Women Have More Gifts to Offer as They Age
Updated: Apr 2
As March is Women’s History Month, it’s important to remember that “a woman’s work is never done” is far from a cliché said with a knowing smile.
Women who have been around long enough to know the score won’t be surprised to learn that recent research has found what most of them already understand – even growing older is inherently unequal, presenting more difficulties and challenges for women than men in ways that are key to self-esteem, dignity and quality of life.
This shouldn’t come as a shock in a culture that’s loaded with ageism and sexism, with older women bearing the brunt of both.
This is especially true for professional women as they age.
We need only look to the world of entertainment to get a crystal-clear look at the double standard.
Think about Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger – each time they tour they’re celebrated, and tickets sell out easily with lots of positive, praiseful press.
For Madonna it’s entirely different. Every time she plays live or releases new music there are increasing hisses about the need to retire and how she should tone down her act and “age gracefully.”
Lest we forget, she is over 15 years younger than both McCartney and Jagger. Who would know it from the tone of the discussion?
“Now I’m fighting ageism, now I’m being punished for turning 60,” she told British Vogue in 2019.
She may be iconic in popular culture, yet Madonna is continually told to hang up the proverbial dancing shoes.
No one is asking the men to retire.
Madonna is also criticized for her obsession with remaining youthful, with her many nips, tucks, and Photoshopped pictures. Apparently, those who wield the criticism don’t recognize the culture they themselves are living in, where men are often held in even higher esteem as they age (they are often called “distinguished”) while their female contemporaries are brushed aside and treated as disposable unless they can hold on to the fountain of youth – a decidedly unsustainable plan.
It’s as though the bouquet is only worth admiring when it’s first placed in the vase.
Who can blame a woman like Madonna – so celebrated in her youth – for doing all she can to cover aging, treating time as an enemy to be ignored or vanquished?
The number of women I know who have been fired from employment at which they excelled or were refused opportunities to rejoin the workforce after raising children is long enough that I’ve lost count. The subtext of the situation holds the truth. Indeed, older female employees aren’t terminated or separated from their jobs for their inevitable aging – it won’t say that on paper. Integrity and loyalty are so often hard to find, as is an honest appraisal of what so many of us know to be true.
Perhaps no one understood this better than Millicent Fenwick, a four-term member of the House of Representatives (R-NJ). Though she prevailed at getting elected to her first term at age 64, she was often questioned about her readiness for the job, including by men who were her contemporaries.
Once, during a debate in the state assembly, a male colleague told her that he didn’t like the idea of the Equal Rights Amendment because he’d “always thought of women as kissable, cuddly and smelling good.”
Her reply? “That’s the way I feel about men, too...I only hope for your sake that you haven’t been disappointed as often as I have.”
Fenwick knew that the experience and wisdom women are in a unique position to bring to the table well beyond middle age is rarely recognized or appreciated and that she’d have to engage in a battle of wits as well as displays of competence to prove her place at the table was well-earned.
She would also likely not be surprised that older people who want to continue working – particularly women – are encouraged to be creative with resumes. It’s thought better to disavow the years of experience that give them texture and reflect the experience they’ve gained.
Furthermore, key economists have found that college-educated women over 50 are at a considerable disadvantage when applying for administrative positions compared to their younger counterparts, as they are far less likely to get a follow-up interview. This holds true even though an administrative position calls for experience and proven leadership capabilities.
Even in a rare case where the seasoned applicant would logically hold the clear advantage, it’s still rarely turns out that way.
So much needs to change, but in a patriarchal society where progress comes at a glacial pace, many older women are getting shortchanged – and so are many of us who could benefit from what they are in a unique position to bring to the table.
In fact, contemporary research has served to vindicate Fenwick and her trailblazing contemporaries.
Contrary to the idea of older people as cranky and intellectually incurious, it has been found that they – men included – are not only generally happier than their younger counterparts but retain an interest in learning and weathering the changing seasons of life, ready to rise to the accompanying challenges. This means they not only boost workplace morale but are uniquely ideal in leadership roles, as they have the savvy and experience to tackle problems and handle changes with confidence.
After all, life has not only prepared them for the work, but helped them learn to not sweat the small stuff.
In the decidedly rare instances where women are supported by their workplace culture from middle age on, they not often thrive, but bring others along with them, resulting in increased productivity.
Imagine all the talent out there being underestimated and ignored.
It’s high time we raise up women and stop seeing their value as contingent upon reproductive ability or sexuality, nor to shame them if they own their sexuality past child-bearing age. (A whole other blog post could be written about that topic alone!)
Madonna knows something about this, too, of course, and is it any surprise her plan is to swim against the current?
In a 2015 Rolling Stone interview she observed “women, generally, when they reach a certain age, “have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.”
That may be easier said than done, but it is certainly a refreshing point of view.
It is long past time that we stop stigmatizing women for daring to go through menopause, have children or simply grow older – all things we otherwise understand to be part and parcel of life. These are just some of the experiences that afford a woman texture as she moves forward with her knowledge and vitality intact, primed to face what the future holds.
Daniels, F. T. T., III. (2014, February 25). Teachable Moments: Millicent Fenwick was considered ‘conscience of Congress.’ The Tennessean. https://eu.tennessean.com/story/opinion/columnists/teachable-moments/2014/02/25/teachable-moments-millicent-fenwick-was-considered-conscience-of-congress/5793055/
Ghilarducci, T. (2016, March 25). The unique disadvantage older women face in the workforce. PBS NewsHour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/the-unique-disadvantage-older-women-face-in-the-workforce
Jang, M. (2015, February 28). Madonna Compares Ageism Against Her to Racism and Homophobia. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/madonna-compares-ageism-her-racism-777725/
McClennan, J. (2020, June 20). Aging is a woman’s secret power — and the data proves it. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/aging-woman-s-secret-power-data-proves-it-ncna1231616
Mills, E. (2022, March 7). Senior women bring experience and resilience to corporate leadership. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/162a607c-4072-4706-91fd-5a7fb252be91
News18. (2019, May 4). Madonna Opens Up About Her Fight Against Ageing in Industry, Says “Being Punished for Turning 60.” https://www.news18.com/news/movies/madonna-opens-up-about-her-fight-against-ageing-in-industry-says-being-punished-for-turning-60-2127893.html