OpinionOpinion L.A.

Another thing to admire about Janet Yellen: Her hair!

Janet YellenU.S. Supreme CourtJanet NapolitanoFederal ReserveSonia SotomayorRuth Bader Ginsburg

News stories about Janet Yellen’s nomination to head the Federal Reserve have all stated one obvious fact: If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold that position. But there’s an even more significant barrier Yellen is breaching. She’s a powerful woman with gray hair.

In recent days her face has been everywhere. It’s a pleasant face, with a half-smile and kind eyes. And it’s framed by a silver bob. 

A woman being appointed to a position of power isn’t all that unusual. We’ve had female secretaries of State and U.S. senators. The House minority leader is a woman, as are three justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the overwhelming majority of women of a certain age who hold powerful positions dye their hair.

There are exceptions, of course. Ruth Bader Ginsburg now has gray hair, but not her colleagues Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan, who are both well into their 50s. California’s new president of the University of California system, former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, is gray. But try to name 10 powerful women with gray hair and you’ll find yourself  struggling to fill out the list.

It’s not all that surprising that women take steps to appear younger. We’re used to seeing powerful men age -- the last three presidents have gone gray while in office. Men are considered distinguished when their hair turns gray; women are assumed to have given up caring about their appearance.

Research has found that women over 50 tend to have a far tougher go of it in the job market than younger women. One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women over 50 were more than 40% less likely than equally qualified younger women to get called in for job interviews after submitting resumes for entry-level jobs. Older women in the workplace often describe looking on as men in their 50s continue to rise, while they feel as if they’ve become invisible, despite feeling more competent than they did earlier in their careers.

But what if one reason older women have such a tough go of it is that we seldom see older women as they really are? 

In her essay “On Maintenance,” Nora Ephron reflected on how Americans use phrases such as “40 is the new 30” to deny aging. “There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to,” she wrote, “and it's not because of feminism or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye. In the 1950s, only 7% of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all.” And if we seldom see women with gray hair, then those who do have it can seem much older than they actually are.

Years ago, while out to lunch celebrating her 40th birthday, Gloria Steinem was approached by a reporter who assured her: “You don’t look 40.” Steinem quickly snapped back: “This is what 40 looks like.”

Take another look at Janet Yellen’s photograph. And this time, tell yourself: “This is what 67 looks like.”


The uncompromiser in chief

Olympia Snowe: This is no way to run a country

Western praise could very well get Malala Yousafzai killed

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Janet YellenU.S. Supreme CourtJanet NapolitanoFederal ReserveSonia SotomayorRuth Bader Ginsburg
  • Who will lead the Fed?
    Who will lead the Fed?

    Lawrence Summers is now out of contention. But whoever gets the job faces a dicier task than the one that confronted outgoing chief Ben Bernanke.

  • New Afghan government; same old problems
    New Afghan government; same old problems

    President Obama called Kabul on Sunday to congratulate Afghan presidential contenders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for finally accepting a power-sharing deal to resolve a months-long dispute over who won in an election deeply marred by fraud. "Signing this political...

  • What 'war on women'?
    What 'war on women'?

    On Friday, the White House announced its “It's On Us” initiative aimed at combating sexual assaults on college campuses. I'm all in favor of combating sexual assault, but the first priority in combating a problem is understanding it.

  • Ashley Swearengin for state controller
    Ashley Swearengin for state controller

    Californians have been breathing a bit easier in recent months as the state government's finances have turned — slowly, like an ocean freighter — from disaster to solvency. But the work is hardly done, and diligence is called for to ensure the budget doesn't drift off...

  • Let's make a climate deal, California
    Let's make a climate deal, California

    It has been almost 25 years since the United States joined much of the world in Rio de Janeiro and tentatively agreed to do something to reduce the pollutants associated with global warming and other climate disruption. Since then, though, the U.S. has been a laggard in taking major action....

  • Why single out L.A. hotel workers for a wage boost?
    Why single out L.A. hotel workers for a wage boost?

    The Los Angeles City Council is, again, trying to rush through a proposal to establish a special $15.37-an-hour minimum wage just for hotel workers. A committee hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday and a full council vote is expected the following day, even though three reports from...