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Going Gray: Will Gray Hair Hurt Or Help Your Career?

Topics: Work Culture
Does gray hair on a woman symbolize professional experience, an antiquated skill set, both or neither? Whatever gray hair means for professional women, like it or not, it certainly has an impact on perception in the office.
Gray Hair
Image Credit: Pexels / Anastasiya Lobanovskaya

Originally written by Michele Weldon for Fairygodboss

Helen Mirren, Christine Lagarde, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jamie Lee Curtis. They each long ago went gray, and the move hasn’t hurt their iconic careers.

A little gray hair might even be a new fad, as Glamour reports that Jessica Biel and Katie Holmes don’t hide and dye their gray, while 32-year-old Chrissy Teigen recently tweeted: “I have a skunk-like streak of grey hair, and I’m actually very into it. My Cruella dreams are coming true!”

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But in the workplace for the rest of us, it is up for debate whether a full head of gray hair is a nod to the longevity of your professional career or a hindrance. The stigma of age is undeniable for women leaders culturally and professionally.

Yet, the color of a woman leader’s hair does not have anything to do with anything. We’re not spending much time discussing whether or not the male CEOs are covering up their gray roots.

Yes, blatant age discrimination is illegal, but more subtle age bias arrives in a swath of instances. Still, many women are choosing to go all gray, white or silver, as a nod to their natural state.

“Women are realizing that they don’t have to cover something up that they would have [previously] felt pressure to cover,” Hairstory colorist Julia Elena told Allure. “In the past, getting wrinkles or gray hair was considered a bad thing, and I think people are less concerned with the ‘signs of aging‘ than they used to be.”

That would be a relief. A vintage ad for Wyeth’s Sage and Sulphur had the headline, “Gray hair cost her her job! She was willing and capable, but gray hair made her look old and slow. ‘A younger woman would work more snappily,’ was the verdict.”

Hopefully we have come a long way. Yet, ageism in the workplace is a reality for all women.

“Age discrimination is an open secret like sexual harassment was until recently,”  Victoria Lipnic, the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, recently told ProPublica.

The good news is images of older women sporting gray manes is more common in advertising for a broad range of fashion offerings, including the brand Athleta, marketed to women 35- 55 years old. The brand shuns the norm of young, very thin models and show women of all ages and sizes. This may be trickling into the culture to make hair color choice a non-issue.

Hairstylist Lorraine Massey, author of “Silver Hair: Say Goodbye to the Dye and Let Your Natural Light Shine: A Handbook,” recently told ABC7, “I think we all have a little dysmorphia when it comes to our hair.”

That may have to do with subtle and overt ways of interacting with women leaders in the workplace.

“No matter how supported they are early on, and no matter how great the company’s parental leave policies are, if women aren’t able to look at company leadership and see older women, women who have stayed the course and built their own careers, younger women won’t have role models to emulate,” Kejal Macdonald writes in Marketwatch. “Without seeing older women being celebrated in the workplace, how will they see a future in which they’ll be valued?”

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, author and senior leader with The OpEd Project. her most recent book is Escape Points: A Memoir.

Going Gray: Will Silver Hair Hurt Or Help Your Career? originally appeared on Fairygodboss.

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Do you believe having gray hair impacts your colleagues’ perception of you at work? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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