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Think the glass ceiling’s as bad as it gets for business women? Try being old!

A few days ago, a statistic circulated on Twitter that some people greeted with great excitement. According to Prowess 2.0* just over half of all self-employed people are women – evidence that women are overtaking men in entrepreneurship.

But whilst it is true that increasing numbers of women are starting a business, I don’t think these figures tell the full story.

Only the other day I was chatting to a self-employed woman who was slightly older. She told me a story I’m most familiar with.

Having gone through a stressful redundancy process, it took her ages to recover from the experience. She knew that she was too young to retire, yet too old to find a similar senior role.

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And so, after months of receiving countless dubious rejections, she decided to set up her own business.

Age and experience aren’t valued enough

I can’t tell you how many women like that I’ve supported in the last 10 years. Recruitment stories that involve ageism and/or sexism don’t surprise me anymore.

But I can’t help feeling angry about how many assumptions are made about slightly older people.

I too – in my role as independent trainer and consultant – have had a taster of that.

There was the time I got interviewed, somewhat reluctantly, by a UK training company. Looking for an experienced facilitator with specific language skills they hadn’t expected their only suitable candidate to be ten to fifteen years older than their average trainer.

It was evident how worried they were that I might not fit their dynamic image.

Still, they agreed to try me out and what happened next took even them by surprise.

I impressed their most discerning German clients many of whom happened to be older too. From their point of view, it was my age and experience that mattered to them! They trusted me implicitly and showed me a level of respect I hadn’t experienced before.

It was thanks to their overriding positive feedback that the UK company continued to use me on their foreign projects.

Age and experience can be seen as a significant plus point in some cultures but sadly I’m not so sure that applies to the UK!

In any case, whatever the culture and whatever your age, I think it’s important to know how to ‘sell yourself’ confidently.

Certainly in the cut-throat corporate environment, women seem to be treading a very fine line between fitting in and still being able to express their uniqueness.

So tell-tale signs such as grey hair can add to the perception that you’re not fitting in. And then what can happen is that your looks create a perception, even if you don’t feel – or dress according to – your chronological age!

So for me, this meant that if I wanted to keep my corporate projects, I would have to dye my grey hair.

My experiment

IMG_6761Then, recently I thought it was time to do a little hair experiment. My work has changed and I work mostly online these days (my webcam can be quite forgiving).

I wanted to reacquaint myself with my natural hair. To my surprise, the area that was grey now framed my face in a dull shade of ‘salt and pepper’. Sadly, no trace of silver or white for me, which can be quite attractive.

Still, after the first few months I got used to my new look and didn’t even notice the grey any more.

But what I did notice was what made me colour my hair again!

I noticed how people treated me differently.

I may not have minded the young girl calling me the ‘woman with the granny hair’ – I am a granny after all and in this context, it almost felt like a compliment!

What I did mind was people offering me their seat in waiting rooms or on the tube – I’m not an elderly person nor look or dress like one!

In the phone shop, I was asked whether I’d like a simple phone that’s easy to understand. “No thanks!” I replied, “I really do like my all-singing-and-dancing iPhone which helps me look after my blog and Facebook page, and publish my photos to Instagram!”

He went a bit quiet after that.

I just didn’t get it. I am not stupid. Just because some of my hair was grey, my brain cells were certainly not.

I started to feel invisible. As if I was on the outside of society looking in; rather than being a valued member, no different to anyone else.

They say forty is the new thirty, fifty the new forty, and sixty the new fifty. Well, by sporting grey hair, I looked as if I’d jumped a decade forward!

It’s an odd feeling for someone who otherwise feels quite comfortable in their own skin.

The pressure on women keeps increasing

Most women have to earn an income for far longer in this day and age than the previous generation who could look forward to a more secure retirement at a younger age.

As the pressure on women seems to increase, the pressure to adjust rather than stand out and risk being discriminated against can increase too. It’s not surprising then that many women choose like-minded women as their clients where the pressure may be less.

The good news

So it is good news that women have finally been catching up with men; that more women get to run a business, whatever the motivation.

I think it’s good news that for those of us over fifty there are new opportunities and the promise of a financial future we may not have had otherwise.

The not so good news

But what isn’t good news is that this might be the only way to avoid having to deal with the perceptions of a youth-obsessed work culture.

When moving into entrepreneurship is the only solution to ageism and invisibility, then we are doing what women seem too good at already – being accommodating and accepting our lack of choices.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to devalue entrepreneurship – on the contrary.

What just worries me is that when we accept what we see as our only option, the system and people’s perceptions are not likely to change!

What are your experiences of being a slightly older woman who is trying to succeed in business? Or if you’re a younger person, how do you see your age affecting your career or business?

imageAbout the author: Hi, my name is Ute Wieczorek-King and I’m an experienced business start-up/ growth mentor, trainer and blogger. I specialise in helping passionate midlife women to be visible online and offline, to simplify and stay focused on what matters most.

Want to take your small venture from good to great? Download my free “Passion to Profit” ebook

*http://www.prowess.org.uk/womens-self-employment-report

Ute