as something worthwhile. Silver is good, right? On Clooney, it is! It’s sexy!

So why can’t I proudly display my gray as a sign of wisdom, experience, confidence and sexy? Instead I drown it in color to look younger so I can get a job. My mom had gorgeous salt and pepper hair. She started getting ray hair at 16, would you believe. It was a strip right down the back. But I still loved it and she never wavered from it. She never once colored her hair. She was proud of it and so was I. On the other hand – my mom never worked. So she did not come up against the employers who were looking for college grads who had a seasoned job life. I actually like my gray hair but I am still trying to live up to what society’s vision of an executive should look like – “company image”. Hmpf!”

Dr. Fran Walfish, leading child, teen, parent, and family psychotherapist (including celebrities) and author in Beverly Hills told The Grindstone:

“We live in a culture that reveres and worships youth. The young are idealized and seniors are discarded. Sadly, life experience is not valued in the same way it was 50 and 75 years ago. On the screen, producers and directors search for that talented 25 year old actor who can play a teen. They want skill with the appearance of youth. Many professional fields function in the same philosophy. For instance, the entertainment industry cleans house periodically to wipe out the “old” and replace executives and creative folks with the young. The idea is young people are more connected to the buying/viewing audience. A gentle way of describing this prejudice is categorization. Personally, I have always sought out a senior mentor. I was taught to respect the elder generation. I feel their experience is a treasure to learn from. Yet, I am guilty, too. I color the gray away and religiously use an anti-wrinkle cream (that works!)”

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  • Robin Barr

    Interesting. Besides an appearance prejudice, I can understand that a customer wants to be helped by someone who is relevant and saavy, and sometimes, older people aren’t. With that said, there are times given the choice, I would prefer the woman with gray hair because she’s less likely to be stupid or ineffectual than her younger counterpart. This, of course, are general statements, and there will be exceptions to both sides, I know this. I was just in an office of a local BOA. A 45-ish male customer was very concerned he would be assigned a counselor who was too young and inexperienced to help with his very complicated problem. I understood.

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