Why do older women exist? What—if anything—is the true and universal purpose of the postmenopausal female? For women “of a certain age” (one wonders if a similarly condescending phrase was ever coined to describe men who are no longer nubile, or even if there is any masculine equivalent for nubile), it will come as no surprise to learn that science has pondered this question. Along with killer whales, humans are one of the few animal species in which females live long after they stop reproducing. One theory—the “grandmother hypothesis”—speculates that this is because humanity benefits from having built-in babysitters. Prehistorically, the hypothesis goes, caregiving grandmothers provided an extra hand to help with the grandchildren, improving survival rates and allowing the human race to flourish.
To be sure, the persistence of older women is merely one Darwinian mystery among many; you might just as easily ask why humans lack fur (which would be cheaper than a wardrobe, and easier to maintain); why babies’ heads are so painfully large (for the birthing mother); or why it takes hundreds of millions of sperm to fertilize one egg (actual biologist joke: because none of them will stop to ask for directions). In any case, evolutionary advantages notwithstanding, modern life seems to be suggesting another possibility for older women. Lately, a group of prominent 60-somethings—Janet Yellen, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel among them—has begun forging an alternate path: whatever the reason older women were put on this Earth, their example suggests, maybe the time has come for them to run it.
I know, I know: the idea is profoundly counterintuitive. The dearth of females in the upper echelons of virtually every field is notorious, and tends to get worse, not better, the higher you look. While women make up about half of the U.S. workforce and more than half of entry-level hires at the largest corporations, their ranks thin so starkly that just 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Elsewhere on Wall Street, in Big Law, and in Silicon Valley, the numbers are no more equitable. Culprits range from child-rearing demands to gender bias. Given these burdens, you might not think adding in advanced age is the formula for breaking the glass ceiling. And yet the current cohort of female éminences grises may well herald an era when aging, for women, ceases to be an enemy, and even becomes a friend.
This is not just because today’s older women have more education and experience than any generation of women before them—though they do. It’s also because women, often held back in midlife by domestic responsibilities, are in many ways suited to shift into high gear at a later age than men—to have it all, as the saying goes, by having it at different times. One high-level female executive told me recently that she is waiting until her kids start college to truly move into overdrive. “I’ve got a good 15 years after that,” she figures, to make her full impact. Lending credibility to this hope, an intriguing body of psychological research hints that people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.
Clinton, yellen, and warren may represent a small group, but it’s a striking one. All reached their 60s having raised families and built lengthy résumés. Rather than pull on their gardening gloves and totter out to spray the roses, however, all are surging well past the time when one might reasonably expect a white-collar worker to start watching the clock, waiting for her pension to kick in.
Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors when she was 67; Warren, a former Harvard Law professor, established herself as Wall Street’s best-known scourge when she was just shy of 60, then launched a successful run for the U.S. Senate at 62, an age when, as she puts it in her memoir, she should have been “thinking ahead to rocking chairs and retirement plans.” Clinton, of course, has filled her seventh decade with serial moves from presidential candidate to secretary of state and back to candidate. Across the pond, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde (practically an ingenue at 59), embodies an elegant, European version of prolonged surging, as does German Chancellor Angela Merkel (60).
Certainly, this generation of high-profile women is different from the generation following it. These women are overachievers born into a world that presented both opportunities and formidable barriers. In a fairer world, they might have peaked earlier. Warren dropped out of college to marry her first husband, who wanted her to be a housewife. Soon after Clinton graduated from Yale Law, she moved to Arkansas, to further her future husband’s career. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also belongs on the later-surge list, did not join the Supreme Court until she was 60; the male justices she joined had been, on average, seven years younger when they were sworn in.
