- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

CHICAGO - Gray hair seems like a silvery career asset to 56-year-old Dan Vnuk now that he has given up dyeing his, hoping to improve his job prospects.

Not so for Aliza Sherman Risdahl, 40, who has felt unspoken pressure for years to color her prematurely gray hair. “No one takes women more seriously because we have gray hairs on our head,” she lamented.

Opinions diverge about the effect of gray hair in business as the work force gets collectively older, with the first baby boomers set to turn 60 next year and all 78 million members of America’s largest generation now older than 40.

Does gray add gravitas for those seeking to be hired or promoted, or is it a drawback that is best disguised?

Even with demographics tilting in older workers’ favor, analysts say, the answer depends on the circumstances.

Twenty years from now, one in every four adult Americans will be older than 65. As a result, “this way of evaluating older Americans by their gray hair will have to change,” said Robert Butler, a researcher on aging and chief executive officer of the International Longevity Center in New York.

Gray hair once was considered the ideal in business and politics — white or gray powdered wigs were all the rage in the 18th century among American Colonists, who gravitated to gray because they equated older age with respect, power and prosperity.

Today, gray hair is common for men at the CEO level. But whether other executives, rank-and-file employees or job applicants benefit from gray is another matter.

Certainly the message conveyed by TV networks is less than pro-gray, particularly among women. Spotting a female news anchor or reporter with gray hair is about as likely as, well, having a boss who wears a powdered wig to the office. Not a single one of the eight women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has gray hair, based on recent photographs.

Although quantifying the effect of gray hair may be impossible, there has been no big drop-off in a statistical category closely linked to ageism. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 17,837 age discrimination complaints in 2004, down slightly from the previous two years but higher than any other year in the past decade.

Mr. Butler, whose research and educational organization combats ageism in the workplace and elsewhere, says data bear out that older workers are among the most reliable in the work force because “they learn, they are dependable, they have a low absentee rate.” But he fully understands why workers dye their grays to improve their self-esteem or their job chances.

Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development and gerontology at Cornell University, says Americans clearly are ambivalent about gray hair in the workplace.

“On the one hand, there are some companies eager to hire the gray-haired. On the other hand, in some other areas there is extreme discrimination” against older workers, he said.

Such discrimination always has been the fear of Mr. Vnuk, whose longtime salt-and-pepper hair has turned lately to mostly salt. The Milwaukee marketing administrator says he has wrestled periodically with the gray-or-dye question for years.

Even his son encouraged a cover-up when Mr. Vnuk interviewed with a thirtysomething employer who was about the son’s age. He told his father: “Face it, nobody wants to hire their father” — a telling if “brutal” comment, Mr. Vnuk recounted with a laugh.

Mr. Vnuk spurned the advice and got the job anyway. But a few months later he dyed his hair chestnut brown in an attempt to fit in better with younger co-workers, a decision he quickly regretted as “really dumb” after enduring ridicule for the faux look.

Now he is back to gray for good, he says. Based on comments he hears at conferences and elsewhere, he suspects it is getting easier for gray-haired workers to feel comfortable.

“It seems to be more acceptable today,” he said. “With the amount of baby boomers out there, I don’t think it’s as imperative to look younger.”

Others disagree — especially when it comes to women.

Miss Risdahl, an entrepreneur and TV and radio producer in Laramie, Wyo., first colored her hair after founding an Internet firm in the early 1990s and realizing gray didn’t fit the image of a young, hip company. While keeping her gray for long periods since then, she dyed her hair brown again recently for an appearance on camera.”

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