WOMEN@WORK:

Maturity and life experience do have a place in the workplace

by Debra Littlejohn Shinder
copyright 1997

 

According to some pessimistic reports in the media, women over 40 in the job market face a challenge only slightly less hopeless than that of ancient Christians thrown to the lions. Getting a job is painted as almost impossible unless you're a twenty-something glamour girl with big eyes, big hair, and the ability to lay on the BS in a big way while batting your lashes at the big boss.

But personal experience and observations, along with interviews of many mature working women, prove that "it ain't necessarily so." There is a place in the business world -- and a growing appreciation -- for ladies with some life experience and solid decision-making and people skills. This includes those who are beginning new careers after decades of homemaking, as well as those who have been in the workforce all their lives.

Job-seekers and hiring authorities agree that, in most cases, whether your age is a detriment or a benefit is all a matter of how you present yourself.

"When I went back to work after staying home with my kids for 18 years," says Margie, "I knew all the things I'd learned and practiced in managing a household could be valuable to an employer. I put together a resume that concentrated on my skills and abilities instead of education and job experience. I stressed budgeting, planning, scheduling, coordinating activities, and I used all the buzzwords. I got interviews, and I got offers -- good ones -- to choose from. I started as an assistant in the marketing department, and now, three years later, I'm a corporate trainer with the same company." Margie's promotions came fast, once she proved herself, in spite of the fact that she was almost forty years old when she started her first paying job.

More and more women are starting their own businesses. Many of these women are in their forties and fifties, leaving the corporate environment to strike out on their own, and bringing with them the shrewd business sense they developed over the years. They often prefer to hire other women close to their own age, people to whom they can relate and with whom they feel they can communicate well. The proliferation of women-owned and "all-female" businesses (and the funding available to them from various organizations) affords many opportunities to the mature woman seeking employment.

The stereotypical male boss is looking for more than competence and professionalism in female job candidates, preferring to hire the "sweet young thing" who'll stimulate more than his creativity as they work together. That may be changing, though. In today's political climate, many men shudder at the thought of having a sexy babe around the office; rightly or wrongly, they see her as a potential danger -- a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.

"I'd rather work with a smart, professional, happily married lady in her forties or fifties any day," says one male manager, who I'll call Bill. "Hiring a young girl is asking for trouble. You've got to worry about accusations if you so much as smile at some of them. Others are just the opposite -- they fall all over you, fall 'in love' with you just because you're the boss/authority/father figure to them. Or else they're so caught up in their personal lives and their boyfriends that they can't be depended on to show up every day and on time. Others are good workers, but if they're young and pretty, the rest of the office will assume there's something going on when there isn't. Maybe it's discrimination, but I'd rather hire an older woman who's not going to do the dumb things that all young kids, male and female, are prone to do."

What about when your competition is mostly made up, not of younger women, but men your own age? Surprisingly, in many circles, older women still fare well.

"Professional-level female candidates on the average don't have as many years of on-the-job experience as the men," says Bill, "but that can actually be a plus. They aren't as likely to be burned out. They bring more enthusiasm to the job. And I find them to be more creative, more willing to look at a project or an issue from different perspectives, less rigid and better able to consider other people's points of view.

"Often the women went back to school and got their degrees when their kids started to school," he continues. "Their educational background, being more recent, may be more up-to-date. A lot of men don't keep up with new developments, and the women who put in time to get the training tend to take the job very seriously. They contribute a lot, and don't think they deserve something just because they've been with the company for x number of years. They're more used to having to prove themselves -- I guess that comes from being required to do it over and over in a man's world -- and are comfortable with a compensation system based on merit instead of longevity."

As mentioned before, female entrepreneurship is a growing trend. If you like the idea of working for yourself and have the self-discipline to do it, you'll find that it's becoming easier to be taken seriously. This is an area where maturity is looked on as an asset. Bankers and investors seem more inclined to risk their money on a woman who is in her forties or older --especially one with a solid educational or career background -- than a younger women who may be seen as too "flighty" or likely to abandon business for marriage and motherhood.

As the baby boom generation ages, maturity becomes a "majority" trait, and middle-age becomes the "norm." Advances in medical technology and expanding interest in health issues and fitness have made it commonplace for persons to remain active and productive workers well into what used to be considered "old age." And women still have the advantage here.

"Let's face it, women have a longer life span than men," Bill reminds us. "A fifty-year-old female employee is less likely to drop dead of a heart attack and leave me with an important position suddenly vacant. And even though women may take slightly more days off than men to go to the doctor and such, it pays off. They live longer, and in my experience their productivity doesn't drop off as they get older nearly as much as a man's does."

Throughout history, women have continued to work (taking care of their homes and families) all their lives, while men often "retired" at sixty-five or sixty or even in their fifties. There is no reason that advancing years should keep you from working outside the home as well, if you want and/or need to do so. Your age should not prevent you from getting a job -- or striking it rich on your own. One local woman I know, vivacious and energetic at sixty-something, made almost $200,000 selling real estate last year. Her age didn't slow her down a bit.

"I'm not getting older, I'm getting better." That's the motto of many successful women at work. Those they work for, and with, are beginning to believe them. But before that could happen, they first had to believe in themselves.


Debi Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

shinder@dallas.net


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