On Sunday, Michelle Yeoh won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” making history as the first Asian actress to do so in the show’s 95 years.
In her acceptance speech, the Malaysia-born 60-year-old made a point to call out gendered ageism and encourage those who want to follow in her path.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,” she said in her acceptance speech. “This is proof that dream big, and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.”
Throughout this awards season, Yeoh has used her platform to speak up about how she and other Asian actors have faced stereotypes and societal barriers in their careers. In a GQ interview, she called the role of Evelyn in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” “something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time.”
The facts back up how gendered ageism is ever-present in Hollywood. In 2017, USC published a report that found that only two leading characters over 60 were featured in the 25 films nominated for Best Picture over the previous three years — and they were both played by the same white man, Michael Keaton.
When older people were featured in Best Picture-nominated movies, men were playing leaders, while older women, and older people of color in particular, rarely got to wield power on screen, according to the report.
“Occupational prestige is the province of male seniors,” the study stated. “The consistent portrayal of male leaders in film means that audiences across the life span do not see a portrait of authority and achievement that reflects reality by including females and people of color.”
But it’s not just actors who face gendered ageism. Very few of us will ever become Oscar-winners, but unfortunately the harmful societal assumption that women have a fleeting “prime” working age is still alive and well.
Too many women are told they are “past their prime,” in their careers, which is why Yeoh’s encouragement is so important.
Although age discrimination in the workplace has been illegal in the U.S. since 1967, many women still report dealing with it on a regular basis. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that since 2010, the number of women filing age discrimination charges has surpassed the number of men filing age discrimination charges.
Just last month, CNN anchor Don Lemon got called out for suggesting in a TV segment that because of her age, 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime,” which he later apologized for.
Cynthia Pong, a feminist career strategist for women of color, said the implicit message that women have a “prime” working age is something her clients and people in her community deal with a lot. For them, it can show up beyond words as a “sense that a door is being shut in [their] face because they are a certain age or they present as a certain age,” she said.
One 2019 report on gendered ageism from the nonprofit Catalyst, whose mission is to promote workplace inclusion for women, found that “in addition to societal biases that older employees are less innovative, adaptive and generally less qualified, older women face marginalization based on ‘lookism,’ gendered youthful beauty standards.”
Pong noted that ageism can be a double-edged sword and can penalize women for either looking too young or too old to be respected and taken seriously. According to a 2021 AARP survey, about 1 in 3 women say they experience age discrimination, and women in the survey who were 50 years or older reported age discrimination at about the same rate as younger women.
Even if gendered ageism hasn’t happened to you in particular, it can affect your career growth. Pong noted that simply witnessing ageism can cause a “chilling effect” in workplaces and make women of color in particular less risk-averse in their job moves.
“They are worried that rug is going to get pulled out from under them as well,” Pong said, noting that a common message she hears is “‘I don’t want to rock the boat.’”
Yeoh’s message to not give up in the face of these daily discouragements is a reminder that it’s critical to staying true to yourself. To individually cope with the societal problem of ageism, “The bottom line is to always make sure that you are clear about what you want to achieve or accomplish in your career if you are [any] woman or woman of color,” Pong said. That way, you can strategize on a plan and connect with people who can help you reach your goals.
In worst-case scenarios, internalizing ageist messages can distract all women from their mission and cause them to give up on their career dreams altogether, Pong said, which is why Yeoh’s encouragement is so important.
“That’s the underlying message of what Michelle Yeoh is saying: ‘Don’t give up and don’t accept this.’ Really, that’s the only way. If we can reach some kind of tipping point where this is no longer as much of a factor, that would ultimately be the goal,” Pong said.