Before silver was a fashion trend, Tammy was the rare 40-something woman who felt perfectly fine about going gray. When she left the workplace to raise her two daughters and motherhood swallowed up her free time, she decided to bow out of the hair dye cycle that tied her to regular salon appointments. She let those locks go au naturel!
Then she got divorced. She was re-entering the workforce and the dating scene simultaneously. With no responses on the job search, fear consumed her — and she reluctantly went back to her former dark-haired self.
Several career coaches aren't so sure Tammy needed to dye. National headhunter Karen Danziger of Koller Search Partners explains: "If Tammy's personal life really suggests she should stay gray — her boyfriend likes it and she feels she has more presence in a room — then Tammy should embrace the gray and see how it works both professionally and personally.”
"I have good gray hair — shiny silver. It actually flatters my complexion and makes me look younger.” Says Tammy, 55, now a Southern California escrow officer: “I've mentioned going gray to people at work, all younger than me, and they all say, 'No. Don't do it.' "
Silver locks vs. silver fox
Millions of working women share the color question: Do I or don't I? in seeking a job or keeping one — a concern men don't come close to facing, headhunters and career coaches confirm.
Pamela Ferrell, salon owner of Cornrows & Co. in Washington, D.C., says that at least 25 percent of her African American female professional clientele color to cover gray. One of them, a striking attorney with just a few grays, was concerned her silver would age her out. “I thought young people would want an attorney with maturity, so I talked her out of the dye."
It's understandable why women worry about their gray. Seventy-two percent of women between the ages of 45 and 74 said they think people face age discrimination at work, yet only 57 percent of men in the same age range said so, according to study findings at AARP. And research confirms our suspicions.
"Based on evidence from over 40,000 job applications," wrote the National Bureau of Economic Research, "we find robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women, especially those near retirement age."
Tales of gray — and truisms from the experts
We spoke with two other women battling gray on the work front and had our experts weigh in. Coaches, headhunters and advisers unanimously agree — there is no one right answer when it comes to being gray on a job hunt. But there are some basic truths to be shared.
Consider your field
An Arizona 50-something (we'll call Amber) continues to dye her gray because she works in what she would only broadly describe as the high-tech industry, where every other employee is mid-20s. She thinks she wouldn't last long with gray hair.
Expert says: Amber’s probably right. Lisa Colten of outplacement and workforce training firm Lee Hecht Harrison in Washington D. C., says the color question does vary by industry. Gray might be more accepted in academia, law, medicine or politics. But Colten adds, "If you're going into a youth-oriented industry, you probably do need to color your hair." In the social work field, 43 percent of the workforce are in their 20s, and ditto for the pharmaceutical industries, according to CollegeStats.org. And tech jobs skew even younger. The median employee age at Facebook is 28, and it’s 27 at Yahoo (the youngest), according to an April 2016 study.
Tiffany, 58, who is in health care administration, has been coloring her gray since white strands showed up on her teenage scalp. She loves her medium-brown hue and has no interest in letting it grow in. Even if she wanted to, Tiffany (whose name has been changed) suspects her job would become less secure. Her coworkers have grown increasingly younger and have no clue that she's at least two decades older than they. "I can pass for 40," she says.
Expert says: Stela Lupushor, who founded Amazing Community, a New York website for older women in the job market, attests that whether you color or not, “Attitude, energy and confidence matter most.” Diane needs to do what makes her feel best.
Would Tammy do it all again?
Now that she has a job, Tammy, the coastal escrow officer, believes she has nothing to lose by going back to her beloved silver — not her job or her clients. "But If I were just getting back in the field after 17 years, I still think it would affect my chances of getting the job."
To dye or not to dye? There are a few questions to consider before hitting the bottle for a job. Is age/seniority in your industry viewed as a pro or a con? Have you considered the image you want to project? And finally, what hair color makes YOU feel the most confident?
Now — go get that job!
Nancy Wride is a California writer based in Long Beach.