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The 50+ Female Executive:

A New Wrinkle and an Age-old Problem

Mature business woman looking at her reflection in her car's rear view mirror

On the face of it, Carly Fiorina and Nancy Pelosi may not appear to have much in common, but look again. They share a concern of many women: Does the image fit the role?

Around the time I turned 50, many of my peers began asking me when I was going to start getting Botox: “You are the only woman over 50 who hasn’t had it.” I did notice that I had some creases on my forehead which led me to examine corporate America’s obsession with youth, and why it seems like there is more pressure to maintain an image for women executives than men.

We all want to be taken seriously in our careers and, unfortunately, appearance plays a big part in whether or not we will be.

My professional women friends espoused the same rationale that I believe Fiorina and Pelosi would use—we all want to be taken seriously in our careers and, unfortunately, appearance plays a big part in whether or not we will be. And friends of both sexes argue that they want to look as young outside as they feel inside.

The Double Standard

How does growing older in the workplace differ for men and women in a world where greying men are considered distinguished, while greying women might be thought to have missed an appointment with the colorist?

Of course, many men at the apex of their careers ponder these same issues—just ask John Boehner or Joe Biden—but I don’t believe they feel the same pressure to equate a youthful appearance with gravitas. It’s no coincidence that the media fixate on Hillary Clinton’s appearance in a manner that her husband Bill, just one year her senior, has never “faced.” The double standard for men and women as they age holds up across all industries, professions and callings, whether in politics, Hollywood or business.

Appearing youthful and pulled-together can dramatically affect a mature woman’s chances of succeeding. A woman who climbs to the top of the corporate ladder knows that it may take more than an impressive resume to get there: maintaining a Madonna-style dedication to appearing youthful may help.

Appearing youthful and pulled-together can dramatically affect a mature woman’s chances of succeeding.

For men, it may be enough to get to the gym occasionally, but if they are really gifted leaders, they may not even need to do that. Although I’m no sociologist, it could be that because women’s roles in the executive office and boardroom are recent and ever-evolving, appearance is heavily weighted in performance evaluation because there is no 100-year old model.

Looks Matter

Research has shown that women’s appearances factor more heavily in shaping the perceptions of colleagues, recruiters and potential employers than is the case for men. A 2011 Harvard University report concluded that women who wear makeup are perceived to be more competent than women who don’t, while the Pew Research Center more vaguely found that women are “held to higher standards” and therefore face added barriers to reaching leadership roles.

A study done in 2009 by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that some 73% of women felt a youthful appearance played a role in getting a job, getting promoted or keeping clients.

"As people age, employers and colleagues perceive them as having less energy and being less effective" notes Gordon Patzer, Ph.D., a psychologist from Chicago who has studied looks for 30 years. "Being older in the workplace is looked at negatively," he adds.

How to "Face" the Issue?

While it’s clear that a woman’s ascent to a senior-level position should be dictated not by her ability to hide the crows’ feet around her eyes—but rather by job performance and leadership skills—it is unclear how best to rectify the double standard. How do we ensure that women can reach senior-level positions without the added burden of “aging gracefully”?

Let's start by talking about it.

Counter-intuitive as it might seem, if people can be more open about what they do to maintain their looks, then we might stop caring whether female leaders age gracefully or not. We can acknowledge that maintaining a youthful appearance requires effort, as does any accomplishment. Could maintaining an impressive appearance be made to seem like another means of measuring achievement?

Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, still dyes her hair, and has admitted to some "anti-aging work" around her eyes.

While we all know, or think we know, of female executives who have had cosmetic procedures, my Google search turned up not one name. Despite the never-ending pursuit by so many women to look good and stay youthful, women remain reluctant to admit publicly what it takes to obtain those looks.

Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, still dyes her hair, and has admitted to some "anti-aging work" around her eyes (which she says she later regretted). She encourages women to age naturally but has been open about her views on plastic surgery, saying: “If you're in the public eye, for instance, a few nips and tucks might add another decade to your career.”

Greta Van Susteren, lawyer and former CNN analyst, said she underwent cosmetic surgery before her Fox News debut and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. Van Susteren said in a Good Morning America interview: "What I'm told is that I'm the first in the news business who is talking about it. But it wasn't like an admission of a crime to me, it was like, well, here it is." Refreshing, if rare.

Eventually, talking about it might help us get to a point where an older businesswoman who doesn’t care if her grey roots are showing is considered for important senior-level positions coextensively with her peers who feel differently. After all, what’s really important is that all women be able to pursue executive positions regardless of appearance—augmented or not.

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