February 20, 2014 — A few years ago, I was working as an organizational psychologist in the United States. With some great experience in employee assessment under my belt, I started to wonder about other opportunities in my field. Leadership development and coaching seemed especially intriguing to me. There was one consulting organization that was well-known for its coaches and development professionals, and it had just set up offices in Mumbai, India, where I’d grown up. I reached out to this company’s managing director through a mutual friend who assured me that he was a great guy and would welcome me with a red carpet.
I’ve often been told by friends and others that I have a way of helping them figure things out and should be a counsellor or coach, and I thought this would be a wonderful way of putting that advice to the test. When I called this MD, I found that he was everything my friend had said he’d be: genial, kind, humorous, and very eager to talk to me.
After chatting about my background and future interests for a bit, I asked him about job opportunities at his organization. “Aarti,” he said indulgently, “I can sense that you have great drive and talent, and a great educational foundation. But there’s something I want to be candid with you about that you don’t have, which we need in our coaches. Actually, two things: grey hair and a beard. Ha ha!”
I was taken aback, but also grateful for his honesty. I thought his advice that clients would find it difficult to take a young woman (or in his words, a “girl”) like me seriously was important for me to hear, as bitter a pill as it was to swallow.
Fast forward a few years. I have, at various points in my (still short!) career, been deemed “too old” for some things and “too young” for others; too “Indian, ” too “American, ” too “rigid,” too “wishy-washy, ” too “snobby, ” too “humble,” etc. etc. I’m now mature enough to understand that all these judgments have probably been true at various points, because I’m a complex person with multiple facets. But judging me by my age, my skin color, my accent, or my gender is a poor substitute for judging me by my abilities and potential. For a senior professional to advise me that I won’t get very far because my age and gender signal a lack of expertise to many people is merely a perpetuation of the kinds of stereotypes and unconscious biases that hold women and other non-dominant groups back in the workplace.
I wish I could go back to 26-year-old Aarti and tell her what really happened in that conversation. A door to a possible career path was closed because that managing director wasn’t interested in countering the idea that old men make the best coaches. The only way to break down these types of barriers is to challenge them as they arise.
The best mentors I’ve had in my life defy stereotypes—they don’t perpetuate them. I know of few better ways to break down barriers than by sharing evidence and reasoning things out. Being more aware of the pervasiveness of stereotypes would have inoculated me against taking what that managing director told me to heart. Ironically, that grey-haired, bearded, male executive disproved his own conviction that older men make the best coaches by offering me advice that was unfair, discriminatory—and just plain wrong.