Category Archives: Career

Women’s worldview at work shifts with age

Maybe it’s my status as the oldest person in my graduate school class — not by years, mind you, but by decades.

Maybe it was my conscious career choice at 56 to walk away from a well-compensated director-level position rather than risk a late-50s layoff in that organization’s uncertain, chaotic culture.

My current job provides a lower salary but far less stress — and that has allowed me to branch out and explore at a time of life when I finally have the freedom to do so.Worldview

Research and anecdotal evidence show that some professional women are leaving the work force deep into middle age for reasons that include disillusionment, early retirement and elder-care duties. Other career-oriented women in their 50s and early 60s are scaling back their careers, as I did, shedding their intense, single-minded focus as they would a wool blazer on a warm spring day.

  • “I find myself less ambitious by workplace standards — wanting to climb the corporate ladder — and more interested in doing work that is truly meaningful to me,” says a journalist, 64, whose children are older than some of her colleagues.
  • “I have definitely shifted gears in the last seven or eight years,” says a nonprofit manager, 55, who would like to write. “Now that my sons are mostly off on their own, I don’t feel the pressure to provide for them like I used to, which meant going for the more demanding, higher accountability positions. I like having time to do other things I enjoy.”
  • “Age both gives and limits options,” says a project manager who just turned 59. “As an empty nester whose step-kids have graduated from college and are married, I find that my husband’s and my significant expenses are behind us. There’s some freedom in that. At the same time, ageism is real. I would not want to be looking for a new job at my age.”

Do you consciously try to look younger?

My hair is finally turning gray, and I’m not sure I like either the expense or the ethic of maintaining “artificial auburn.”

Most respondents told me they do color their hair in order to appear younger at work. Others emphasized the importance of maintaining a wardrobe that defies stereotypes about their age. “I don’t wear things like flower-print shirts or tops with cats,” one woman says dryly.

“Looking younger is a tricky proposition, especially with women,” explains my 62-year-old neighbor, a well-coiffed Frenchwoman whose accent alone is elegant. “I dress to reflect that I have style but that I am not interested in looking 30.”

“I do worry about my looks,” says a friend and colleague, 57. “I feel young, but when I catch myself in the mirror on a day when I’m tired, I see an older woman, and I freak out. I fear others are judging me as not being in the flow of what is happening now.”

Seeking the perspectives of younger people helps some Baby Boomers stay current.

“I try to really listen to what younger generations do, say, think,” says a 55-year-old IT manager who oversees a young staff. “I like to know what they do for fun, how they’ve solved a problem, what they’re worried about. I think that keeps my thinking young.”

“Since I am somewhat slim and flat-chested, I don’t feel as if I am trying hard to appear young,” says a Chicago librarian, 54. “But because I have three youngish children, I have the vernacular of the young. That, more than my dressing, I think, makes me appear youthful.”

One 57-year-old entrepreneur maintains her vibrancy with daily meditation, healthful food and exercise. “I walk in a strong and confident manner,” she says.

Personally, I consider exercise the fountain of youth, and I am proud at 58 of being among the fittest people in my office.

How does aging benefit your career?

I inherited my work ethic — and perfectionism and sense of duty — from my father, a retired attorney and state senator who is now a relatively robust 90. I remember my dad’s exasperation in his 50s that his mind was less sharp, just as my own mental lapses now embarrass me.

Here is the key, the upside, the benefit to growing older: His younger law partners were turning to him for wisdom.

In a youth-obsessed culture, it is tempting to see middle age as an inevitably downhill slide, to experience it as a period of retrenchment and regret rather than of passion and possibilities. Regrets weigh on me in graduate school: Why didn’t I do this when I was younger?

Then I notice how I am relishing the endeavor — my desire to dig in and learn. My 30-something classmates with corporate jobs and small children are in school to get it done. The degree is a steppingstone in their careers.

“‘A’ is for anxiety, ‘B’ is for balance,’” a classmate told me recently, observing my meticulous note-taking and obvious efforts to earn the highest grade. A manager at 3M and the mother of a 2-year-old girl, she barrels through two classes a semester and contents herself with B’s.Fork in the Road

I want a more holistic experience, a theme I hear repeatedly in midlife women’s approach to life and work.

  • “I feel like I have a lot of information and expertise to share regarding aging, which is part of my career, and I am living the journey,” says an elder-care expert, 63, who is easing toward retirement by working part time.
  • “Work has become much less important in my life as I age, while at the same time, I moved into a position where that is OK,” says a former journalist, 56, who now works in communications for county government. “I am bringing skills to my current position that I gathered throughout my career, which are appreciated by those in my organization.”
  • “The 50s are a great age of coming into one’s own,” says an industrial psychologist who earned her master’s and Ph.D. while in her 20s. “I’m hitting my stride in so many ways. I’m doing work now that I could not have done even five years ago as a result of my cumulative knowledge, experience and expertise.”

Do you reveal your age at work?

Tellingly, out of 10 women who responded to my questions, the psychologist is the only one who willingly volunteers her age to colleagues and clients; unlike the others, she is self-employed and in a field where years of experience is highly valued.

