50,000 Shades of Gray: Will Silver Hair Help or Hinder You As A Leader?

Athleta uses older women with gray hair in their advertising. (Photo credit: Athleta.)

Athleta uses older women with gray hair in their advertising. (Photo credit: Athleta.)

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!”

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.

The stigma of age is undeniable for women leaders culturally and professionally. #womenleaders

Read more on ageism in the workplace here at Take The Lead.

But 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.

Of the 24 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2017, only two have blondish gray hair that is more blonde than gray, but is something of a hybrid. Ginni Rometty, president and CEO of IBM, and Gail K. Boudreaux, CEO of Anthem, Inc. stand out with their gray/blonde locks in the clearly blonde, brunette or black hair color spectrum.

No female CEO in the group has all white hair. That compares to the hundreds of men who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, who have gray hair or none at all. It is not because women at the top are older.

According to Forbes, a recent survey of CEOs in biotech shows that the average age of women leaders was 52, compared to the average age of men who were CEOs is 53. “Unsurprising in light of the widely appreciated gender gap, only 13 percent of the CEOs in this sample were women.”

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.

Blatant #agediscrimination is illegal, but more subtle age bias arrives in a swath of instances.

“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. Elena. “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.

Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin write in ProPublica, “Fifty years ago, Congress made it illegal with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, to treat older workers differently than younger ones with only a few exceptions, such as jobs that require special physical qualifications. And for years, judges and policymakers treated the law as essentially on a par with prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and other categories.”

They write, “In recent decades, however, the courts have responded to corporate pleas for greater leeway to meet global competition and satisfy investor demands for rising profits by expanding the exceptions and shrinking the protections against age bias.”

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.

Images of older women sporting gray manes is more common in advertising for a broad range of fashion offerings. #diversityinfashion

According to Racked, Athleta chief marketing officer Andrea Mallard says, “Every marketing message in the world right now is largely about being terrible to women. You are never pretty enough, you’re never young enough, you’re never thin enough, you’re never rich enough. All you have to do, really, is celebrate real women, and the power of it is to not make it feel like a big political act. Because you are allowed to be considered beautiful and interesting and powerful when you’re not 40 or younger anymore.”

Read more here at Take The Lead on fighting age bias at work.

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, whether it is a male-dominated field or a male-dominated office culture.

“Women of a certain age tend to feel invisible. In the workplace they have to fight to remain relevant, to have their ideas heard, despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be better investorsbetter managers and better entrepreneurs,” Kejal Macdonald writes in Marketwatch .

“And this even as they are getting better, more insightful and more knowledgeable with age. 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. Without seeing older women being celebrated in the workplace, how will they see a future in which they’ll be valued?”

Read more here on the value of age diversity at work at Take The Lead.

With the mission of gender parity in leadership across all sectors by 2025, Take The Lead is aiming for a workplace with gender equity in the C-suite, no matter what the hair color. So whether a female leader is gray or nay, it can be her personal choice, not driven by the far that hiding signs of aging will harm her advancement.

As Lucy Kellaway writes in Financial Times, “Grey is a one-way ticket. Once you have revealed your true colours (or lack of colour) to the world then to revert to brown would mean the pretense worked even less well than it did before.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldonwww.micheleweldon.com