It’s 2022, and businesswomen must continue to worry about their looks—no matter their age.

“In a culture still permeated and structured by sexism, there’s a Catch-22: younger women are treated dismissively by reducing them to their appearance; older women get dismissed precisely because their appearance is no longer of interest,” said Nicola Pitchford, president of Dominican University of California in San Rafael.

For women older than 40, there’s even a name for this type of discrimination—it’s called gendered ageism.

Plenty of women go the Botox, plastic surgery, pretending to be naturally blonde at 65 route in order to be seen. Many others shun those options.

Laurie Bell Bishop is a San Rafael based photographer whose niche is focusing on women in the workforce who are 50-plus.

“My mission statement is I want to help women be seen as their 50-year-old-something self, or 60- or 70-something,” the 59-year-old owner of Become Studios said. “In your 50s you know what happens to your hair, your skin, your body. You are not your 30-year-old self, not your 40-year-old self. And the world is interacting with you differently and we don’t feel it. We might feel wiser and more secure in business, but it doesn’t come across as you walk down the street.”

Women want to be themselves

Nicola Pitchford, president of Dominican University of California, believes older women face obstacles and assumptions solely on the basis of their gender that older men don’t experience. (Dominican University of California/Martin Klimek Photography)

Looking your authentic self, but still appearing relevant—it’s a dilemma professional women of a certain age have had to deal with for eons.

We all know you only get one chance to make a first impression. No longer is that first interaction likely to be in person—and that has nothing to do with the pandemic. It has everything to do with the internet.

A photo on a company’s website is often that first impression. That is why it’s so important for that image to convey more than a head shot of yourself sitting behind a desk. The right photo can amplify a brand.

“On a website it’s nice to have multiple photos so people can get a sense of who I am. I have clients who say the website spoke to them. I’m not stuffy. I’m approachable. I’m not in my head,” said Jodi Klugman-Rabb, who runs a private psychotherapy practice in Napa and Marin counties. She is also an adjunct professor at Dominican University of California. “Sometimes the title of professor scares people, but my photos settle them down and levels the playing field. It helps people decide between various referrals.”

Minette Norman, a photography client of Bishop’s like Klugman-Rabb, also knows the importance of making a good impression online.

“I think it’s important when people come across my LinkedIn page and website they can see photos of me and videos of me speaking. Why people hire me is they connect with me as a human being so it’s important to present myself in a way that represents me,” said Norman, who owns Minette Norman Consulting in Marin County.

Being authentic doesn’t necessarily mean no makeup and messy hair, or random outfits at the photo shoot. Bishop has a makeup artist and stylist at the sessions, and has the client bring an array of clothing options.

“Most people don’t like their photo being taken. My secret sauce is to get people relaxed and comfortable,” Bishop said. “That is what people see and say about the photos, that they look friendly, like you could connect with them.”

Prior to using Bishop for her professional photos, Norman had gone through three sets of head shots. It was time for new ones because during the pandemic she stopped coloring her hair, instead choosing to embrace her natural gray.

“Until just over two years ago I worked for Autodesk. I always felt I had to color my hair. I felt if I was in a young tech world, I couldn’t have gray hair. For me at 61 it’s important to show up as a vibrant 61-year-old,” Norman told the Business Journal. “I’m not hiding my age. I don’t feel like I need to look younger than what I am. I’m trying to look my best at 61 instead of what I looked like two decades ago. I’m learning to embrace my laugh and smile lines.”

Considering people are hiring Norman for her expertise, looking her age could have its advantages. Her true self is the image she wanted on her website and the look she will be able to portray in other settings thanks to new head shots by Bishop.

“The (last) photographer had me sitting down most of the time. They were very static photos. Laurie had me up and down, with some sitting. I felt more alive. They captured me more and my energy,” Norman said. “With the last person I didn’t feel as though it was as much about me as it was about her. It was about her getting great work and a great portfolio versus me getting the photos I wanted.”

Relationship building is key, Bishop said. That’s why her approach can be a bit time consuming even before she makes the first aperture setting.

She insists it’s that time spent getting to know her clients and attention to detail that allows a person’s personality to come through in the final product. If a client isn’t relaxed, that will show up on the camera, Bishop said.

“(Bishop) was able to show a level of seriousness and professionalism, but also bringing out that other side that I want to convey which is warmth, hope, solutions, approachable,” said Leslie Alden, executive director and co-founder of Drawdown Bay Area, a Corte Madera-based nonprofit focused on climate change. “We are a very visual species and conveying something visually and accurately is both important and sometimes difficult.”

The process starts with an initial call to determine if Bishop is the right fit for the potential client. Then a longer conversation is scheduled to delve deeper into who the client is, her business, what she is looking for, potential recent changes in her personal and professional lives—anything that will help Bishop connect with the woman so the photograph reveals her personality and not merely an uninspiring headshot.

