Three years ago I wrote about reverse age bias that I experienced as a "young" woman in business at 26. Reverse age bias is discriminating against young women in business because of their perceived lack of experience. Young professional women (defining young here as before 30) are viewed as little girls, unqualified, and too young to have any expertise. (All of these sentiments have been leveled against me personally, as well.) This bias sits in stark contrast to the current culture of fetishizing the young male entrepreneur - the hoodie-wearing 19-year-old Stanford dropout as stuff venture capitalists dream of.
The problem is more insidious than not taking young women seriously because of their age. The issue is that there is no age at which a woman is "suited" for the professional world. It's a losing game. And with the extremes being one of the myriad of difficulties women face in business, (appearance, ambition, aggression) age is stark, real, and difficult to navigate.
In the piece I wrote over three years ago I talked about how a client remarked at how young I was the first time we met. It was the first thing he said, before he even said hello. It left me feeling helpless. I replied with a remark about great genes, mortified and defenseless. The comments section of said piece echoed these sentiments - feelings of frustration and helplessness (you can't help how old you are), but also the difficulties that come with even looking young, when you're not. There were comments and emails of women well into their 40s describing the issues they faced with people taking them seriously because they appeared to be younger than their age.
This bias against young women is one I am not immune to either, and am guilty of without even realizing it. I spoke at a conference not too long ago, and another speaker was a woman under 20. We were both in the holding room before our talks, and she was on the phone. She leads a very successful company, and she was discussing hiring a new C-level position, their equity, vesting stock, among other topics. I remember thinking to myself "wow, I can't believe she's only 19 and able to have a conversation like that". You would have thought she was five from the way I reacted. I immediately felt guilty. She's an adult. Of course she's able to have conversations like that. If a 19 or 20-year-old guy were having the same conversation I wouldn't think twice. Instead, I viewed her as a little girl, I dismissed her as cute and impressive, versus the serious professional force that she is. I think I said something to her like, "Wow! I couldn't help but overhear your conversation and I'm so impressed!". Yikes. Maybe I was impressed she was a bunch younger than I, or for some reason we can't get beyond -- that young women are actually capable of having business savvy. This has to change.
There is no perfect age to be a professional woman - all of a sudden you're too old, too. There's a major problem with visibility of older women in business, particularly in Silicon Valley. At what point do you become one or the other? Are you either too young or too old? Cute or invisible? You're stuck in an impossible gray area in a world of labels and extremes. For example - an acquaintance ran into an old boss of hers last week. Instead of praising her acumen, discussing her new position - he told her she "finally looked like a real woman". She's 44. Dumbfounded and furious, she in the moment felt trapped and angry. The comment this man made was simultaneously dismissive and judgmental, implying that when she worked for him before, she was a child. It made me think of seeing a family friend you haven't seen in a long time remark at how "grown up" you are. It makes you feel invisible. This woman was an adult the entire time this man knew her. What made her not "real" before?
As a society we are obsessed with age, but we can't figure out how we feel about it. Young women in America are viewed as viable, sexy, hot. Enjoying dating women older than you as a man is seen as an exotic - so exotic it requires a label (cougar). We can't figure out where age and taking women seriously come into play. We're fixated as a society (and world) with anti-aging products and Botox, plastic surgery and face masks. When I lived in Los Angeles in the fall and winter I was mistaken. I thought that the community I was joining was chasing beauty. Instead they're chasing youth, the ultimate symbol of beauty and arguably more detrimental: relevance.
Our fascination with young women as sexual objects or signs of life and happiness doesn't translate for women in business and is damaging. Emily Ratajkowski, a famous model known for her body, is by all accounts a symbol of our definition of sexy. Ratajkowski is extremely successful, and yet she too writes about the complications of our obsession with what she calls the idea of the "sexy baby" -- that we think young is sexy, until it's promptly not. She wrote an essay for Lena Dunham's newsletter, Lenny, about the difficulties and complications about her job and her looks, which she calls "Baby Woman". An immediate reaction could be that her difficulties being taken seriously, or as more than a sexual object, are her fault, or are because of what she has chosen to do professionally. That's absurd.
As someone who runs her own business and has for five years, I am careful to surround myself with advisers that have experience I do not, or have more years on me. I will often go to mentors for advice, and inherently, my age comes up. When does my being "young" end as a factor? When I turn 30? A lot of times they'll say when I was your age, or I have a lot of years on you, and it makes me cringe. I understand it, as they have perspective that is quite valuable, but I'm not sure it's coded in the same way with men. I can't imagine an older man counseling a male entrepreneur in his 20s, saying something like, "when you're my age you'll understand". Or, "you're too young to understand some of this now". In a meeting recently I was told me I was still young (viable) "enough to reinvent myself still a few times".
We put women in an impossible bind, particularly in business - and age is just one of those extremes. There is no perfect age. There is no "real woman". It's hard when you're younger, it's hard when you're older. It's getting past what you look like, whether you have gray hair or are 16 that's the real challenge. It's about taking women seriously at any age. It's a trap. You're in an either or world. You're either sexy or serious. You're either professional or fun. It's the in between where the good stuff happens, if our society lets it.