And yet even now, even for talented young women, a swift professional rise is far from preordained. Today, women begin their careers close to wage parity: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women between the ages of 25 and 34 earn almost 90 percent of what men do. The wage gap soon widens, however. Women between the ages of 45 and 54 make 76.6 percent of what men do. This is partly due to child-rearing logistics: a Pew Research Center report found that 42 percent of mothers had cut back on their work hours to care for a family member, and 51 percent of mothers with children under 18 said being a parent made it harder for them to advance professionally, compared with just 16 percent of fathers. But the wage gap also seems to reflect a bias against mothers with children at home—a set of belittling stereotypes sometimes referred to as the “maternal wall.” Research shows that when a working woman becomes a mother, she is typically seen as warmer and nicer, and that these traits may actually conspire against her, making her seem less good at her job. A 2004 study in the Journal of Social Issues described a psychology experiment in which Princeton undergraduates were presented with identical descriptions of two hypothetical job candidates, Kate and Dan, both consultants, depicted alternately as childless or as having a new baby. Dan was seen as equally competent in either scenario, whereas mom-Kate was considered less competent than her childless female counterpart, and the undergrads were less willing to hire, train, or promote her. Another study, in the American Journal of Sociology, found that participants offered mothers a lower wage than they offered childless women, and saw them as less competent and committed. By contrast, parenthood made men seem more competent and committed.
But children are not the only impediment holding younger women back. In 2011, Joanna Barsh, then a director at McKinsey, and her co-author, Lareina Yee, published research they had conducted to find out why so few women were reaching executive suites at large companies. In interviews with human-resources officers, they found that men are more likely than women to be promoted based on their perceived potential, while women are more likely to be promoted based on their performance, a phenomenon that results in women getting to the top later, if they get there at all. According to Barsh, a senior executive might say: “I know Robert, he’s a great guy, what more do you need?” CEOs are more risk-averse about promoting women, she says. Perhaps as a result, female Fortune 500 CEOs tend to have more experience when they are appointed than male ones do; according to the American Management Association, women assume the top job at an average age of 52.8, versus 50.2 for men.
Could public life offer an opportunity to change perceptions about what women can achieve at later stages? Much more so than in some other arenas, age can be an asset in politics. Moreover, political careers require no set training or credentials, and are thus well suited for women who may have been holding back—or held back—during early middle life. In the 1970s, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University conducted a census of women in state legislatures and found that they tended to be in their mid-50s, quite a bit older than their male colleagues. While raising families, many had been active in political volunteering; running for office was a capstone, a “reward for service,” according to Ruth B. Mandel, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. A similar age gap is seen at the congressional level. Today, the median age for women in the U.S. House of Representatives is 59.1, while for men, it is 56.5.
Perhaps having to wait awhile isn’t an entirely bad thing. If more people in professional and public life had to perform, and keep performing, before they got top posts, all of us might be better off. Consider Yellen, who served as the chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, the president and CEO of the San Francisco Fed, and the vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board. She was reported to be Barack Obama’s second choice for chair, winning it only after a younger man, Larry Summers, proved problematic. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, had been elevated in his 50s. She has been widely described as the most qualified Fed chair ever.
Then consider Presidents Clinton and Obama, both elected while in their 40s. For all our progress, it’s still hard to imagine a 40-something woman being swept into the White House, like Obama, based on a brief tenure in a state legislature, a few years in the U.S. Senate, a great speech, and a liberal sprinkling of audacity and hope. And yet, the argument could be made that both Clinton and Obama were promoted before they were seasoned, and might have been greater presidents had they been obliged to warm the bench for as long as, say, Yellen did. Perhaps the real tragedy is not that women aren’t promoted on potential; it’s that men aren’t forced to wait until they have performed. “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” asked a 2013 post for the Harvard Business Review’s Web site; the author, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia, concluded that a key leadership problem afflicting American companies is the “lack of career obstacles for incompetent men.”
To be sure, female aging is not without liabilities: some research suggests that ageism may hit women especially hard, with women being perceived as old at a younger age than men are. Even so, as today’s 60-somethings buck stereotypes, their experience may point to a sweet spot in women’s lives, a kind of Goldilocks moment, when the broader cultural suspicion of high-powered women begins to soften.
This possibility finds some support in a branch of social psychology pioneered by Solomon Asch, who in 1946 published a groundbreaking paper exploring how we acquire our impressions of other people. Asch wanted to know whether impressions develop trait by trait—that is, if our view of a person reflects the sum of his or her attributes—or whether certain key traits somehow color our view of all the others. He found the latter to be the case: someone who is (among other traits) intelligent, skillful, determined, and practical elicits radically different reactions depending on whether he or she is described as warm or cold. Other psychologists built on this work, using the interaction between two categories—warmth and competence—to understand how we construct our ideas about groups. When it came to race and ethnicity, they found that groups seen as on the rise and a competitive threat—Jews and Asians, for instance—tend to be stereotyped as competent but not warm, a view that fuels envy and resentment. Historically, African Americans were stereotyped as warm but not competent, which was used to justify paternalism. The elderly fit into the same category: warm and lovable, neither competent nor threatening.
