How Women Can Avoid the 'Gray Ceiling' at Work

May 24, 2005 — -- Feeling victimized by ageism at work, or the so-called "gray ceiling?"

Tory Johnson, chief executive officer of and author of "Women For Hire's Get-Ahead Guide to Career Success," joined "Good Morning America" with advice on how to beat the perception that youth rules in the workplace and how to get the most of your career as you get older.

Johnson says Americans over 40 in search of jobs are encountering something they weren't looking for: a "gray ceiling." It's the career advancement barrier that many older workers face in a workplace seemingly dominated by young people.

Despite laws prohibiting it, polls show that more than 70 percent of executives believe age discrimination in the workplace has increased during the past five years.

Below are Johnson's tips on how to make age an asset, not an obstacle, in the workplace.

Don't use age as a crutch. Often job seekers will say they're not getting hired because of their age. They're convinced that age is their only barrier. And in a sense, they're not trying as hard as they should be -- or could be -- because even before they apply for the job or go for the interview, they're already resigned to not getting the offer because of their age. With age often comes cynicism, but don't let it take over the process. You can't control your age, so focus on the things you can control -- like how well you're selling yourself for the specific opportunity and how passionate you are about the position you're pursuing.

Anticipate the stereotype and be prepared to counter it. Whether true or not, there's often a perception that older workers aren't comfortable with the latest technology. It's not enough to be able to send e-mail and shop on eBay. If you aren't familiar with Excel and Powerpoint and you know your technical skills aren't up to par, take a course to master the technology.

Older workers also get a bad rap about their unwillingness or inability to adapt to change, as if they're stuck in their ways. Make it clear in your cover letter and all interviews that you're willing and able to adapt -- that you look forward to following the company's protocols.

In some cases, older candidates are seen as "know it alls" because they've been there and done that. Don't carry a chip on your shoulder -- refrain from acting as though you know best. Confidence is key, but cockiness can work against you.

Don't focus on age, focus on experience. Older people often hear that they're "over-qualified" and the interviewer is quick to point out that they won't be happy in the job and they'll get bored quickly. Make sure you have a response ready for this: "I thought about that very issue before I applied for this position, and I realized that because I'm committed to this industry or this particular line of business, I know that my experience would be a tremendous asset. I'm also interested in mentoring other individuals and pitching in wherever my skills and strengths might be helpful."

If you're 50 years old, and you graduated from college in the 1970s, you shouldn't list every position you've held since then on your résumé. Focus on the most relevant experience of the last 10 to 20 years -- summarizing successes, not necessarily listing every position in chronological order. Leave off the year of graduation.

Be proud of your achievements, maturity, wisdom and real-world experience that can only come from age. Instead of shying away from it, use it to your advantage: "I have 20 years of experience in this industry. I'd love to apply that insight to solving problems and creating successes for this company."

"Many older women tell me that at this stage in their careers their children are grown, they're more patient with clients and colleagues, they're less concerned with office gossip and politics, and they're not necessarily looking to climb the ladder," Johnson says. "Sounds like the ideal candidate to me!"

Anticipate industry-specific opposition. In fields such as law and accounting, many recruiters look for high potential candidates for the partner track. This can often work against older candidates. For example, a woman might have solid professional experience at a prestigious law firm, but she's never made partner. There's an immediate inclination on behalf of a recruiter to assume that something must be wrong with her. If you fall into this category, be proactive about explaining that you never aspired to become a partner. In fact, you've been perfectly content -- and successful -- being an associate who has always put in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay.

Consider consulting work and small businesses. Most job seekers, regardless of age, apply for positions based on what's advertised online or in their Sunday paper. Think beyond that basic model. Instead of applying online for full-time jobs where there's clearly going to be enormous competition, offer yourself up as a consultant to companies of all sizes, especially small businesses -- even those outside of your most recent industry.

Small businesses routinely hire consultants to work on projects where they can take advantage of their expertise, but could not have afforded them on a full-time basis. The challenge with finding these opportunities is that they're rarely advertised -- they're filled through word of mouth and networking. In some cities, you can touch base with the local Small Business Association office in your area to find out about new businesses that are starting that could benefit from your expertise and experience -- whether it's setting up an office or managing all of the marketing.

Networking is still the best method for finding fresh job leads. No matter how long you've been searching, don't hide in shame that you're still unemployed. Be positive and visible -- connecting with other people is your best source of landing an offer.

On Wednesday, June 8, 2005, Women For Hire will hold the first-ever Moms and Mature Employees Career Expo in New York. For details on this event, as well as additional advice from Johnson, visit

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