This can’t be what she meant by “leaning in.” Sheryl Sandberg has a high-pressure job, one she said she couldn’t do without the help of her husband. Unfortunately, David died suddenly at the age of 47.
Got your coffee? Here’s the “news” from Salon.com:
WOMEN OVER 50 ARE INVISIBLE
Rampant ageism and sexism have left women of a certain age virtually powerless in American society
Virtually powerless? Holy crap. I had no idea we were in this much trouble.
But first, great news!
I tweeted about the above article, and Jane Friedman responded. We’d met briefly before, when she was at Writer’s Digest Magazine. Jane is now a top editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, and a renowned publishing and media expert.
Turns out, she was bugged by this, too. We agreed to do a tandem blog – she would address the under-fifty perspective, and I – since today is my 59th birthday – the over-fifty. I know you’ll find her POV extremely interesting. Mine will probably be better, because I’m older, but as soon as the whippersnapper gets a few more wrinkles, she’ll be all right.
Okay, back to the article. The author, Tira Harpaz, is an accomplished woman. Yet, she feels invisible, and thinks we are, too. Her comments below describe the pain she’s feeling.
- “It hits you in areas where you feel most vulnerable–a loss of attractiveness and sex appeal, the end of fertility, a glimpse of a slow, lingering decline.”
- “People I met at parties would look slightly disappointed and then look past me, and gradually, I began to shrink inside.”
- “As I eased into the row, the 30-something man sitting in the window seat glanced up at me. It was a brief glance, but it conveyed disappointment and complete disinterest.”
- “When the radiologist no longer asks if there’s any chance you’re pregnant. When the cashier at the movie theater, glancing indifferently at your gray roots, suggests you might want the senior discount, years before you might qualify. When people in the subway don’t really look at you as they politely offer you a seat.”
As much as I disagree with Harpaz, she’s not alone. You’ve heard it yourself. Maybe even felt it. However, today, I’m going to suggest an alternate explanation, one that might set you free. Sort of.
I think invisibility isn’t about age. It’s about gender. It’s about being female.
Let me make my argument. From the time we’re old enough to raise our hands in a classroom, we’re ignored in favor of the boys (Altermatt, Jovanovic, & Perry, 1998). While boys often speak out of turn and assert themselves, little girls sit back, waiting for the teacher to call on them.
Per Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, school children were asked to perform a small task and then pay themselves what they thought they deserved. (First graders were asked to award themselves Hershey’s Kisses.) In first, fourth, seventh and tenth grades, girls consistently paid themselves 30% – 78% less than boys.
In her new book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg laments how young, professional women discount themselves, from second-guessing their readiness for promotion to declining an offer to sit at the table with the decision-makers.
And then that goes away.
Whether it’s gender or age, women can change the culture, and they can start today. For more on this, read the excellent In the Company of Women – Indirect Aggression Among Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop, by Drs. Pat Heim and Susan Murphy. They cite research showing that women hang back, out of fear that other women will punish them if they act like they’re special. The authors call this the Power Dead-Even Rule, and it’s pretty chilling. You can read a summary of the most important points here.
We older women should model powerful behavior for our girls, and encourage them as if their futures depended on it. If I were counseling younger women, I’d say stop waiting for an invitation. Grab the reins and demonstrate your presence. Older women: You were raised to be nice, and to put others first. Are you still waiting for permission to live? Stop right now. Take off your shoes and walk on the lawn.
Finally, all of us need to support, rather than snipe at, powerful, amazing, barrier-busting women.
Sexism exists. So does ageism. (For proof, reread Ms. Harpaz’ statements, above). But if you feel as I do, you might agree that invisibility is a choice. And as for me? I choose to resist.
What do you think? Is this invisibility real, and if so, do you think it’s because of gender or age? Let me hear from you.
PS: Blogging with Jane is the best birthday present ever! Be sure to check out her post here.
One of the cool things about getting older is you recognize wisdom. You learn to separate the faddish bloviators from the truly wise people.
Tim Ferris strikes me as wise. He wrote a smart book about focusing on the right things and not wasting time as you pursue your dreams.
Malcolm Gladwell is wise. He’s the guy who wrote in his book Outliers that success is a matter of practicing for ten thousand hours. And how that fact relates to our country’s idiotic approach to “educating” our students.
Sheryl Sandberg is wise when she says our little girls are not going to grow up to assume the reins of power unless we change our thinking, and fast. You can watch her TED speech here.
I recently discovered a couple of wise brothers, Dan and Chip Heath. They give speeches and write books about making smart decisions. In a recent column in Slate.com, they identify four key areas for ensuring you survive during this economic downturn. They mean it career-wise but I think it’s 100% applicable to life in general.
Principle 1: Look for bright spots
We tend to focus on the negative. It’s a biological, genetic imperative that I wrote about previously. Per the Heaths, “this bias will tempt you to focus on the negative when it comes to your work: What are the problems I’m facing and how do I fix them? And, in doing that, you’ll neglect an equally important question: What’s working now, despite the obstacles, and how can I do more of it?”
How this relates to us:
Isn’t this a promising line of questions for our interpersonal relationships? You could apply it to your marriage, your kids, your friends, and your professional endeavors.
The problems tend to get most of our attention (see: Pareto Principal). If we know that, maybe we can enhance our quality of life by shoving the negatives back in the box and playing more with the positives. Fun thought, eh?
Principle 2: Find the right gravity
According to the Heaths, who got the idea from motivational speaker Jim Rohn, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
The Heaths relate it to a work environment, which “exerts a gravitational pull on us; the longer we stay, the more we’ll come to resemble the people we surround ourselves with.”
How this relates to us:
I’m such a fan of Stockholm Syndrome, don’t get me started. I mean this in the sense of women who lose themselves in their significant others. After a while you don’t even notice you’re adopting group-think. So watch out. Flypaper is everywhere. Don’t apologize, just notice. And then flee.
Principle 3: Maintain your bridges
Per the Heaths, we get more benefit from acquaintances than friends:
A landmark 1973 sociology paper by Mark Granovetter described the surprising amount of benefit we receive from our acquaintances, whom he called “weak ties” (as distinct from our “strong ties,” who are our closest friends and family). For example, in one study, Granovetter interviewed people who’d found a job through their contacts. In about 83 percent of the cases, the critical job lead came from a weak tie—a person seen occasionally or rarely.
How this relates to us:
According to Granovetter, opportunities are more likely to come from the least likely place, but as older peeps we tend to think we’ve seen it all. This attitude could wall you off from the magic! So don’t lose your sense of childlike wonder; don’t stop believing. Be open.
Principle 4: Avoid following the herd
Per the Heaths, “In pre-crash Iceland, lifetime fishermen laid down their rods to become investment bankers. We all know how that ended. It’s hard to resist following the herd, but traveling with the herd makes it harder to distinguish yourself. Differentiating yourself requires you to do something different. Think of it this way:
On Krypton, Superman was just an average Joe.
But on Earth, he was Superman.”
How this relates to us:
Older peeps are independent thinkers. At least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves, but in truth, we huddle and bitch just like any other age group.
It’s lonely if you’re out standing in a field.
In 2011, many of our myths are falling away. Here’s what I’ve come to understand: Some of today’s music is wonderful. Lots of young people work harder than I ever did. And Twitter is about more than a ham sandwich.
Think for yourself, even if it hurts.
Housekeeping note: I am fake-humbled but mostly totally thrilled to tell you that this blog just received its one-hundredth subscriber! So when you leave a comment, you will be speaking to a whole bunch of friends. Your voice is amplified! Have fun with it. Leave a comment – share your voice. And thank you.