Addressing media’s missing middle

Addressing media’s missing middle
Opinion: Career Leaders

Gendered ageism is killing women’s careers and stifling innovation in the media industry, so what are we going to do about it?

In Amy Schumer’s Last Fuckable Day sketch Amy stumbles upon Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette sitting around a table in a park to celebrate Louis-Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day.”

As she explains: “In every actress’s life, the media decides when you’ve finally reached the point where you’re not believably fuckable anymore.”

Fast forward eight years and the sketch has lost none of its in-your-face relevance. Nor has gendered ageism loosened its toxic grip on the media industry.

Too old to be relevant or too young to have an opinion; women in the media would be forgiven for believing that there is never the ‘perfect age’ to thrive within our industry.

The summer break has failed to bring with it any respite from the steady stream of senior female leaders exiting the industry for ‘new adventures’. We must break the silence surrounding gendered ageism in the media industry.

Too old to be relevant, too young to have an opinion

For women in leadership, the uncomfortable truth is that not only does the industry still treat women as if they have an expiration date, but they also face ageism at every age.

As Amy Diehl, chief information officer at Wilson College recently explained in the Harvard Business Review: “In our research we found no age was the right age to be a woman leader. There was always an age-based excuse to not take women seriously, to discount their opinions, or to not hire or promote them.”

For the media industry, this failure to take women seriously cannot only be seen within the steady exodus of female talent, but within its output. Mainstream media brands continue to attack and diminish women for simply daring to exist in their own bodies.

Women have driven significant progress when it comes to breaking the silence and stigma which still surrounds universal experiences such as the menopause.

However, without women having a consistent voice in leadership, the danger is we simply replace one stereotype with another. Women in midlife are so much more than a walking hot flush.

Embracing the restless energy of midlife

The irony is for an industry in a state of almost constant transition and transformation, the restless energy which midlife women wield so lightly, is what is so desperately missing from many of our workplaces.

If we are to address the self-worth crisis in young girls, we desperately need to embrace the pulsating ‘not today fucker’ energy of midlife women. The women so determined to break the cycle of unobtainable body standards and diet culture, even when it means standing up to the status quo.

In What’s Wrong With Me?: 101 Things Midlife Women Need to Know, writer Lorraine Candy powerfully explains the way in which mid-life women are the combination of all the women they have been before. A powerful lens to recognise the privilege, perspective and power of ageing.

All too often the impossible prism of ageing that women exist within diminishes the expansiveness of experience to a linear narrative of loss. Whether it’s looks, status or jobs, the midlife woman is defined as being in a state of almost perpetual unravelling to a state of irrelevance.

Midlife innovators

Yet even a cursory glance across the media and creative industries underlines the expertise, the restlessness, resilience and sheer creativity that women in midlife are bringing to our industry every single day.

Ogilvy’s unstoppable creative and cultural renaissance has been led with understated aplomb and empathy by Fiona Gordon. While Nishma Robb, incoming president of WACL, has redefined business marketing without sacrificing her steadfast principle or creative flair. WPP’s Karen Blackett continues to elevate the influence and impact a media leader can extend across the business sphere and beyond.

Suki Thompson’s long journey with Cancer has tragically ended. Yet such is the scale of her impact across the industry, her influence will continue to inspire leaders to lead with courage, clarity and sparkle. She leaves a footprint in the sand where no woman walked before, now we all get the opportunity to live up to the expansive, joy-filled example she set.

Redefining entrepreneurialism in media

A volcano of women in midlife are redefining what it means to be a media entrepreneur. With businesses built on the foundations of authenticity, integrity and a genuine understanding and empathy for the audiences they connect with.

Eleanor Mills, launched Noon.org.uk, a media platform to empower women in midlife. While Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpern’s Postcards From Midlife has been nothing short of sector defining.

Closer to home Claire Beale and Sonoo Singh have turned a life-long passion and love for the industry into a vibrant, evolving business in Creative Salon.

While Rachel Forde, chose change to leave UM UK & Ireland as CEO to launch TheZoo.London, an innovative consultancy aiming to connect professionals looking for flexible consultancy work and businesses that want to tap into their expertise.

The fact that two of the media and creative industries’ leading PR agencies; Pumpkin and Persuasion, are led by women in the prime of their midlife creative flow; Sarah Owen and Jane Austin respectively, is no coincidence. We have never needed midlife women’s voices, advice, honesty and experience more.

The simple truth is that taking older women seriously is not just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. But we will never address this issue if we turn a blind eye to the scale of media’s gendered ageism problem.

How many more days can the industry ignore the fact that sustainable media careers still aren’t working for half of the world’s population?

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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