When I was about 30, I was hired to be an editor at The Wall Street Journal. There was no good reason for this. I was a pretty good writer, and I knew the rules of grammar and was in general interested in a lot of stuff. But nothing on my résumé would have pointed in the direction of a coveted job at the No. 2 daily paper in the land; I’m guessing there were lots of people more qualified in line for (and deserving of) that job.
But the person who hired me — ten years older, tough, funny, brilliant — saw something in me. Thank God. She could see that I was smart. She probably sensed that I had (have) a tolerance, and even an appetite, for punishing amounts of work. She probably liked that I wasn’t an apple-shiner. (She wasn’t an apple-shiner.)
I fell for her completely. How could I not? My boss was wicked. Sharp. Hilarious. Quick-witted. Irreverent. Also: kind, responsible, ethical, serious. Direct. A meritocrat. She loved people who made her laugh or think. She followed rules carefully and broke them knowingly. She loved wielding her power.
She wasn’t afraid. We worked in a newsroom, at desks arrayed like a kindergarten classroom, so as I edited stories at what seemed to me like a lightning pace, I could watch her transact business. She was intimidating — not a person to piss off — a fact that everyone at the company knew. In an organization full of swaggering men, she didn’t holler. She never pulled punches. She just told you what she thought of your boneheaded mistake and then moved on.
I admired her. I wanted to please her. They say that younger women evaluate their female elders both in terms of their achievements at work and the way they manage their lives at home, and I suppose the fact that my boss was also a mother and a wife (who left the office promptly at 6 p.m. no matter what little fires were erupting on deadline) appealed to me. But that wasn’t the first thing. The first thing was her relentlessness, her comfort with her own hunger, and the good humor with which she wore it all. It was she, more than anyone I’d ever met, who gave me the gift of a vision of a future in which I might be sustained by work, comfortable (if often extremely frustrated) competing with men, in an office full of impatient, profane, curious, demanding, creative people whose company I loved. Love.
A good workplace is one in which you can look around and see versions of yourself five years from now, or ten. But for women, this exercise in mirroring gets harder and harder as they push toward 40, and 50, and beyond — for the simple reason that older women with ambition don’t stick around. They dial back, drop out, start their own thing. They want more control, flexibility; they find themselves trapped in one more meeting listening to one more self-serving anecdote by one more male superior who feels no urgency to head on home, and they reach their limit. For many of even the most ambitious women, the grind of a conventional, straight-up trajectory feels unworkable, especially once they’re caring for children, too. “It gets really hard,” says Anne Weisberg, vice-president and an expert in women’s leadership at the Families and Work Institute. “You’re more likely to say it’s not worth it.” Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter: The culture looks to them as role models, but actually they’re one-offs, unique exceptions of meteoric success in a work culture that is fundamentally unkind to women (okay, to people) who have other pressing things to do.
Why is it excellent, preferable, to have women over 40, or 50, or 60 in the workplace? Let me count the ways (though the fact that I have to count at all makes me purple). The first one, obviously, is that it’s simply excellent to have a diverse workplace — people who don’t look, think, act, or talk like the boss — and as the data that follow illustrate, women over 40 are dramatically underrepresented in the top tiers of organizations. For another, studies show that women actually do good work. (Although, again, this is something we need to study?) According to a 2012 report by Dow Jones, companies with at least one female senior executive are more likely to succeed than companies that have only men at the top. Venture-based start-ups with five or more women onboard are significantly more successful than those without. And as Anne Weisberg points out, women who have achieved some level of success by middle age probably already have more experience with what has come to be called the “gig” economy than mid-career men who’ve been slogging it out in the same company for a decade or more. Because women so frequently turn the heat up and down on their careers, because they move laterally, and back and forth between work and home, because they work efficiently but not necessarily during “working hours,” they have in some way already adapted to the new way of doing business. It’s the men who expect a secure paycheck and a steady climb who have to readjust.
But so far, all this is wishful thinking. The data on female success and achievement at older ages is appalling. Ambitious women may enter the workforce earning the same as men, and with the same potential to ascend, but by the time they’re mid-career, the differential is staggering. Women may earn 77 cents for every male dollar, but that proportion is a lifetime average: Parity between the sexes begins to drop the minute a woman chooses to have kids and dial back to care for them, and it never recovers. By the time a woman reaches the age of 50, she’s earning 55 cents on the dollar. And because they step on and off the track, women in general have less retirement savings than men; they are less likely to be participating in employer pension plans; once they’ve left the workforce, they have a terrible time getting rehired, largely because age discrimination, which is against the law, is directed particularly at women who are past the age where society deems them attractive. (“I have become so invisible,” says a friend of mine, perhaps the most ambitious person I know, “that I’m seriously considering taking up shoplifting.”) Women over 40 are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, but these women are not bossing people around: They’re nurses and admins and part-time clerks and home health aides. They’re are also far likelier than their male peers to say they are “underemployed” — stuck in jobs where their abilities aren’t recognized, where they aren’t getting promoted, where they aren’t working up to their highest level. If we want the next generation of women to be strong, assertive, and demanding in this environment, we have to give them models that show them how.
As the resident crone around here, that job falls to me, I guess, though the idea that I have anything meaningful to impart feels fraudulent: I’m just exhausted and scrambling like everyone else. Part of my reluctance to adopt a role-model mantle is the fact that our industry has imploded over the past decade, and everyone – male, female, young, old — is hanging on by their teeth. But part of it is also this: No single woman’s experience of success is generalizable to all women; in spite of all the millions of books sold, Sheryl Sandberg only really knows what worked for her. (And she knew Larry Summers, which was a big thing.) The better plan would be for a young woman to enter a workplace and, upon looking around, see lots and lots and lots of established, successful females from which to collate a vision of herself: the loner, the sycophant, the ass-kicker, the honest broker, the backstabber, the flirt, the wheedler, the warm hug, the cold fish, the brainiac, the yeller, the whisperer, the diplomat, the hoop-jumper, the straight-A student, the zealot, the do-gooder. Role models don’t have to be superheroes, in other words, or even necessarily exemplary; there just have enough of them, and they have to have made it work. And to that end, I’ll do the wisdom thing and pass along two tidbits I learned at my long-ago boss’s knee. First, always sound like you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. And before you do something you know will piss someone off, arm yourself carefully with two good reasons why.