Will we ever be rid of gendered ageism?

Sabrina Almeida

Gender equality is a fundamental right that even a first world country like Canada seems to have trouble with. It’s no secret that workplace gender discrimination still impacts recruitment as well as career opportunity and compensation. However, the firing of CTV’s 58-year-old national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme shines the spotlight on the less-talked-about “lookism” which discriminates against women on the basis of age-related appearance. 

Historically there has always been a preference for female employees who are “easy on the eyes” which typically means young and nice looking. As a result there is a growing concern surrounding the discrimination women over 50 may face when compared to men who are of the same age. 

The inequalities are well documented with research showing that around 80 per cent of women worldwide have experienced gendered ageism. Additionally, one study revealed that on average, female applicants whose age appeared to be over 50 had to send out 27 resumes just to get one job interview when compared to younger women who had to send in only 19.

Male employees, on the other hand, are rarely measured by the appearance yardstick. So while gray hair is viewed negatively for older women, it is regarded as distinguished for older men.

I haven’t come across any young men who were asked to undo the top two buttons on their shirts at important meetings either.

To clarify, neither Lisa LaFlamme nor Bell Media have described the specific reasons for her dismissal. In its initial statement, Bell Media said its decision had been driven by “changing viewer habits,” without offering further details. But a media report alleged the veteran journalist was fired because of her decision not to dye her hair gray. 

Reactions to the gendered-ageism allegations were instant.

Former prime minister Kim Campbell, singers Sarah McLachlan and Anne Murray and other high-profile Canadians condemned the dismissal, saying Bell had “confirmed one sad truth: Even after all the progress women have made, they continue to face sexism and ageism at work every day.’’

Dove immediately invited women to go gray. Wendy’s red-head also changed her hair colour in apparent support. But despite best intentions, any change with respect to gender parity is incredibly slow.

Meanwhile a call to reinstate the 58-year-old is being billed as the fastest-growing petition in Canada, according to Change.org. As of Wednesday, September 28 the petition has racked up over 212,584 signatures. If it reaches 300,000, it will become one of the top-signed on the non-profit petition site. I doubt that will change CTV’s decision or convince LaFlamme to go back. And as the days wear on, the issue will be forgotten.

In reality gendered ageism extends beyond the workplace and is reflective of societal stereotypes. For generations youth has been synonymous with beauty. The beauty industry has exploited the consequent fear it has created in women vis-a-vis aging. Its successful propagation of stereotypes is evident in estimates which suggest the global anti-aging market will grow from $191.5 billion in 2019 to $421.4 billion by 2030. 

And so there couldn’t have been a worse time for 39-year-old Omar Sachedina to ascend the CTV national news anchor throne. He attempted to do some damage control by addressing the controversy while thanking his predecessor for her “inspiration and mentorship” and adding that she should have an on-air goodbye. He also tried to turn the focus to the “promise of possibility” being the offspring of Indian-origin immigrants from Uganda. But any pride immigrants may have felt in his success story was overshadowed by the gender-based discrimination alleged in media reports. That is not to say that Sachedina does not merit the job.

It also doesn’t help to know that LaFlamme’s predecessor Lloyd Robertson, stayed in his role of lead anchor until the age of 77. He was also given a formal send off on air.

We don’t know the real reason for LaFlamme’s dismissal and hang on to the slim hope that it wasn’t because of her gray hair. Anything else points to a dismal possibility that we might never be rid of gendered-ageism.

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