“Ageism is the first form of prejudice a heterosexual, white, middle-class man will experience” – Ashton Applewhite, activist & author of This Chair Rocks
A pretty damning indictment of society, right? And whether we like it or not, it’s true. Ageism really is the only prejudice that unites us all. But that doesn’t mean we all experience it in the same way.
Men can certainly be victims of ageism, but that doesn’t mean they have such a tough time with it as women. Because ageism is inherently sexist – especially when it comes to image. Men are allowed to age, becoming ‘silver foxes’ whilst women become ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. Do you think George Clooney would have had such an illustrious career after going grey at 33, had he been a woman? I’m certainly sceptical.
The narrative we’re encouraged to believe is that older men typically embody success, experience and worldliness, whilst older women are ageing spinsters fading into the background. And this makes it a lot harder for women to combat.
Generally speaking, ageing women are ridiculed, criticised and judged far more than men, and that isn’t even just with regards to their image. Their lifestyles are scrutinised more harshly: if a woman dates a younger man, it’s sure to raise eyebrows, whilst an older man with a younger woman is virtually accepted as a norm; derogatory terminology such as ‘granny’ reduces an older woman to her fertility status (when have you seen an ad addressing older men as ‘grandpa?’); and in the work place a woman’s cognitive abilities are considered to deteriorate at a much faster rate than a man’s. As Joan Smith highlighted in The Independent a few years ago, during Hilary Clinton’s election campaign there was ‘a slew of articles’ asking if she was too old for the job at 68, and there was even a montage of photographs online showing her age 50 years in just over a minute. Where were such articles about Trump? And, at the same time, The Daily Telegraph claimed it was Jeremy Corbyn’s age (only 2 years younger than Clinton) that ‘makes him seem fresh’.
Whatever angle we look at ageism from, it’s shrouded in sexism. Even in cases where prima facie ageism seems to hurt men more than women. For example, a study at the University of Stanford found ageism damages men more than women in the workplace, because younger employees can view older men as overly aggressive, or selfishly refusing to step down. Older women, on the other hand, can ‘escape’ this backlash and perception because they’re seen as less of a threat to others’ careers, and are still considered maternal or caring, even if they behave in an assertive way. But, as the study noted, these stereotypes stem from institutionalised sexism, with a dearth of older women in senior roles. (I’d also suggest the difficulties these men face may seem to them more pronounced because they havn’t experienced other prejudices in their life.)
So, because sexism is so entrenched in society, women automatically face different experiences as they get older; after all, sexism doesn’t just miraculously disappear as soon as a woman hits 50.
A couple of weeks ago I went to an event which explored ageism from a non-gendered perspective. The majority of the attendants were men, and collectively we were offering insight and thoughts on ways to combat prejudice. But the advice given by several men, albeit very well intended, was far easier for men to adopt than women. In particular, one tip was to ‘stop lying’ about our age through embracing our ageing looks. In theory I completely agreed with them – and it’s something I consistently advocate – but this is far easier said than done, especially for women, many of whom feel they don’t have the luxury of doing this for personal or professional reasons, or even both.
I don’t begrudge the men for not acknowledging this; they were speaking from their experiences and perspectives. But what it highlighted is the importance of women engaging in the conversation around ageism, and supporting one another in the fight to end it.
Now I’m not one who necessarily believes in the unwavering sanctity of sisterhood; I went to an all-girls school so I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. But you’ll know I proudly identify as a feminist, and I do believe we all gain when women lift each other up, rather than stab each other in the back. So, given we are united in facing ageism in a way that only women can understand, we need to be joining forces. We need to be discussing why ageism is sexist, sharing experiences, speaking out and supporting one another. It needs to be a part of the feminist movement, because the more we collectively engage in this issue, the more we can bring greater awareness to it.
Yes, it isn’t easy for either gender to get older. But it’s a lot harder for women, and it’s about time we recognised that.