I had a really interesting discussion with a fellow researcher today about age. She had remarked that my age had featured in a discussion she had recently had with someone else. In someways I should feel proud that the context in which this had arose was in an inspirational sense – that the other person had challenged their own barriers relating to their age after reflecting on my successes. Whilst a lot of discussion on age has focused on discrimination against older people/employees, the age discussion we had today was underpinned by my young age (and some might say looks!)
Over the years, my relatively young age has emerged frequently in my career story and I have had to learn to deal with that, progress with confidence in my own ability, and in a way learn to secretly enjoy surprising others. Although, I will admit it has stolen the focus of a few mentoring opportunities in the past, ‘how did you deal with people perceiving you as too young?‘ I asked one mentor (Doh! So much more valuable things I would ask now!).
Personally, I don’t see myself as particularly young (32), or see that this should be a barrier. If I consider the ages that I achieved certain milestones, then:
- At the age of 16 I had set up, sought and won full sponsorship for and was running the first ladies team for my hometown;
- At the age of 26 I gained my PhD;
- At the age of 28, I had written and made a Unit of Assessment submission to the Research Excellence Framework that punched above its weight (I am sure there will be other sub-30 year old REF coordinators but I am yet to meet one – hello if this is you!);
- At the age of 31, I became a Head of Research for a University department (College of Business, Law and Social Sciences).
- At the age of 32, I can count at least 30 noteworthy instance where age has overtly featured in work-related discussions/decisions/reactions.
I do still occasionally have to show ‘I.D.’ when a bottle of wine is in order!
I still don’t consider that I have been ‘successful’. My journal output productivity has given way to my passion for fixing any rogue process that I possibly can, and being a ‘yes’ person doesn’t help (my gym kit is gathering dust too).
So, why am I telling you all this?
- Because ‘being young’ can be an issue in the workplace, yet I don’t believe is being discussed enough or challenged.
- Because if I can inspire just one person to overcome their insecurities at being ‘younger’ than their colleagues, or being ‘too young’ to apply for that job then that is good enough for me.
- Because I believe our younger workforce have a lot to offer beyond the entry-level roles they often find themselves in (pop them in the boardroom for 30 minutes and see what happens!)
- Finally, I think some of the tales (below) I have of my experiences might entertain or educate.
Tales through my Career
The Job Interview
Towards the end of my first degree I began with the usual activity of job-seeking. In one particular interview, for a HR role for a national construction retailer, I was met with an unusual remark, ‘as you will have noticed we have quite a lot of older ladies working in this office and you are young, I am concerned that you won’t settle because you are younger than them obviously’. In the politest way possible, I explained my past experiences of working with ‘older’ colleagues, that this had been healthy and productive. In case it was a trick (it was for a HR role), I then went onto comment jovially that this, ‘of course, shouldn’t influence a recruitment decision‘. I didn’t get the job.
Arriving for a meeting in a cafe with someone I had never met but who I was to work on a project with, I spotted the gentleman I was meeting (the product of a quick Google search). He was looking out for ‘Dr Wond’ and looked past me several times. I began to introduce myself, ‘Hi, ****’, I began. He cut me short, ‘Oh, can Dr Wond not make it?’ . He assumed I was an assistant, remarked about not expecting ‘someone so young’ and we continued our meeting.
The ‘Give it a Few Years’ discussion
Developing a challenging programme and delivering it with some great examples of business engagement globally didn’t come particularly easy. I had to fight central process embedded throughout the organisation, change it, and eventually amassed several ‘wins’. When a more senior central opportunity arose, I was excited. It meant managing the central processes, and I invited the Director of that particular department for coffee to discuss whether he would welcome my application. That hour was painful! From the outset he described a more mature, male being the ideal candidate: ‘I know you could do the job, but I had a more mature professor in mind, a guy who could impress with lots of papers and a great C.V….give it a few years’. The Director later debriefed my manager on our discussion, explicitly stating I was too young.
The Director later approached me to second into this position when his first choice let him down.
The Last Word
I identified a huge quality issue that went against internal procedures (and that many universities had fallen foul of during their reviews), on attempting to discuss this with the colleague to whom it concerned she was quite defensive. Her final words as I attempted to share these concerns? ‘I am older and have been at this game longer than you’.
Working with others we addressed this quality gap. There was nothing accurate or correct in what my colleague was stating, it was a way to move past the conversation.
So what lessons can I share with anyone finding themselves in this position?
Lesson 1: Picking the Right Fight
At times, I wish I had fought a little more against the assumptions that others had. They have impacted on the doors that opened and the doors that closed (in job and opportunity terms). Yet, I am not entirely sure what this will have done, perhaps their mind was already made? Looking back, I wish I had challenged discrimination against the young since I didn’t have much to lose, spoken out a little perhaps and made a fuss (for the benefit of the next person that interviewer meets!).
Lesson 2: Let this motivate you
Show them what you are made of – perform your best, achieve, succeed! I was driven to address my experience gaps so much more by every ‘age-related oversight’. What those discriminating against me had actually meant to say was probably actually, ‘perhaps due to age you are inexperienced and therefore not up to this’. I made it my mission to get this experience. I analysed the job descriptions of my bosses and my bosses’ bosses. I demanded extra responsibility (line management, budgets, projects) and where I couldn’t get it I sought it in other ways – through volunteer opportunities with community organisations for instance.
Lesson 3: Not much has changed over the past decade
Despite being 10 years older, age still ‘crops up’ now (when will the world look on me as old/less young?!). This suggests to me that either (a) I have failed to age; (b) society has not changed, more specifically workplaces; (c) not enough action has happened to address this barrier.
Lesson 4: Don’t let age stop you being great!
As I have already mentioned, I have let this get in the way at times, I have worn the problem and let it weigh me down. It didn’t help. It did not resolve the biases others have, it didn’t help me conduct my role with confidence. OK, it did provide me with lesson 2 above…but please, don’t let it negatively affect you.
Lesson 5: When you get there don’t feel guilty.
I have made sacrifices to get to where I am. I rarely turn-off my computer before midnight, I have two children but have only managed several weeks maternity leave for both – so when someone comments that I am ‘too young‘, as though I have been privileged, given a boost, or anything else that suggests that this is odd, then it is a bit of an insult. So my final lesson is not to feel apologetic or guilty about where you work hard to get to – because if you want to get there you will.