Tag Archives: Women and work

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.

Flexibility, Focus Ease Strain of Midlife Career Shifts

Sarah Berger, 47, insists she wasn’t afraid when she got downsized from her director-level job in early September — even though she is single and solely responsible for her mortgage and other household expenses. Even though it’s her second career transition in four years.

Even though — as is often said of women on the other side of 40 — she isn’t getting any younger.

“It doesn’t pay to panic,” Berger explains. And here’s where age and experience served her: “I was feeling confident about what I’d achieved. I felt I had something to offer.

“As soon as I got laid off, literally driving home, I already was putting together my list of people to call,” she says.

Berger began with the women in her book club. “These are professional, well-connected women who believe in lifting up others. So I knew that if I called on them, they would use their network to help me.”

A fund-raising professional, she landed an even better position in mid-October — six weeks to the day after her layoff.

“The networking for me was key,” says Berger, the new director of resource development and communications at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit with a 117-year tradition of serving immigrants, refugees and low-income populations in the Twin Cities.

LinkedIn cartoon

Purposeful connections

This so-called “hidden job market” — in which a matrix of personal and professional connections opens doors — accounts for up to 80 percent of new hires, according to Forbes magazine.

That’s why Cathy McLane, 52, began rebuilding her network a year ago when she decided to ease herself out of a role as marketing and communications director at a prestigious private school in suburban Minneapolis. McLane had been there 14 years and recognizes now that she “had clearly stayed too long.”

She was out of practice in the discipline of connecting with professional peers — and out of step with the digital ways networking is now conducted. “I didn’t realize how deep I’d gotten in my little rut, my happy rut,” she says.

McLane activated her social media presence, which now includes 379 connections on LinkedIn and 578 followers on Twitter, with a handle — @CathyConnects — that describes where she wants her career to grow.

And, because no Tweet beats a face-to-face meeting, she started calling on people in similar roles at health care organizations and in higher education (including me, during my years at St. Catherine University). “People warned me that the level of job I want will come through knowing someone who knows the hiring manager,” McLane explains.

She was businesslike, professional and prepared in her informational interviews. And, without fail, she observed three practices:

  • Ask your business contact who else you should meet.
  • Write a timely and specific “thank you” note.
  • Purposefully stay in touch. “Part of networking should be giving back,” McLane says. “You want to add value. So if I find a good article or blog or website, I send that out.”

‘The age thing’

Six months after leaving her job, McLane has yet to land an equivalent career position. She’s got a long-term contract doing project management and internal communications for Cargill, which she hopes will become the “seed client” of the business she is launching: Cathy Connects LLC.

The glass ceiling she hit during her job search is less about gender than age. “People don’t always want 20 years of experience,” McLane says, because it calls up all sorts of speculations and suspicions:

  • Will you demand a higher salary?
  • Will you be digitally savvy?
  • Can you keep pace with the speed of change in today’s workforce?
  • Will you stay in a position for which you’re clearly “over-qualified”?

Consultant Sue Plaster, a former communications and HR executive who herself was laid off at age 50, says the economy and “the age thing” hit middle-aged men and women equally hard, though women likely pay a higher price for looking older. “The self-confidence aspects of the job search are really challenging,” she says.

And so, three pieces of advice for people in a midlife career transition — from three women who have been there:

  • Plaster: “Invest in a professional headshot for LinkedIn that portrays you in a favorable way — not a glamour shot but no selfies either.”
  • McLane: “Take space, not time,” she says, quoting Karen Himle, the recently named vice president of corporate communications at Thrivent Financial. Rather than mindlessly filling up your calendar, “slow down and take space to reorient: What’s important? What makes you happy?”
  • Berger: “I did not say no to a coffee date, ever. My goal was to make one contact a day. Those professional networks are really important.”

Lesson learned: “I have yet to meet one person who’s transitioned who hasn’t landed in a good place. It’s how you approach life, your attitude,” concludes Cathy McLane.