Q: I am an older woman working in a field among predominantly younger workers and would love insight on how to deal with frequent references to my age. I love what I do and have much to contribute, but the comments are starting to wear on me.
As an example, at a recent conference when I was about to make a presentation, a younger colleague twice made reference to the fact that I had my notes on 5 x 7 rather than 3 x 5 note cards, saying, “Guess that’s what you gotta do when you get old.”
This individual thought she was being funny and wanted to make sure everyone heard the “joke.” I said nothing, but it pushed all my self-doubt buttons, and I gave a substandard presentation.
I understand I could simply ignore such comments. But what I’d love is a simple, honest, thoughtful response — not snarky or confrontational, because I don’t think that would stop future comments, but a way to educate the colleague on how inappropriate and harmful these “jokes” are.
A: It’s always fun to fantasize about breezy comebacks (“Well, kiddo, I’d be happy to hand over my cards and let you present, but my notes are all in cursive”). But if you’re looking to make a point, you have several options of varying sharpness.
Benefit of the doubt: “I’m sure you were just trying to make a joke, but that just came off as mean.” With a co-worker, you could add: “It also undermines me and, by extension, the employer we’re representing.”
Feigned bafflement: “Why would you say such a thing?”
Anyone who is capable of shame and truly means no harm will apologize on the spot. But you’re talking about someone who used her bizarrely specific eye for detail to draw attention to what she saw as a sign of weakness. This is not the behavior of a well-meaning professional secure in her own competence.
In cases like that, go for blunt: “Please stop making those comments. They’re rude, they’re not funny, and they’re ageist.”
And assuming you are at least 40, you could add: “And you should know my age is a protected status under federal law.”
People who wouldn’t dream of making snide remarks about someone’s race, sex or religion for fear of being sued may not realize that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) also prohibits discrimination against workers age 40 and older.
Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation, says general awareness about age discrimination may be lacking because “few employers … include age as a component” when providing diversity and anti-discrimination training, focusing instead on more familiar protected classes such as gender, race and religion. Even in litigation, says McCann, “courts tend to treat age comments differently than comments on gender and race.”
Of course, you can ignore such comments. But as with racism, sexism and other -isms, it’s harder to ignore the disrespect behind them — or the very real bias older workers face. In a recent AARP national survey of adults older than age 45, 61 percent said they have either seen or experienced age discrimination. Nine in 10 of those said they believe it is somewhat to extremely common.
Whether you say anything in the moment, document the incident afterward: what was said, when, by whom, and any witnesses who may have overheard. One stray remark is probably not something you can act on, but a documented pattern might be.
Even if you don’t have access to the offenders’ managers, many event organizers have rules of conduct prohibiting attendees from demeaning or harassing others.