TERRY PRONE: We are looking at sexism raucously revived and largely unchallenged

Sexism with a new wrinkle, should you pardon the word. The new wrinkle is to put femaleness and age together, writes Terry Prone

I gave a market researcher short shrift on Friday and I’ve been feeling badly about it ever since. Partly because having to ring total strangers up to ask them questions about their preferences in soap or salt is an awful job in the first place, not least because of all the rejections the researchers must encounter.

But I also feel guilty because the poor bloke was from the company where my mother worked as a supervisor for several years. Her two daughters had the best time during those years. We had a free gaff after teatime, for starters, because that was when she headed out for her evening’s work. We sometimes got free samples when she was visiting consumers in their homes to see if they would agree to test and rate particular products. Plus, when she came back, the stories were great. Like when she was asking people to test carefully anonymised shampoos and encountered a middle-aged man with the most beautiful plentiful shining hair you could imagine. This he credited to never washing it. Hadn’t washed his hair in 30 years, he told my mother. “Nor his feet, either,” his wife muttered bitterly in the background.

I don’t know what the guy on the phone on Friday wanted to ask me about, and I couldn’t give him the reason for my refusal. I just said something magisterial like: “I never take calls of this nature.” The real reason, however, was that I was busy doing a little research of my own, which I figure was less statistically valid than what he was at, but maybe more interesting.

I started out by making a list of prominent guys in their sixties who run companies. No point in looking at the public service, because they’re forced to retire at 65, which is a living disgrace. Definitely no point in talking to the gardaí, who are forced to retire at 60, which is a worse disgrace. Instead, I picked guys in private firms, some of those companies multinational, some of them indigenous. Some of the men on the list, but not all of them, were entrepreneurs. Because of the nature of my business, I knew most of them, so they took my call, although, as emerged, a few were probably sorry that they did. I had one single question for each of them.

“How often do you get asked if you’re ‘still working’?”

The reactions varied. At least half responded “Never” and — being busy lads — were delighted when I thanked them and got out of their hair. The other half varied in their reactions.

“How do you mean?” was one reply from guys who couldn’t get their head around the very possibility of being asked such a barking mad question. “Why would anybody ask me that?” was another.

The 82-year-old who chairs an international company he set up 40 years ago just laughed and asked me what was behind the query.

What was behind the query was this. I’m in my 60s and get asked the question all the time. Constantly. Weirdly, half the time I get asked the question in a working situation, which suggests maybe they think I do it for charity. Sorry, no.

I wanted to know if this was a ‘wimmen’ issue. ‘Wimmen’ being the dismissive term Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs uses for half the population of the world.

Of course, there is the possibility that it happens because relatively few women of my generation made it to the top in their businesses, but I doubt it. Many did and are still at the helm.

I doubt it because of the common follow-up when the questioner is told yes, I am ‘still’ working, that ‘still’ articulated through gritted teeth. “Aren’t you marvellous?” they say. Implication: Given your advanced age and gender, Jaysus, isn’t it unbelievable you can still walk upright and form a sentence?

What maddens me about this is that nobody talks about it or fights it, probably because to draw attention to it, as a woman, is to be instantly categorised. Yep, that’s the next step. If you’re female and functional in your 60s and bluntly reject the patronising non-compliment that you’re marvellous, then you become a feisty oul wan. Them’s the choices. Retire to being a granny or become a feisty oul wan. It’s not good enough. Fifty years ago, women successfully fought against being reduced to a handful of options. Yet nobody, today, is fighting the reduction of options — and perceived options — for older women. Even the outrageous ageism and sexism delivered to Brigitte Trogneux since her husband won the French presidential election hasn’t produced a coherent condemnation. Bibi Macron is way older than the husband to whom she has been happily married for many years. Shock, horror. What was he thinking? Donald Trump has been married for fewer years to a woman he’s way older than, but this is widely seen as a “fair dues” accomplishment: A reward for his fame and money. Face it, not even his biggest fans could see it as a payoff for his looks.

I’m good and tired of vague accusations of misogyny. It’s not a term that gets used in pub talk. Real people rarely use it, while it tends to surface, when it does, in relation to idiotic issues such as the height of heels and shortness of skirts. The better word is sexism. Meaning contempt for women. What we’re looking at, right now, is sexism raucously revived and largely unchallenged. Sexism with a new wrinkle, should you pardon the word. The new wrinkle is to put femaleness and age together. The end result is instant dismissal, or — worse — patronage. It’s a dissing of women because they are old and because they are women, with the combination rendering an entire gender vulnerable to whatever anybody wants to throw at them.

I listened the other day to a radio DJ reading out a story about Helen Hunt, the Oscar-winning actor. The story started with the fact that she’s starring in a Fox TV series. He had the newspaper in which the story had appeared in front of him, and he went on and on and on about how Hunt, who is all of 53, “still looks beautiful”.

Any profile of Helen Mirren or other actresses in their 60s or 70s inevitably warbles on about how soft their skin still is and how heroic they are to be still working. Warren Beatty? Not so much. Famous older women are not considered as the sum of their achievements, the way men of advancing years are.

Instead, the women are commonly reduced to the plastic surgery they’ve had done or not done or how they dress for public appearances: Christine Lagarde good, Angela Merkel bad.

Nobody expects young women in the throes of building their careers to fight this. Nor are busy young mothers going to take up the cudgels. But the fact is that the embedding of this reductionist view of older women is not going to do any of them any good, because it isn’t just death and taxes that are inevitable. Old age is inevitable too.


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