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Reverse Ageism
I Think My ‘Baby Face’ Is Hurting My Career
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger
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Have a baby face? While there are arguably tons of perks to looking younger than you actually are, it can also feel like it affects your career. 

A 27-year-old anonymous FGB'er took to the community board to share her own concerns about appearing 21 years old. 

"People are always surprised when they find out my age," she writes. "They think I’m 5 to 7 years younger than what I actually am. I know looking younger than I am will be great for aging but, honestly, it’s not really benefitting my career right now. It also doesn’t help with the fact that the team I’m on is 80% men. I see my opinions being taken as cute or thoughtful vs. ideas that should be taken seriously and executed. I’m not shy and I speak up, but I’m not feeling that my team effort is making an impact, and I truly think it has to do with the inequality of the team, management and what age I think my team thinks that I am."

She asked for FGB'ers thoughts and advice on how to navigate this sort of ageism in the workplace, and it turned out that many others have been in her position. Here's what they have to say.

1. Ask yourself whether or not it's really about how old you look.

Is it really the perception of your age that's the problem? Or is it the lack of diversity in your company?

"Having a similar career experience and always being taken for younger, I can relate," writes Jen Pressley. "I’m now 47. But here’s the reality: It’s still hard to be taken seriously in situations even with two decades of experience in my field. I still get the early 20-something guy with a few years under his belt (and who is a few rungs junior to me) taken more seriously or is certain that he knows better than I do. And the men in the room concede to him. What that has told me is it’s actually more to do with gender bias and you working with mostly men than how young you appear."

2. Reframe how you speak.

Carry yourself with eloquence to sound and be perceived as older.

"Speak from a place of authority and experience and (try) not to shrink away from interactions as is all too common for women who feel left out in the workplace," Pressley advises. "Or look for an environment that is more gender diverse if you’re considering a switch. You don’t want to be stuck in an environment where you’re not going to be taken seriously or advance."

Others agree.

"It is as a request or an order?" Elizabeth Shimek asks. "Are you undermining your directions with modifier words ('could you just do x' vs. 'could you do x' vs 'please do x')? Women more often use modifiers, soften our language and 'uptalk' at the end of sentences. These aren't bad things overall (they can have great teambuilding effects!), but can sometimes undermine your authority in a male-dominated environment."

Other FGB'ers are also chiming in about the importance of how you speak.

"You can't help how you look, but you can improve how you speak and present yourself," says an anonymous FGB'er. "What I mean is how do you sound when you speak up? Do you speak clearly, loudly, slowly, etc.? Do your statements end in questions? Do you add 'ums' and 'likes' habitually? Even if ageism/sexism are at play, working on your public speaking adds a lot to your perceived authority/intelligence/etc."

3. Dress the part.

Do your best to fit the company culture.

"I've found it helpful to dress more formally than is required, as long as it fits within your company culture and you are comfortable with it," says Shimek. "Structured pieces like blazers, sheath dresses and tailored pants can add age, authority and gravitas. I personally wear a lot of neutrals — blues, blacks, greys and taupes — because I feel it projects more authority."

It's not just in the clothes, either.

"Along with the clothing, maybe update makeup," says an anonymous FGB'er. "I am a young-looking 46, but makeup always brings my look up."

4. Show confidence.

Confidence is key.

"I have worked with mostly men, and I've experienced considerable gender bias over the years," adds Kimberly Douglass. "Unfortunately, many men in the workplace do not take women seriously. I have been told I should dress more 'feminine' while working at a software company; told my sales strategy presentation was 'cute,' and was once asked by a 20-something guy why a woman was conducting sales training. It's hard and hurtful, and it can impact performance. You already know you are worth more than the treatment you are getting. Demonstrate confidence in everything you do/say, speak up when you want to and do not minimize yourself. Do not doubt yourself. And if there is something you want to learn, check out LinkedIn Learning — they have some pretty great courses such as 'Exude Executive Presence' or 'How to Command the Room.'"

Fibers across the board couldn't agree more.

"I also have had that issue my whole career," says Lisa Leslie Hefter. "People tend to be shocked that someone my age has has the positions I have had — at the age I was... Dress and act like a professional, and you will be taken seriously by those who know you.  With new acquaintances, it does usually take some time. It is, long-term, a good problem; but, in your career, it is often very annoying. One thing that I’ve noticed is that it’s as awkward/embarrassing for the person who is recognized wrongly because of their age or gender as it is for me. I try to put my feelings aside to give them grace in the moment."

Besides, you're not at work to make friends. You're at work to do your job.

"Focus on being a professional peer, not a social one," says an anonymous FGB'er. "Friends at work is a bonus. Focus instead on being a peer in meetings, on projects and attaining results.  You deserve your place at the table. Breathe deep, own it and enjoy your success and the opportunities before you."

5. Pave your own path.

When all else fails, do you own thing!

"I had the same problem; I still look significantly younger than my age," says Anne Keenan. "I solved  the problem by starting my own business. I couldn’t stand the pay gap because of my gender or being discounted because of my gender. Interestingly enough, my son has the same problem. He’s nearly 25, and he looks 12. When he works at it, he can look as old as 17! He too started his own business and is very successful."

If you don't want to start your own business, looking for a new job is another option.

"Set your sights on companies that are less male dominated and maybe skew slightly younger — agencies, startups, web-based," says FGB'er KatieM45. "Those types of companies tend to have younger professionals working for them (or at least younger-minded)."

6. Be more authentic to you.

Sometimes, it's not always about dressing to fit in — but, rather, about dressing to fit you.

"I have found not trying to 'dress a part,' but rather find ways to dress authentically as myself both as a person and physically  (short and muscular/stocky) well within the bounds of the dress culture I am in has been more helpful," says FGB'er meflucas. "When I was younger I tried the 'dressing the part,' but that was just one more thing to deal with during my day.  By dressing authentically (and of course appropriately/in keeping with those around me) I have more ability to focus on being appropriately forceful. I feel stronger. So frustrating the world is still this way...  I am now 57, still look young for my age but still look middle aged, hoping the somewhat relatively young look helps me in my quest for one more career chapter before retiring. Cruel irony to face ageism again now at this end when I already had it at the other! May the world move to valuing what we do over all else..."

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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