I noticed it the other day on a conference call. Two women leaders on the line describing their plans for fulfilling their role on an invited panel. A prestigious offer.
One woman began every comment with a reference to her age. She didn’t choose the Sally O’Malley (“I’m 50 and I like to kick”) model, but she did liken her years to her ethos. “Well, if you’ve been in the industry as long as I have…” (light chuckle here) or “In all my years, I’ve seen so many changes” or “You all probably don’t remember this, but I do…”
Simultaneously, she announced that she was a veteran in the industry and that somehow, we weren’t.
And by creating that difference, she gleaned her power.
But veteran status isn’t required. Smarts, ability to understand the industry, ability to know what’s happening now and ability to handle risk or catastrophe is required. And while it’s true, the odds are in your favor that if you have spent many years in a job or industry, you have been tested with risk and catastrophe and have developed a shortcut for reading the market. Time can provide that for you.
But not exclusively.
Junior team members fresh out of school could learn in their first six months what not to do. Catastrophe can deliver its lessons at any time. Well-read account executives with incredible analytical capabilities could get a read on the industry as nuanced as the Sally on the phone.
That’s the problem – we’ve been equating experience or credibility with age. Well, of course. We’ve always done this. But I notice it’s women doing this more than men.
I work with someone who has been in the industry 32, 33, or 34 years. I always have to look it up because he never says it outright. He details instead experiences that have taught him, but rarely the year they took place, how long ago he accomplished it or how many tries he’d had over the years.
I also work with some women who, like Sally on the phone, when they’re about to articulate a point of view, lead with “I’ve been doing this more than 25 years.” Or “In my two decades, I’ve learned…”
Then, I realized I’m performing this “I’m old, listen to me!” behavior myself, albeit it through a different vehicle.
My favorite age indicator is to reference cultural moments that I very well know are beyond the limits of my team members.
Then, I’m in the position to say “oh, wow, so I’m old” (and conversely, declaring them young…perhaps, too young) “I guess you wouldn’t know that reference.” It reeks of desperation.
Recently, when talking about a costume gala we’re hosting, we were hoping everyone participated fully because no one would want to arrive in costume if others weren’t. I said “Yes, I don’t want to go all Bridget Jones in my bunny suit.” My colleague said “You mean Reese Witherspoon.” I paused, I recognized immediately she was talking about a different, movie where a woman dressed as a Playboy Bunny and no one else was costumed. [side note, an analysis of the misplaced bunny costumes may be warranted] I got it, but I wouldn’t drop it. I said “Oh no! I’m that old? You don’t know Bridget Jones?”
Why couldn’t I just nod and say “Oh, yes, Legally Blonde!” Instead, I felt it important to justify my dated example and position the employee as not knowing the reference. Hers, referencing a younger woman’s story, worked fine, why did it matter?
Other ways I’ve put age out front as a substitute for experience include
- Not sharing in team music play lists for outings or events, proclaiming that no one would like my old music or songs
- Loosely referencing the played out Kardashians or Friends when grappling for a popular reference, reducing my knowledge to the least trendy or vintage artifacts
- Celebrating that I’ve “outgrown” wearing heels or that I don’t worry about fashion in my coats and winter gear
None of these seem like exclusive references to age, but when I deliver them, that’s the intention. I don’t do these things, I’m older now. I don’t pay attention to or care about these “young people” things because I’m, what? Thinking more important thoughts? In one fell swoop, I position my own age and diminish my team’s experience by reducing them, too, to their age or youth.
There’s no need for it and frankly, it’s inaccurate. I know plenty of people with 25 years of experience and much of it has been basic, not revolutionary. And, frankly some of those same people rely so heavily on tenure, they’re not working to be entrepreneurial, learn new things or risk being inexperienced at something new.
The same is true for younger colleagues. Many have worked very hard in a competitive marketplace to hone their skills enough to build a career path. Even in their college classrooms, the professional experiences and moments they’ve collected rival those many of us in mid and late career captured five or ten years in.
So I challenge everyone to stop listing your years of experience and instead, level the playing field, challenge yourself to instead, name experiences themselves that give you ethos and taught you. Whether they were yesterday or have been happening for you the past 20 years. Dialing back the crutch of age and dialing up the meat of experience may be scary. It means you must investigate to see if you have more experiences to rely on than years.
Feminist, activist, outdoor advocate, animal lover, chocolate shake lover, reader, watcher, talker, actor, speaker, worker, writer, urban adventurer, hustler, involved, passionate, excited, ready.