The Habits of a Lifetime
When a President Plays Chicken with Congress

Fired for Her Gray Hair

category_bug_ageism.gif Back in 1959, in San Francisco, I was called into the office of the top executive who theretofore had never spoken to me. He said he had seen me at the movie theater on the previous Saturday night and wanted to know who the young man with me was.

I didn't see how it was any of his business but I answered anyway. “My boyfriend, Larry,” I said.

He seemed to ponder this for a moment and then told me that someone in my position (please; I was a clerk who typed the same letter all day), at this particular company (a large, national insurance company) should not be seen with “people like him.”

Larry was a year or two older than I, in his early 20s, a talented, fledgling jazz musician, gorgeously handsome, funny and kind. What could be wrong with that? Oh, he was also black.

Today, I would handle that situation more aggressively. But I was young then, only 17, and unsure of myself so I nodded with what I hoped was a neutral expression and continued dating Larry.

A year or so later, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona. My boss at a local company called me into his office one day after I'd been working there for two or three months and told me not to wear blue eyeshadow anymore.

It was hardly garish, not with sparklies or anything show-girlish. It was how young girls decorated themselves in those days.

He told me that if he saw me again with blue eyeshadow, he would fire me. I thought that was unfair so I arrived at work the next morning in my usual blue eyeshadow and he fired me.

The people who employ us, I have noticed through the years, have always believed it is their right to control aspects of our lives that have no bearing on our work. One, in the late 1990s, told me I should smile more. What they choose to try to control changes with the times, but there is always something.

For many years, one of the most common firing offenses has been and remains getting old. Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported that 52-year-old Sandra Rawline was fired from her $48,000-a-year job as a title company branch manager allegedly because she refused to dye her gray hair:

”Rawline said her boss told her to dye her gray hair because the office was moving from Katy to the Galleria area and wanted a more upscale image for its new digs. She said she was also instructed to wear 'younger fancy suits' and lots of fancy jewelry.

“Rawline...said the boss ordered the dye job on a Thursday afternoon in August 2009 — even offering to perform the coloring.

“Rawline, who has been gray since her early 20s and likes her natural hair color, said she refused. And by the following Tuesday, she was told her services were no longer necessary and was replaced by a woman 10 years younger.”

During the six years Rawline worked for Capital Title of Texas, she was regularly promoted, given salary increases and had won “outstanding employee” awards in 2004 and 2005. There were no complaints about her work, none on the day she was fired and the company did not contest her application for unemployment insurance benefits.

The case is now headed for court. The company, of course, denies Ms. Rawline's allegations labeling them “baseless and preposterous.”

These days, it would be preposterous for an employer to even mention, let alone question the color of a worker's boyfriend's skin, or their eye makeup. But age discrimination in the workplace lives on – and on and on.

Where this gets trickier (sadder, harder, more frightening) for workers now than in the past is the continuing threat from lawmakers to raise the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility age for Medicare.

If you can be fired at 52 for gray hair, where are all these old folks going to find jobs? Ms. Rawline now works in customer service at a salary cut of 28 percent.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: An Evening That Changed My Life


Back in my secretarial days, circa the sixties, I worked for a big pharmaceutical company that had a bell system, just like in schools.

The screaming bell informed us when to go to breaks, lunch, and when to pack up and go home.

The place was run like a drill camp.

There was also a cafeteria on the bottom floor, where we all ate, as the company was situated far away from any restos.

One day the main waitress was missing. I asked where she was and was told she was fired for being overweight.

The woman did her job perfectly!

I was shocked.

Some salesmen (no women were allowed to be in sales) were fired for being over 40 years old.

One over 50 typist was given stacks of work, filing, etc. while a just divorced pretty woman sat filing her nails.

The over 50 secretary had to work as her husband had lost his sight testing airplane engines.

She was supporting him.

The all male bosses knew she couldn't quit.

Those office jobs taught me more about life than any movie.

