Our organization was undergoing a complete revitalization: new brand, new divisions, new reporting structures, new corporate policies and new human resource approaches. All critical business heads (emphasis provided by the Management Board) had been invited to a two-day workshop in Europe to learn about the new structure and understand what it meant for them and their business responsibilities. One of the presentations over those two days was given by an HR consultant, who spoke about the development of a schema of leadership competencies that were unique to our organization and critical for future success. She made numerous references to the interviewing she had conducted with our leaders over the last few days and talked about the assessments she had given “us.” I was confused. I just arrived yesterday. No one had interviewed me or given me any personality assessment. Then I had that “aha” moment. My competency as a leader didn’t interest them. I was too old.
Not as great a leap as it might seem. I checked around. Other business heads in my age bracket were not invited to come in early. Much younger executives leading businesses that were not performing nearly as well as the one that I was leading had been invited to come in days ago. A pattern emerged.
This pattern is repeated and exacerbated when we throw gender into the equation. An article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Older Women Are Being Forced Out of the Workforce” (March 10, 2016), illustrated how senior women, even after years of career success, have “seen their responsibilities assigned to younger workers, their compensation lowered for inexplicable reasons, and their career mobility impaired by a workplace that seems to value youth over experience.”
Recent research suggests that there is, indeed, an intersection between age and gender when it comes to hiring discrimination. Economists at UC Irvine and Tulane University created 40,000 fictional applications and submitted them to online postings. They made applications for older (64-66), middle-aged (49-51) and younger applicants (29-31). They found that the callback rate for women was lower as age increased (between younger and middle-aged) and they did not find that for men (between younger and middle-aged).
Right before I struck out on my own in 2013 I was approached by a global market research company about an international position as the head of one of their divisions. I was interested. In my last interview the older, male executive said to me, “I just attended an international conference on digital technology. Everyone there was male, under 35 and had no interest in meeting me, or even our CEO who is internationally known. They did not believe they had anything to learn from us! Why do you think you can run a division staffed with people like this? Why will they listen to you?”
I answered, “As a woman over the age of 50 I’m used to men of all ages thinking they have nothing to learn from me. What’s important is that I know I have much to learn from them. I’ll listen. I’ll learn. I’ll show them respect and together we’ll forge a growth strategy for this division.”
I went no further in the interview process. I answered him directly and honestly, speaking like the Crone I had become with my years of experience. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of “Women Who Run with Wolves,” describes the “Dangerous Old Woman” as one who goes where she wants and will speak her mind. She is afraid of no one, follows no rules but listens to her own wisdom and experience. She is an archetype.
Business needs more Dangerous Old Women or Crones. Leaders need to have people around them that are direct, honest and tell the truth. We have to make sure we know the difference between our marketing spin and our strategy. We have to look at cold hard facts and not be afraid to face them. To do that effectively a smart leader will not toss aside ANY experience or talent, no matter if it comes in an older package.
This year, 2016, the hottest thing at NY Comic Con was NOT Pokémon or Darth Vader. It was an action figure set of the “Golden Girls,” which disappeared from the Funko LLC shelves in less than an hour! Attendees had to win a raffle to line up for the chance to buy a set. Let’s hope this starts a trend and in 2017 all the smartest CEOs will be clamoring to put a Crone – or many – on their board, in their C-suite and in as many key positions as they can.