Women are used to being judged by their appearance, but for 50-somethings and up, these sexist judgments become mixed up with ageism. It's illegal for employers to allow the age of their workers to influence decisions about hiring, promotion, and retention. There are laws banning discrimination in the workplace on the basis of age in the U.S. as well as the U.K. However, these laws don't mean that ageism doesn't exist in more subtle ways. You may not realize it, but it's ageist if your employer doesn't offer you the same opportunity for job training offered to your 30-year-old counterpart. For women, then, aging involves the double whammy of ageism and sexism. Even if these aren't overtly evident in your workplace (or society as a whole, for that matter), they are there in an invisible, invidious form.
In the U.K., a landmark case brought long-overdue attention to the problem of ageism and sexism in the workplace (Spedale). The producers of a BBC One show, "CountryFiles," were accused of discrimination against the over-40 female reporters who were let go when the show decided to move to prime time from day time. Older men were retained in the move, but the women of the same age (and younger) were let go.They weren't told why, but in the case, the charge of ageism eventually was upheld and the judge ruled in the claimant's favor. Underlying the BBC's initial decision was their belief that older women would cause the show to lose market share because they wouldn't attract the target audience.
Spedale and her coauthors, analyzing this case, brought attention to the notion of "lookism" as adding to ageism and sexism. They pointed out that lookism, in which people are stereotyped on the basis of how attractive they are perceived to be, is a phenomenon rife not only in the media, but also present throughout society.
Lookism even shows up in places where you'd least expect it. Granleese and Sayer showed how lookism operates in academic settings to lead to prejudiced decisions against older female faculty members. You might not think that looks are as important in academia as they are on television, but according to Granleese and Sayer, it was rife: "As women's attractiveness and youthfulness are undeniably related in western culture, more so than applies for men, it is likely that this factor may be reasonably internalised within the concept of gendered ageism. Thus, a 'triple jeopardy' may exist for women of sexism, ageism and appearance, i.e. 'lookism.'"
Here's the dilemma for women in midlife and beyond: Do you work even harder than you did when you were young to look young and sexy, the ideal against which women are judged? Or do you flaunt these pressures and allow your age unabashedly to be visible? Spedale et al. argue that the more aging women try to conform to these social pressures, the more they become "active agents of further stereotyping." So, the answer is: resist, resist, resist.
We have an excellent role model for flaunting society's definition of what's considered attractive. At 59 years old, Carrie Fisher appeared her age (not Hollywood-plastic) in the reprise of her role in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It didn't take long for the body-and-face-shamers to come after her. Showing that her off-screen behavior mirrored her on-screen role as a fighter, she reacted vigorously and definitively. Ironically, it was Fisher who took the heat, not her co-star Harrison Ford, 14 years her senior.
It's not going to be easy to fight lookism, but with Fisher's frank and unapologetic approach to her critics, she's paving the way for the rest of us to feel more comfortable with our real, aging, selves.
Granleese, J., & Sayer, G. (2006). Gendered ageism and "lookism": a triple jeopardy for female academics. Women in Management Review, 21, 500-517. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/09649420610683480
Spedale, S., Coupland, C., & Tempest, S. (2014). Gendered ageism and organizational routines at work: The case of day-parting in television broadcasting. Organization Studies, 35, 1585-1604. doi: 10.1177/0170840614550733