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Your Gray Hair

Vivia Chen

April 3, 2012

Grey CharmLadies, you'll never guess what senior-level men notice about women's appearance. It's not the latest fashion trend that unnerves them—like sexy leather suits or sky-high heels. No, what men really notice (and abhor) are the gray roots sticking out of women's hair. The horror!

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett mentioned that finding at a Flex-Time Lawyers luncheon at Clifford Chance a few weeks ago, and you could hear the gasp among the women in the audience.

"Senior [executive] men have strong opinions on this issue,"  Hewlett tells me about her forthcoming study about the attitudes of men and women ages 25 to 55. "You think certain things aren't noticed, but women are held to a higher standard in grooming."

If women's gray roots signal sloppy grooming, why don't women just stop coloring their hair all together? Wouldn't that be so much more liberating?

Not so fast, says a recent Associated Press article. Though gray hair is now in vogue (think Christine Lagarde, the chic chief of the International Monetary Fund chief and former Baker & McKenzie head), women are not quite ready to show their true colors in the workplace. Reports the AP:

For regular working women, it's a trickier issue.

"I don't think a woman in the workplace is going to follow that trend," David Scher, a civil rights attorney in Washington, said with a laugh. "I think women in the workplace are highly pressured to look young. If I were an older working person, the last thing I would do is go gray."

Indeed, more women are coloring their hair than ever. In 1950, only 7 percent of women colored their hair, while now, "it's closer to 95 percent or more, depending on geographic location," says the AP. The advent of home hair color kits in the 1960s changed "the follicle landscape for good." (To quote Nora Ephron: "There's a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don't look the way they used to, and it's not because of feminism, or better living through exercise. It's because of hair dye.")

But there's also a gray movement afoot. One 44-year-old manager who stopped coloring her hair told the AP: "It's a bold statement to be gray because it's saying, 'You know what? I did let my hair go, but I'm not letting myself go.' . . . People take me more seriously now."

Whether it's a good career strategy to go gray depends a lot on the job and the location, says the AP. "The [gray] color might be easier in academia over high-tech, for instance, and in Minneapolis over Los Angeles."

And what about being a gray lady in the legal profession?

"I don’t dye my hair, and I don’t think it’s always necessary," says a 50-ish female partner at an Am Law 100 firm in New York. "I call my gray 'sparkly silver highlights.' " 

But another lawyer who's now in-house at an entertainment company in Los Angeles strongly disagrees. She says going gray is "basically a bad career move—especially now, when the job market is so tight and favors the young. Women with gray hair, no matter how well dressed or groomed they are, tend to look much older than their age."

So what's the verdict about going natural in the office? Are there advantages for women to go gray—like gaining gravitas? Or will it just make women look like corporate grannies?


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Old article but I chopped a great deal of my long hair off to start growing it out gray. It has been 10 months and there is nothing that would make me start coloring again. I was coloring every week and a half to keep my white streaks colored.

I'm also growing it long again. Ive been told (by men and one small minded woman) that it'll make me look like a "witch".

My question is why people think they should have any say over what I look like or how I present myself? As long as I am fundamentally clean and basically neat, why do people care?

I am a 51 year old attorney, who let my hair go several years ago now. I worried 2 years ago when I was layed off and thought about coloring it. My hairdresser gave me the best advice when she asked me if I felt confident. When I said yes, she said then your hair color doesn't matter. And it did not. I had a new and better job within three weeks of being layed off. (I don't have roots, I am all silver -- maybe the pretty color makes a difference?)

There is a REASON Anderson Cooper DYES his hair grey.

It shouldn't matter.

But it does.

And yes, it's sexist.

As a 59 year-old wannabe hippie who recoiled at the rampant "plasticity" of our superficial culture, I still am unable to understand why women cannot maintain their ego integrity and self-confidence by appearing exactly as their natural aging process leaves them. I understand we remain culturally biased by ageism, especially in the legal business, but if you're a good lawyer of either sex, why should you care?

Grey hair is no different from any other color hair. It has to be cut right, well maintained and well groomed. Make-up and clothes (colors) may need to be adjusted for the grey hair. It's not difficult and it can look great - I look a million times better with my grey (stopped dyeing at 42). I get lots of compliments on my hair, which is short and grey and I am often told it makes me look younger ! The grey flatters my skin far more than my dye jobs ever did. Anyone can do it well, you just need the right length for you, the right shampoo and products and voila. Grey makes you stand out from the crowd in a good way!

Osama bin Laden colored hair was a religious thing.

How gray hair is perceived probably depends on the type of law practice. I'm sure the person working in entertainment law is pressured a great deal about looking younger. Where as in other types of law practice it wouldn't matter as much. For my part, I highlight my hair because I am in process of going gray but the transition just doesn't look very good. Once it is a more uniform gray/silver color I probably won't bother.

Ageist? Ple-ase!!! This is pure sexism. When 95% of men over 40 start coloring their gray hair, then we can talk ageism.

I went gray about 5 years ago. I also went for the short, sassy cut. People tell me it took 10 years off my face. I am, however, in a position of authority and don't have to rely on a perception of youthfulness to advance my career.

This is so funny - I can't stop laughing (really.) My husband doesn't notice when I do anything to my hair - whether it's a new cut, color, etc., but "Senior [executive] men have strong opinions on this issue," ???? Glad to know of it!!

Funny, at 57, I'm still dealing with DARK roots. I and the girls in my extended family thank god everyday for the great genes which let us "pass" for 10 years younger.

As a natural blonde that enhances it, I tried years ago to go dark and did notice that even dear friends treated me as smarter with darker hair. If only it didn't require a total dye job constantly to keep up, I might have embraced my inner brunette. After that experiment, I really agree that unless you are as gorgeous with it as Ms Lagarde, going gray is career suicide.

Seriously, though, is anyone really surprised that women are held to a higher standard of grooming?

i color my hair because I like it better that way. I'm not trying to fit a younger image for employment or professional purposes. I just don't like the gray -- too much in strange places for me, thank you very much.

As a legal recruiter, In this market, it is important for 45+ year olds to project energy and youth-- absolute imperatives to counteract our unfortunately age-ist environment. Grey hair tends to make complexions look paler and tired. So, unless you are blessed with extraordinary bones or a dark, contrasting complexion, you will present better and as higher energy with complexion appropriate color around your face. Most women know what clothing colors flatter and what makes them look sickly. Why should hair color be any different?

Come on. Even Osama bin Laden colored his hair.

Unless you're a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a woman should not have gray in her hair -- and I think even they color theirs!

Ms. Lagarde has many things going for her: great bone structure, fabulous clothes, excellent posture and brains. Her gray hair works because it adds to her unique look and the cut is exquisite.
When I went totally silver two years ago at 48, my hairdresser told me the secret to carrying off such a statement is the haircut itself and he was right. I had my tresses trimmed a la Jamie Lee Curtis and haven't looked back. A day does not go by without a complement or two, often from men. I feel younger, more vibrant and if I may, more authentic.
Most women over 40 wear their hair too long which can be quite aging. Perhaps another article?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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