And I thought I'd heard most everything! Dee

It used to be pretty common for women to lose their jobs when they got pregnant.

My first office clerk job was back in the early 70s, and we weren't allowed to wear pants of any kind, just dresses. Not even the very popular style of "pants suits" at that time. I'm proud to say that I talked the other ladies into making a case for the popular pants suits, and the boss actually agreed!

The last job I had as Lifestyle Editor with the local newspaper was mostly okay with casual wear. But when a new managing editor came in, he wanted us to wear more dressy clothes. I didn't mind it much, because some of the functions I had to attend would require that anyway. BUT the sports and front page reporters (mostly guys) hated it and gradually "enforcing" such a rule fell by the wayside.

WORST job I ever had, only a few months, was in a sewing factory -- was only allowed to go to the restroom on ten-minute breaks twice a day. Foreman walked the floors, watching you like a hawk, NO talking between workers, production work. It was an educational experience (mainly why I did it)...but I tell you, if that was the only way I could earn a living, I think I'd be homeless. HORRID place!

The hardest thing in my life right now is coping with the endless ramifications of being the oldest person, at 59, in an office largely made up of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I agree, Ronni - if we're all going to have to work til we drop dead, I hope something changes.

I've decided that insanity is the new normal.

I, too, have had some uncomfortable experiences in the workplace and am SO glad to be out of the workforce.

In the 60's, I worked for a woman with whom I became friends after I no longer worked for her. She told me that the way to control employees was to keep them a little scared.

Not all bosses are bad, of course, and I've had some good ones, but there was a preponderance of the kind I sure could have done without.

Thanks to the Unions, much of the abuses by bosses was curtailed. Ronald Reagan cut the legs out from under the Unions and they have never recovered. Now Republican governors are further decimating the Unions so the powerful will have their serfs working for them again.

With 9.2% unemployment workers are afraid to speak up. Bosses are now back to calling the shots again.

I cannot believe this s--- still happens. Dianne

Age and my reluctance to run rough shod over our underpaid subcontractors were behind my firing in Oct. 2009.

They used some lame excuse about making a homeowner unhappy ( I was in the new home construction field) to fire me. Most homeowners are always unhappy for reasons I have no control over. Buyer remorse by one or both of the spouses was a frequent cause for dissatisfaction.

I was getting very tired of trying to appease everyone, including pennhy-pinching managers, so I allowed them to fire me without a fight because they gave me 3 months severance pay with acquired bonuses to prevent me from challenging their claims. I took the money and ran I have not regretted it since.

If I were ever to be given the opportunity though I would lay open to anyone who wanted to hear why I thought there was more than just an imaginary unhappy customer complaint that effected my dismissal.

20 yrs ago. Strange experience at an office job. Small male sales staff and several female support workers. A co-worker clued me in that management encouraged the in-fighting and backstabbing between the women. My own behavior was encouraged, too. I kept my head down. Meanwhile none of the women considered joining the male-only sales team. Divide and conquer.

I've only been fired once in my career -- when I was 19 (in late 1950s) and refused to "cooperate" (translation, have sex) with the boss. His reason for firing me was that I was "incompetent"!

Another abuse we women have to suffer is one that happened to me -- and I fought back. It happened at a TV station where I wanted to apply for a vacant space in their sales department (a high-paying job). The receptionist at the front desk refused to even give me a job application form to fill out. I filed EEOC suits ... won the general suit and lost the specific suit as a male applicant from San Francisco had a year's experience in the TV sales, and I only had 15 years' experience as a media buyer and knew more than all of their sales people put together about buying (and selling) TV time! Go figure.

Large irony here -- a few years later the same TV station ended up with an all-female sales force as they finally hired one sales woman (formerly the Sales Department's secretary) and found out that sales women could be equal to, if not better, than their all-male sales force had been.

I wonder if they got the same salary as the men? Dee

Early or forced retirement is becoming common in this economic climate. One of the ways to combat this is proactive, aggressive planning early in life. If we can't do it, at least ingrain it in our children and grandchildren.

