Today I experienced Ageism

Wow. Ageism. That smarts.

Art gallery jobs are rare. To be around art all day, looking at it, hanging it, speaking about it… it’s certainly a dream job next to writing a book and making my own art without the need to sell it to make ends meet. So when the art gallery I applied to called me about an assistant position, I almost fell off my chair in excitement.

The female manager started to ask me questions, general at first, then by about the third or fourth she directly asked me, chuckling, how old I am. I was in disbelief and it was really a reflex when I said “43”. She was evidently shocked as well because she gave a laughing howl and exclaimed “you’re older than me!”

After a few more digs, all of which I had a diplomatic retort for, I felt defeated: for all of my achievements – mother, wife, art student, artist, professional writer of 18 years – I couldn’t quite defend myself. After all, I am 43. Not much I can do about that.

Then my husband clarified that it was in fact discrimination and I started to get pissed off. Who was this person to judge me, without knowing anything about me no less? How did this happen? I was struck off the list because of a number.

According to a PBS Newshour article by Dr. Joanna N. Lahey, ageism in the workplace starts as early as 35 and older women workers now make up half of the long-term unemployed. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/age-discrimination-in-the-workplace-starts-as-early-as-35/)

Lauren Stiller Rikleen’s article Older Women Are Being Forced Out of the Workforce in the Harvard Business Review sites a study that found many employment challenges for women “arose just as they were freed from the family responsibilities that slowed their career progress when they were younger.  As mothers, they were subjected to assumptions about whether their family obligations interfered with their commitment to work.”  And now that they had substantially fewer of those obligations and were ready and willing to commit, no one would hire them because of their age.

(https://hbr.org/2016/03/older-women-are-being-forced-out-of-the-workforce)

I wrote the art gallery director an email as I felt it my duty to (old) women everywhere:

Mr. L–,

After applying for the Assistant position at your gallery, I was called by Ms. N– who proceeded to ask me questions regarding my experience and interest in the employment opportunity. The conversation was fairly standard, as preliminary interviews go, up until the point when she asked me my age. Regardless of the way the question was framed by Ms. N– as innocent and humorous, albeit with a generous helping of condescension, I would caution you to better prepare your staff with regards to interviewing and an overall consciousness of discrimination.

As a 43-year-old woman, mother, art student, artist and writer with 18 years of experience, I’m not sure I’ve ever been the subject of ageism, by another woman no less, in such a blatant and flippant manner. I was judged by Ms. N– as not having the interest, time, or career aspirations at my (old) age for her to bother proceeding any further in the hiring process. Whether I’m a good match for the gallery or not should have nothing to do with my age but a lot to do with my passion for and knowledge of art as well as my administration skills, neither of which was broached in any meaningful way by Ms. N–. Instead what I heard was, and I quote: “You’re older than me!” and “I’m sure you need to be with your children” and “A dream job? I don’t know about that… we are looking for someone young.”
While the fact that you are looking for someone young may be true, you might want to refrain from mentioning that to candidates, not to mention asking about age… or race or class, etc. etc.

Ms. N– needs some diversity training… and perhaps some lessons in empathy, professionalism, discrimination and the world in a much broader sense. I’m rather shocked and bewildered that this narrowmindedness came from a place that houses Art: a concept and practice that by its very nature is inclusive, diverse and transcendant.

Good luck in your search for the “right” candidate.

Melanie

Here are interview questions that are illegal for an employer to ask:

  1. What is your religious affiliation?
  2. Are you pregnant?
  3. What is your political affiliation?
  4. What is your race, color or ethnicity?
  5. How old are you?
  6. Are you disabled?
  7. Are you married?
  8. Do you have children or plan to?
  9. Are you in debt?
  10. Do you social drink or smoke?