Sunday, May 3, 2009

Too Old for the Job, but Not to be a Formidable Woman!

I just read in the May issue of MORE that actress Isabella Rossellini was canned by cosmetics giant Lancome after 14 years representing their makup. The reason she got the axe? She's--ahem--forty-two. Oh, dear God, a woman who's actually mature selling make-up to women her own age! It's absolutely unthinkable. Well, at least in the cosmetics industry which is, let's face it, built on creating the illusion of eternal youth. Same goes for the movie and TV industries. When they start casting Molly Ringwald as a pregnant teenager's mother, it's time to wave the reality red flag and shout, "What gives?"

Fortunately, most of us don't have jobs that require our faces to be twenty feet high on the streets of Manhattan. Crowsfeet at that size can look like the lines on Mars. It's not pretty, but it's real. We know what crowsfeet look like. We see them in the mirror everytime we brush our teeth. It's not like the cosmetics companies are fooling anybody. And even if Rossellini doesn't feel too irked by the parting--Lancome, as she says, made her a rich woman--it's the principle of giving a woman the boot, or not even offering her the juiciest role/job/title, because her age conveys something that terrifies us--deterioration.

I didn't think I gave a hoot about what Hollywood/NYC does when it comes to casting twenty-year-olds opposite leading men old enough to be their grandfathers, until I was asked at a seminar if I had a LinkedIn profile. I was the one who waved my hand feebly. Well, sort of, kinda. The truth was, I had started a profile--which for all of you not familiar with LinkedIn is a bit like posting your resume on a giant, worldwide bulletin board--and then I hit the wall of anxiety. What if my twenty plus years of experience looks like I'm out of the loop; old-school; a shriveling peach that's one flick of the wrist away from the compost heap? What if my timeline makes a future employer fidget in his/her seat because they're thinking, "Oh, God, hot flashes and menopausal lapses of memory!"

I know this happens. I know it, because I've been on the receiving end of resumes and have reacted to "older" candidates with the same stereotypical reservations. One of our positions was pretty demanding, physically. I remember saying--not even just thinking, but saying--do you think she (the job seeker over forty), is up to it? Ten lashes with a mascara wand to me! We did end up hiring the older candidate who didn't work out, but for entirely different reasons that had nothing to do with her stamina. Still, we're all in a bit of a cultural conundrum when it comes to older women in the workforce. We just don't have a lot of precedents. Even if our mothers worked--mine in her 70s still does a few hours a week at her old place of employment--the work world is a very different place. Technology is a part of every profession, and the rapid pace of change leaves some of us stranded at the back of the pack, panting furuiously and coughing up the dust of Blackberries gone wild.

Our seminar leader, however, encouraged us to get our LinkedIn profiles to 100% completion. 100% means you not only fill in your stats, hook up to some collegues (called your "connections"), and make sure your headshot is reasonably less scary than your driver's license photo, it means you recommend people and ask people to recommend you. When I started asking for, and getting, remarkable recommendations from my friends and colleagues, I
I began to realize that down-playing my accomplishments was, one, absurd, and, two, falling for the ageism trap. I had to tell myself to get over it, already.

I discovered that, instead of being intimidated by LinkedIn and the potential of my over-experience sticking out like week-old grey roots, I could work it for the great "identity mask" it is. In cyber-space, age is relative. If you can walk the walk, and talk the talk, you can be sixteen or sixty. Play around with the cool tools a little (or get your tech savvy teen to help you), and the next thing you know, you've got your own Me Channel where you can never be fired for the lines on your face, or given the axe because your skin has lost its dewey glow.

To me, self-appreciation trumps outer validation when youthfulness is no longer your strongest selling point. When I look at my LinkedIn profile--now at 100% complete!--I don't see a woman afraid to reveal her age or experience. I see confidence and accomplishment; passion and creativity. I'm betting that some intelligent director or smart company CEO will see Lancome's farewell to Rossellini as a golden opportunity, and she'll be off and running in exciting new directions. Sometimes the boot is the very thing we need to propel us forwards.