Most said they wouldn’t lie if asked outright, but they don’t advertise their ages either. Being seen as overqualified or out of step with technology or “set in your ways,” as one woman put it, is too great a risk.

Then there’s the question of whether employers will invest in older workers: “Just recently I realized that there was probably no opportunity for a raise or promotion because they figure, accurately, that I’m unlikely to go to another job at this stage of my life,” says an academic editor, 62.

I consciously took a risk that my new employer would invest in me when I left the director-level job to return to school, launch a blog and care for my mother as she was dying. The pay cut was a blow to both my pocketbook and ego; the promise of my position growing into something larger is still a dream.

But here I am. I made the leap, and all I can do is move forward, keep learning, be present — and be grateful for knowing courageous women who refuse to let society define what “prime of life” means.


‘Overserved’? Certainly, and workplace sobriety underrated

By this point in the news cycle, even the most blasé sports fan in the Upper Midwest knows that Norwood Teague has problems — legal, psychological and, likely, alcohol-abuse problems.

The former athletics director at the University of Minnesota was said to have been drunk at a president’s retreat in mid-July when he sexually harassed two senior-level women. He resigned August 7.

Amid the media firestorm that has ensued — with more women coming forward to say Teague harassed them and the U of M president backing away from his original claim that his golden boy had merely been “overserved” — one question has yet to be asked.

Was it appropriate, or advisable, for alcohol to be served at this work-related function at all?

Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, a recovering alcoholic, was the first to say that Teague’s alcohol consumption at the retreat was “no excuse” for his boorish and illegal behavior. True enough. But can the U of M be held accountable? Who was minding the bar at the taxpayer-supported leadership retreat? How was Teague allowed to get this drunk?

Attorney, women’s advocate and human resources consultant Gina Franklin counsels employers to “turn around” the assumption that alcohol is a bonding agent and a necessary source of creative inspiration at work.Gina_Franklin

“That’s the ‘Mad Men’ philosophy of life,” says Franklin, a senior associate at W.J. Flynn and Associates in Eagan, Minnesota. “We think it’s seriously dated.”

Franklin, like me, is an old-school feminist who would never blame women for harassment or assault. But we share the perhaps prudish and politically incorrect opinion that sobriety in professional settings is a protective tool.

As an HR coach, what would you say to Norwood Teague?

Now that he’s resigned, he needs to think about: “How do I address this so I can be employed again?” If I were his coach, I would say: “Go get an alcohol assessment and really learn if there is abuse or addiction. Put together a plan for how you’re going to better understand this. Have this be part of a life-changing event.” I think an employer would give some credit to the proactive nature of that.

Employers that cater to younger workers, especially, promote alcohol at workplace functions or after long days at the office as a well-deserved stress reliever.

If our clients have an occasion to provide alcohol at an event, we work with them not just around policy but the whole culture of consumption:

  • You can serve alcohol in limited amounts, such as two drink tickets per person.
  • Remind everybody of the organization’s harassment policies and code of conduct.
  • Provide food at the event. Stop any access to alcohol after dinner. Instead have a speaker or entertainment — and then provide cab rides home.Drinking at work

What role does alcohol play in sexual harassment?

Alcohol is a factor in the majority of these crimes. It goes almost hand in hand. Alcohol removes inhibitions, and it compromises judgment.

While I was in law school in the early 1980s, I had a public debate with my law professor: Is alcohol a mitigating factor when sentencing a sex crime? My response was: “No, it’s not a mitigating factor. The individual made a choice to consume to excess and his judgment was impaired.” I was unequivocal about it. If you use alcohol as a mitigation in sex crimes, then you’re always going to mitigate. Always.

Your daughters are 18 and 21. How do you caution these young women about mixing alcohol and work, without missing out on the networking and relationship-building that often happens at work-related events?

I have to think about that as a woman every day in my world, and both my daughters and my stepdaughters, who range from 28 to 38, ask me how I do it. I talk about compromise. If consumption of alcohol would compromise your thinking and decision-making and put you at risk, that’s not a good plan. There are men who would take advantage of that.

Since I quit drinking five years ago, I’ve noticed how often workplace socializing is tied to alcohol — and I’m increasingly ill at ease with the assumption that everybody drinks. How can employers support people who don’t drink, whether they’re recovering alcoholics or abstain for other reasons?

We advise employers to have non-alcoholic choices for employees, just as you’d have non-meat choices for meals. If I were the HR person, I would meet with any employee whom I knew was in recovery and develop strategies for how to navigate those events. I’d give that person advice and support.

The U of M incident — or multiple incidents — has helped many of us recognize the prevalence of sexual harassment, despite women’s gains in all sectors of society. Or is harassment tied more broadly to the prevalence of rape and domestic violence?

Sexual harassment was not a subject when I started in the workplace. I’m 62. I’m literally a grandmother in terms of the women’s movement and the subject of the relationship between the sexes. I founded a rape-crisis center in the 1970s as an undergraduate in Nebraska. It still serves victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and child abuse.

