Board member blog post: A safe space to vent about ageism

LKJBy Linda Kramer Jenning, JAWS Board Member

A friend, also a member of JAWS, told me recently about an unnerving experience on the Metro. Someone stood up and offered her a seat.

She did not think that she looked old enough to warrant the offer. She’s trim and fit. When we talked about it, she explained that she didn’t feel “old inside.”

I know what she means. Busy writing a story or grading papers or taking a break to go to spin class, in my head I don’t feel my age. However, I am happy to claim a senior discount whenever I can. I also like the fact that decades in journalism means I had notes from covering Hillary Clinton in the 1990s that I could dig up to use in a recent column.

It’s not easy figuring out how to age in our profession. When I started work at the AP in San Francisco, there were several silver-haired men in the bureau. There were no older women — in fact, the only other woman when I first arrived was Edie Lederer, who was assigned to Vietnam a few months later. Those of us now confronting gray hairs don’t have a lot of role models from other generations. On the JAWS listserv, we’ve been sharing concerns about aging and how to cope professionally, personally and financially. Members have talked about being pushed out of jobs or passed over for jobs, and the assumption that if you’re over 50, you can’t be as tech-savvy as a millennial (even when that 25-year-old has been turning to you for tech help).

In England, Women in Journalism conducted a pilot study in 2013 on working women and ageism. “Seventy-one percent of the survey of 100 women described themselves as ‘very’ or ‘quite’ anxious about being able to go on working at their current level until they were 65, with women as young as 22 worried about the future,” according to the study.

After complaints arose over ageism and sexism at the BBC, the House of Lords investigated and concluded in its 2014 report that “the BBC had a policy of discriminating against older woman and covered it up with gagging orders,” according to The Telegraph,

Journalism in Women UK suggested that this ageism related in part to British culture and that it might not be as bad in North America. I doubt that. As The Washington Post reported last December: “A new working paper out from the National Bureau of Economic Research, based on what is probably the largest field experiment to date testing the prevalence of age discrimination in hiring, shows that the résumés of older women get far fewer callbacks than those of older men and of younger applicants of either sex.”

Combine that with the upheaval, disruption, fill-in-the-cliché about what’s been happening to the journalism industry, and yes, women journalists of a certain age are struggling. JAWS provides a safe space to vent about that ageism, but more importantly, to put our heads together (graying or not) and look for ways to support one another at all stages of our careers. A great example is our mentoring program (kudos to chairs Liz Seegert and Jane Isay). In pairing members, the focus is on skills and interests. Members in their 60s have been wisely mentored by members in their 30s and vice versa. Our board of directors also reflects the age diversity of JAWS members, covering a span of about 40 years.

It can be challenging making an organization relevant to women from different generations. But I see it as a core strength and asset of JAWS. At our last D.C. JAWS gathering, hosted by Roberta Baskin, I had a great time getting to talk with women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Where else does that happen in most of our lives?