I remember being told in 1978 by the owner/boss man that the reason I got the job (purchasing/payroll secretary) was because I wore 3" alligator high heels to the interview.

Hell, I could have saved a lot of time and energy if I had been given that hiring tip a long time ago.

Now that I am 57, those heels won't work the same magic...

"There's no place like home"

What do you mean?

I removed the second half of Jared's comment because its sole purpose was to leave a link to his commercial website containing advice on retirement planning.

Off-topic comments and links to commercial websites are not allowed in TGB comments. However, I thought his first statement was worth thinking about.

Flight attendants, all female, in the late '50s, early '60s were required to meet certain objective and subjective standards: height and weight, and, for lack of a better word, comeliness. Fine, but, kiss your job good bye if you gained weight, got married or, get this, turned 32 years old! Age discrimination, yet! The reason you see chubby, gray haired, pregnant and/or ordinary looking female flight attendants today: Labor Union. They finally got organized and did away with those stupid, blatantly discriminatory policies. About this time, men were hired as flight attendants.

My goodness! so thankful that I have had mostly great bosses, various levels of competence, but nothing like the horrors chronicled here!And my last boss before I retired was great!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy - does this bring back the bad memories. I started work at the phone company at age 16 - we were instructed on what to wear including make up. Now, mind you, I was in information and had no public contact. The situation never really changed in all my years of employment; the orders from on high were more indirect but still there - what you could wear, how you "should" act, preference for the young and pretty over the older and overweight. And so it went until I was forced to retire. But at least I lasted to the age of 62 and got a small pension and have been able to supplement with part-time jobs. I am horrified at the rights we have lost, thanks to the destruction of the unions. If anybody ever wondered how management would act if they weren't legally constrained, just has to look at today's employment world.

The working conditions women over 60 put up with would come as a huge shock to most of the young women in today's workforce. Revisiting the way it was emphasizes why women need to keep on fighting for our rights and not take them for granted--EVER.

Right wing extremists are determined to overturn a woman's right to choose--but that's only the beginning. I remember clearly when I needed my (first) husband's signature to apply for a credit card--even though I was the primary wage earner at the time! Conservatives want to see women back in their so-called proper subservient positions--like we were when our bosses, always male, could fire us for wearing blue eyeshadow, gaining 5 lbs. or turning 32!

(P.S. Ronni, your mention of dating an African-American man back in the day also rang a bell with me. Although I didn't have the courage to date my Black friend openly back then--that was circa 1953-54--by the late '60s I had finally begun to talk the talk AND walk the walk. In 1976 I met and ultimately married the best husband a woman could ever wish for or have. How fortunate for me that I was finally able to get beyond the groundless prejudices and seriously flawed cultural beliefs I was raised with and that so often pit us against each other in this crazy world.

Too bad she doesn't have proof of the reasons she was fired. It is getting so that we ought to carry concealed cameras or recorders when we go to work. I am so lucky that there is no such prejudice in my field.

In 1971 as a new college graduate, I was required to shave off a neatly-trimmed mustache for an airline marketing position: a little reminder that appearance demands by employers have always affected both genders, and always will. Maybe it ain't fair, but it's the way the world works. I was not without choices; I could have said "keeping this facial hair is more important to me than getting this job" and taken my skills someplace friendlier. But I trimmed the hair, took the job, and grew the mustache again in two years after I had earned a measure of respect from my employer. I loved the job. And though it's now flocked with gray, I've still got the mustache.

Thank you for an excellent perspective on this story. I've been wanting to write about it on my blog Rock the Silver but will link to you instead! Remember Christine Craft? She wrote, "Too old, too ugly and not deferential to men."

One of my worst job experiences was a boss who actually followed me when I went to the restroom. When I returned to my desk, in front of other people, he asked me why I was in there so long! I was horrified and replied that sometimes it just takes longer than others to go to the restroom. I can laugh about it now, but it was really embarrassing back then.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)