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.”