For years now women have been coming forward to say: “No, we’re not going to tolerate sexual assault.” Prevention of sexual harassment — and recognition of harassment — evolved from that.

The Upside of Anger? I Rarely Find One Anymore

I work with the public and am a clearinghouse for complaints, so I deal with a lot of angry people. Sometimes I’m the target, other times I’m paid to listen. More often I’m the go-between or messenger, charged with trying to broker or influence a solution.

Whatever my role, and however legitimate the frustrations, I have learned to muster a special brand of fortitude, humor and patience to hold my own amid the heat.

Personally, I am less angry as I age and less enthralled with the personal power that I thought my temper gave me. I am quicker to make amends when I am wrong and more willing to step aside in a disagreement, to speak my piece and then yield the last word. I once judged that behavior as passive.

And so, in the course of re-examining my relationship with this misunderstood emotion, I talked with anger expert and mediator Jeanne Zimmer, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center in St. Paul.

Jeanne Zimmer

Jeanne Zimmer

How do you engage with angry people without becoming angry yourself?

“You have to be empathetic without taking on their emotions. Just to pick up the phone in our office, you have to have the 30-hour training. The person on the other end of that phone is angry. You need to listen both for what they’re saying and the emotions underneath it.

“People can’t move to logical problem-solving till those emotions are addressed. Mediators will say: ‘It sounds like you’re really hurt. This must be hard.’ Then the angry person can move forward.”

Years ago I was stunned to hear anger described as the flip side of fear. What have you learned about anger?

Anger is a secondary emotion. Shame or fear is often underlying anger. Think of primary and secondary colors. What is really going on?

“Somebody comes in and says: ‘Your dog is barking all the time. I want you to move.’ What’s underneath that? The interest may be my sleep, or fear of dogs.”

What is difficult about this work?

“As a mediator your job is to listen and absorb. Self-care is important. You don’t want to take that emotion with you. If you can’t be fully present to the person on the other end of the line, let it go to voicemail and take a walk.”

A handful of the angry people I encounter strike me as mean-spirited. They’re “beside themselves,” to use a phrase that I am only now coming to understand.

“People behave in conflict as they saw growing up. Many of us weren’t taught good conflict-resolution skills. How did the family of origin deal with anger? Did they scream and yell? Give you the silent treatment? Send you to bed and everything was magically OK in the morning? You tend to do what you know.

“If you learn sarcasm, for example, how do you change it? The response is not hard-wired; it takes intention to change it, and that’s harder than it looks. It’s much easier to call 911 or sue somebody than it is to sit down and work things out.”

I used to love the rush that self-righteousness gave me. So what is the motivation to change?

“Unresolved conflict affects your health. It can take a mental and physical toll. Conflict distorts who people are. It takes us out of our place of homeostasis, our place of balance.

“Also we’re not at our best when we’re in conflict. You don’t see people as they are or how they see themselves. If you told this handful of so-called difficult people what your perceptions are — that they seem unfair or unkind — they’d be surprised.”

What is the science — or art — of mediation?

“People come in and don’t talk to each other. They talk to the mediator. When you summarize what someone else is saying, you’re helping them to be heard in a neutral voice. People need to be acknowledged, recognized and heard. That anger is: ‘You’re missing something!’ And they will go back to that again and again till they feel heard.”

How has this work helped you deal with anger personally?

“I am angry about something in my life right now. I’m hurt and I’m frustrated. How do I articulate that? And, I can’t change what’s going on. There’s a powerlessness.

“It helps to describe what the anger is like, how it feels. Then, how do you take care of yourself when you’re angry? Do you like to be left alone or to talk about it? It’s that meta-communication: How do we help each other? Then, you have to be brave enough to confront it.”

Various men over the years have called me strident, emotional and, my favorite, overly sensitive. Does our culture allow women to be angry?

“I’m 55. Women my age were taught in our professional lives that we had to be like men, wear the blue suits. We tried to become mini-men. But a man who gets angry is manly; a woman who gets angry is a bitch. Those stereotypes are out there.

“So at work, especially, how can you articulate how you’re actually feeling and be heard? Because women, again, are dubbed ‘too emotional.’ We’re seen as weak and not in control.Hillary Clinton_2

“People are afraid of angry women, so that’s the fear of Hillary [Rodham Clinton]. People expect men to be angry, and a woman who is angry loses the pretty. Your face gets red, you’re not Minnesota nice.”

In my 50s I’ve been working to respond more than react. Has your relationship with anger changed with age?

“Most people become mellower with age. You learn to pick your battles, you learn to let things go. Self-reflection makes a difference. Are you willing to be vulnerable?”

Is anger ever justified?

“Part of our work at the Dispute Resolution Center is learning to diagnose the conflict. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You need to know what the appropriate response is.

“If you’re Rosa Parks, you don’t mediate. If there’s an injustice, you need to get out there and stand up and effect change. There are reasons why we have the legal and criminal-justice systems. But way too many issues are being treated as though they’re about ‘rights,’ and they could be solved in an inter-personal way.”