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Commentary: Gray is the new blonde-not!

October 27, 2008

Photos of four area university presidents graced the cover of The Indianapolis Star's Sunday arts and entertainment section back in March. They were all female.

My first reaction was, "Isn't it cool that women are reaching the highest echelon of higher ed?" My second reaction was, "Why don't any of them have gray hair?"

Well, surely some of them do, since at that time their ages ranged from 59-66. It just doesn't show.

I was surprised. If there is a place where substance matters more than style, I'd think it would be academia. But then, take a look at women in the U.S. Senate: 16 of them, ranging into their late 70s, and nary a one revealing a hint of gray.

It's much the same story in the local business community. Given the near-universality of covering gray hair among professional women, what motivates those who don't?

For Alecia DeCoudreaux, 53, it was a desire to brush up on her piano skills.

"I wanted to take piano lessons, but I didn't have time. So I cut my hair off and saved an hour a day," said DeCoudreaux, vice president and general counsel at Lilly USA, the American arm of local pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly and Co. Her shorter style revealed the gray that had been hidden underneath. She didn't want to take the time to cover it, although her hairdresser had other plans: "She told me, 'At some point, we're going to have to start coloring.'"

That was eight years ago. In spite of a wide streak of silver near her face, she never took her hairdresser's advice, and she has never looked back. She doesn't believe her career has suffered because of her gray curls.

"Perhaps if I'm lucky enough, people will see it as a sign of wisdom," she said.

Indeed, that's the stereotypical advantage for men-that the onset of silver makes them look distinguished and experienced, while it supposedly renders women haggard and obsolete. Who wants to feel like that?

Women have been dying their hair for 3,000 years. But the reasons have become more complicated in recent decades. Seventy-five percent of women ages 25 to 54 are in the work force, a proportion that has doubled since the 1950s.

Professional women may believe covering their gray makes them look more capable. But, by coloring their hair into old age, are women perpetuating the stereotype?

There are ways besides coloring your hair to communicate competence, said Caterina Cregor, 60, the state's director of international education.

"If you let yourself go gray, you'd better do everything you can with other aspects of your physical being," said Cregor, whose hair began losing its chestnut color when she was in her early 30s.

She believes that staying in shape helps her emanate energy, even if her hair doesn't. She has made multiple career moves since going gray, including stints as an educational consultant and as director of the International Center of Indianapolis. She hopes that staying active will allow her to keep her career on track for years to come, but she admits the possibility that her white locks could knock her out of contention for a job opportunity.

For Janet Allen, 52, letting her gray hang out is a matter of being real.

"This business is all about authenticity," said Allen, artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre since 1996. "My job [is] getting actors to ... be as authentic as they can be. So I need to be authentic."

Allen's field is one populated by young people, and she often finds herself the oldest person in the room, but she said she never feels as though she's being treated like an "old woman." Allen, who started going gray 10 years ago, said the worst reaction has been from her daughters, ages 9 and 11.

"They're worried that I'm an old parent," she said.

Many baby boomers came of age in the 1960s, when people over 30 were considered suspect. Those boomers may have grown up believing they might somehow escape growing old. Denial of aging unfortunately can also mean denying its benefits.

"A lot of social messaging is: Stay young," Allen said. "So we maybe don't embrace our roles as mentors as we should. That's just wrong."

Cregor understands the desire to hold onto your assets, including your original hair color.

"From our eyes looking out, we are in many ways ageless. We are not looking out into the world as a person who has gone gray or is gradually getting older," she said. "We see ourselves in those prime years, in our 20s and 30s, when all is possible."

On the other hand, perhaps by uncovering their "inner gray," women can send the message that much is still possible, even as they age.

DeCoudreaux said, "I'm making a statement that I just have more important things to do. It's just so liberating."



Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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