No one I know wakes up in the morning, dresses for the workday, and thinks, let me be overlooked, underutilized, misunderstood, or thought of as past my prime today. But those things happen. They happen every day for thousands of women. Recently Don Lemon, a well-known on-air television personality, declared authoritatively to his live audience and two female cohosts that women were “past their prime by age 30… possibly by age 40”. The co-hosts were aghast. The viewers were stunned. He was fired. I was fine with that.
Women now make up more than half of all workers over 50. Yay! That’s a gold star for longevity and our stick-to-it mentality. However, that gold star is tarnished because it’s rubbed up against the dismal reality that women still earn 82% of what men earn. Yes, women earn less even when men and women hold the same job title. And that hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. Women aren’t past their prime by age 50. They just earn less.
Roles Women Play at Work
I’m a Career Coach. I talk with lots of people about their work lives. They tell me everything: what’s right, what’s wrong, who got the promotion, why they did not, and so on. I hear it all.
I’ve learned that separate from their official titles, people often get labeled and known by other informal titles or personal brands at work…the teacher, the preacher, the negotiator, the listener, and the guru are examples. These alternate brands can be helpful or harmful; some seem to be used more for women than men.
Three informal brands used to describe women far more often than men are Mama Bear, Naysayer, and Historian. They may seem neutral, maybe even positive, at first hearing, but they are not.
The Mama Bear
Ferociously protective of departmental protocols and “her people,” Mama Bear feels good about protecting her turf from any perceived transgressions. This personal brand presents her as formidable but not collaborative… and hyper-protective of her territory…. or perhaps just failing to see the bigger picture. Not a good label to wear if seeking upward growth.
“That’ll never work,” “We’ve tried that before,“ or “Bad idea.” These phrases spring from the mouth of the Naysayer. Reluctant to make a change, especially if suggested by someone else, it seems there is always a “no” before there’s a “let’s try it.” It’s easy to see why the naysayer is not invited to planning meetings or strategic, blue-sky project endeavors.
After years at work in the same field or for the same company, the Historian knows where all the “bodies are buried”: who screwed up when, and what’s been tried. The Historian is often willing to explain the back story to the group or new boss. It’s a troublesome personal brand to own. This brand automatically paints one as being tied to the past, maybe slow to adopt change, and certainly as an “old timer” even if they’re younger than other newer employees.
I’m pretty sure that women aren’t greater Naysayers, Bears, or Historians than men. Perhaps they’re just viewed differently when displaying these behaviors. Regardless, the roles help others to pigeonhole us, make us seem less cooperative and are ascribed to women more often than men.
How to Avoid Sending the Wrong Signals at Work
The titles I’d like to hear applied to more women, especially those over the age of 50, are Rising Star, Leader, Executive, Authority, and Expert….you get the picture.
Want this for yourself? Do these five things.
Set Loftier Goals
Earn more money, getting a promotion, and changing careers may all be personal goals and good ones, but you will have to create a plan that’s more nuanced than that.
What do you want to do, excel at, or aspire to become? Get clear about that.
What do you want to be known for, and what will you claim as your next chapter? Be clear about where you’re trying to go. Fuzzy goals lead to fuzzy results.
Ask for What you Want.
Share your goals broadly. Ask for Feedback and honor it. Seek and ask for the jobs, roles, and assignments to set you up for your next step.
Don’t just stay current—look further out and learn ahead at the far reach of what you can see in your company, industry, or field’s future. Take classes, learn informally, and don’t forget to master your soft skills of leading, collaborating, and problem-solving.
Make More Friends
Focus on acquiring more workmates and keeping all your current friends at work. Stay in touch with people inside and outside of your company.
Career success combines what you know and who you know, so know more people and have them know you.
Invest in Yourself
Spend time and money on yourself.
Get a haircut, take a vacation, take a class, go to a conference. Get a Coach.
You’re worth it!
Encore Careers: The 10 Stages to Enjoying Your ‘Unretirement’