During my first-ever design job working at an architecture firm, I met a client who shook everyone’s hand to introduce himself. When he got to me, however, all he said was, “What a pretty girl.” It was the equivalent of a pat on the head. In subsequent years and in other roles, I would go on to having my drawings go unread because a young girl did them, being asked to wear a dress and heels, being told to lie about my age to clients, and being wined and dined in efforts to persuade me to be more submissive in the workplace. Fast forward eight years and, just this month, during a meeting with some of my team, a client asked if I was finally turning 20. These are small but effective power plays based on insecurities around age that challenge social expectations, but they actually work to shift people’s views regardless of the truth behind them.
I run a boutique creative studio with some amazing achievements under my belt, and I got here purely by doing the hard work of balancing three jobs at a time since I was 19. I’ve designed buildings in New York, grown profitable brands across several countries, and done strategic consulting for the government, and yet I can’t seem to get over the hurdle of proving myself because I look, and am, quite young. And I’m not alone in this. Throughout my career so far, I have seen firsthand how young women are treated in the workplace and I have to wonder, when will experience be enough? Are we elevating women to strive for and achieve more, or are we limiting them by our own archaic world views?
Professional worth is often measured in arbitrary metrics, usually related to time. Indeed, countless employers, clients, and partners have challenged my age in order to disregard my experience. The truth is that I often fall into it, discounting myself and my services because social conditioning has told us that’s what a 27-year-old is worth. I should have been asking for what someone with over eight years of experience in the field would be paid, but individual progress is hard to objectively measure without the caveat of traditional expectations. So what should the professional worth of a modern woman really be measured by?
With digital entrepreneurs and young leaders taking over with bold voices, it’s important to acknowledge that age no longer determines value. Gen Z women around the world are speaking up about their experiences living in a virtually borderless time through the internet. I’m so grateful that they get to be a part of this new movement, but all I hope is that they get treated with a new kind of respect, too.
Ageism is most commonly discussed in reference to biases towards an aging population, giving preference to a younger, more malleable and able-bodied workforce. The World Health Organization and several leading countries have even put forth protective measures for those aged 40 and older – but who’s protecting the youth? With an increasing amount of research showing the relationship, or lack thereof, between age and effective performance, the bottom line is that experience has, and always will, be a more predictive indicator for competency in a given role than age can ever be.
Having said that, there will always be layers to this depending on your own background and situation. For me, being a woman in a leadership role, working in a client-servicing industry, being South Asian, and even being physically small (yes, it matters!) cumulatively add to how I get judged when I walk into a room, and therefore how I get treated. But judgement is a natural instinct, and one I don’t think we as a society will be able to overcome anytime soon. All we can hope for is that each of us becomes a little more secure about where we are in order to be a little less defensive about where someone else is. The less we view professional growth as a race against each other, the more we can begin to appreciate progress regardless of whose it is, what they look like, and how long they’ve been around.
“Your worth is not dependent on having achieved age-appropriate milestones.” – Chani Nicholas
Tanvi Malik is a multidisciplinary designer, strategist, artist and writer. She currently runs a boutique creative studio using design thinking to develop transformational identities, products, experiences and spaces.