Then it’s time for Bishop to create a story board to drill down into the client’s individual style. This helps her research potential backdrops, poses, colors and other needs for the shoot that will ultimately capture what the client wants to portray.

Having a background in design has helped Bishop with composition and knowing what color and texture of clothing will photograph best with various backgrounds, and how it all plays out with the client’s stature and personality. She holds clothes up against different backgrounds to give the client an idea of what the color scheme and scenery look like together. Then the shooting begins. When she has the photos processed, there is a reveal session.

Buying into Bishop’s expertise is also critical. Norman was initially skeptical of Bishop’s idea to wear a black top with black background. It ended up being one of her favorites.

“I find if someone just wants a head shot, that is not very interesting to me. I am the slow food of photography,” Bishop said. “I think of the photo shoot as an experience. Then it becomes fun and a memory. That is my ultimate goal.”

She travels all over the Bay Area, the state, and will get on a plane for some clients.

“Laurie has a skill set and intuitive ability to read what the client wants or needs and figures out the various impediments. She put an enormous amount of prep time in, which surprised me,” Alden said.

Customers come away with a package of photos that reveal themselves as they want to be seen.

“Traditional business photos are fine if you are in more of a traditional business role,” Klugman-Rabb said. “As a psychotherapist, people need to trust me, to know that I am approachable. They want to be able to establish a relationship with me that could be a few weeks or a few years so they need to see me less as a staunch business person, but to see me as a human. That comes through because I am taking photos where I am most comfortable.”

It’s listening to people that seems to make the difference. One client told Bishop that she “needed to look relevant and not look like someone’s mom.” Another had put on weight during the pandemic and didn’t feel photogenic. Bishop’s solution was to essentially put on a lighthearted fashion shoot. This helped loosen up the client.

What the workplace looks like

No matter what a woman looks like in person or in a photograph, gender and age discrimination are still a reality in the workplace.

“There are structural, material forms of gender inequity baked into our economic system. Money isn’t everything, but it’s a very real form of inequity that heavily impacts people’s lives; so let’s start there. We need to look at structural pay gaps and fix them; then let’s talk about how those inequities were created in part because of stereotypes,” Dominican University’s Pitchford told the Business Journal.

This ageism/sexism reality is not limited to the United States, nor just to women. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations in August 2021 put out a report about older people. In part it said, “Older persons face ageism and age discrimination in access to work. Ageist barriers to employment include mandatory retirement ages, age limits in recruitment, negative stereotypes about the ability of older persons to work, and societal norms, which all hinder the right of older persons to work.”

In the executive suite, it’s still mostly men, so there is that sexism issue again. In 2021, 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, though the percentage was 6.6 in 2019.

“Women continue to face a broken rung at the first step up to manager: for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means that there are far fewer women to promote to higher levels,” according to McKinsey & Company, which last fall released a report titled “Women in the Workplace 2021.”

Women Business Collaborative, with Ascend, C200 and Catalyst in 2021 released their second annual report titled “Women CEOs in America: Changing the Face of Business Leadership.”

In part it said, “Credit Suisse found that female CEOs are 50% more likely than male CEOs to have a female CFO, and 55% more likely to have women running business units. Executive teams with more than 30% women are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women.”

Fighting discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act took effect in 1968 as a way to protect workers age 40 and older from discrimination in the workplace. That doesn’t mean discrimination has stopped; it means for more than five decades age discrimination has been illegal and employees can file lawsuits.

“After 50 years of a federal law whose purpose is to promote the employment of older workers based on ability, age discrimination remains too common and too accepted. Indeed, 6 out of 10 older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and 90 percent of those say it is common,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website.

The Women in the Workplace 2021 report found, “Compared with men in similar positions, women managers are taking more consistent action to promote employee well-being—including checking in on their team members, helping them manage their workloads, and providing support for team members who are dealing with burnout or navigating work–life challenges.”

The same study highlighted how more women are facing burnout on the job compared to men, especially since the pandemic started two years ago. Women often have more on their plates then men. Women are still the caregivers more than men, which impacts their work life. Younger women are caring for children, while older women are caring for parents.

“Finally, after decades of feminism, all the research shows it’s still the case that middle-aged women bear an unequal burden of ‘invisible’ labor at home, often including caregiving for both children and aging parents. As long as that continues to be the case, ensuring equality in formal workplaces is only half the battle,” Pitchford said. “So we need to agitate for legislation such as the Build Back Better Act that supports childcare and eldercare and paid family leave, and also for more flexible and family-supporting policies in the workplace to support all genders. But to all the male partners of women, I’d say, start by doing your share at home.”

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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