When feminist scholars began to look at gender through this lens, they found that women seen as displaying traditionally feminine traits—housewives, say, or supportive girlfriends—were viewed as warm but not competent, and treated with a soft, dismissive sexism. Those who deviated from traditional femininity—lesbians, athletes, feminists, working women—were seen as competent but not warm, and treated with a more overtly hostile sexism. People seemed ready to perceive women as either warm or competent, but never both. Susan Fiske, the Princeton University psychology professor who pioneered this research, notes that for men, the two categories don’t seem to be mutually exclusive. “Women are in more of a catch-22 situation,” she says.
Think about how this might apply to Hillary Clinton, long seen as competent but not warm—hence her famous “likability” deficit. Of course, there are reasons unrelated to gender why this might be: many voters question her truthfulness about incidents ranging from Whitewater to the fiasco involving her State Department e-mails. (It is worth pausing to note that female politicians aren’t by definition more virtuous than male ones, and that aging doesn’t necessarily change a person’s character for better or worse. Indeed, one could argue that, in an odd sense, women will have truly arrived when grandmotherly politicians reveal themselves to be just as scandal-prone as older men are.)
Certainly, though, Clinton’s feminism and ambition have contributed to her image problems. Might she now be in a window—call it early elderliness—when she can get credit for warmth without losing her reputation for competence? Being a grandmother could help. When Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy was announced, some speculated that the new arrival would finally render Hillary unambitious—that she would be too doting and distracted to run. Au contraire: She deployed her new role much as grandfatherly politicians have long done—as testament to her experience, her family values, and her stake in the future. Against the backdrop of a measles outbreak earlier this year, Clinton tweeted, “The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.” She concluded with #GrandmothersKnowBest.
“She’s kind of redefining grandmother,” says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics. (When it comes to proudly folding grandmother into her public persona, however, Clinton is unlikely to best Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now 82, who nodded off during the 2015 State of the Union address and was not remotely embarrassed. “I wasn’t 100 percent sober,” she laughingly told an interviewer; she had come from a dinner with her fellow justices, where she had indulged in some wine. She volunteered that a granddaughter had called after the speech to admonish her: “Bubbe! You were sleeping!”)
Shelley Correll, a sociology professor who directs Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, thinks these examples bode well for future female leaders. “It does appear to be the case that being senior or being a grandmother does help [women] get past this competence/likability bind,” she says. She points out that this would be the first time we’ve seen such an effect, because “it’s the first generation of women who have started out in the workforce and stayed in it that long.” Fiske, the Princeton psychology professor, also finds this hypothesis persuasive: “It’s really likely that you could combine elder stateswoman with grandmother and get a pretty good combination.” This kind of example could help acclimate people to female leadership in other realms, and to the idea that women, like men, can be both competent and warm. Meanwhile, evolutionary science’s views of female aging may be shifting. A recent study in the journal Current Biology reveals some surprising truths about—yes—postmenopausal killer whales. Turns out they are key leaders, directing the group to the best feeding grounds. “The wisdom of elders may be one reason female killer whales continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing,” Lauren Brent, one of the researchers, has said. The study’s senior author, Darren Croft, has noted mounting evidence that “menopause in humans is adaptive,” and that older women in prehistoric times may have similarly functioned as repositories of wisdom and knowledge.
If this is the case—and if indeed the world is ready to offer new opportunities to older women—then who will be left to watch the grandkids? Let’s see: Who, at 60-something, might be looking for a new challenge? An emotionally rewarding second act? Who got promoted early, peaked early, and now has ample free time for Legos, tea parties, and reading stories? Has anybody thought about a good occupation for Bill Clinton, now that he has achieved so much? Or, someday, Barack Obama? Why were older men put on this Earth, anyway?