Louise Di Francesco has summited Kilimanjaro and Everest base camp, sold two PR companies and worked in journalism for 14 years.
So when, in her 50s, she was told by a recruiter that her lipstick was too bright, her perfume too strong and she was dressed inappropriately, her first reaction was to laugh.
“I just thought, ‘What?’ I was totally amused. Inappropriately dressed? I was in an Anthea Crawford dress,” she told Yahoo Finance.
“I was ‘inappropriately dressed’ because I didn’t have sleeves, and apparently my 50-something-year-old arms were too much for CEOs to see.”
Di Francesco considered herself fortunate to be in her position. She didn’t need to work, and was simply looking for a new challenge after travelling the world.
She figured getting a job in PR or communications was a fair expectation, after around 25 years in the industry.
“[But] after two weeks of being highly amused by the whole interaction, I actually got really angry,” the now-62-year-old said.
“I thought, ‘If I was a woman coming back into the workforce for any reason whatsoever, and needing a job, that could have easily destroyed my confidence.' It was a very unpleasant, nasty interaction.”
Ageism in Australia
One-in-five Australians over the age of 50 believe they have experienced ageism in the workplace, according to the latest Australian Seniors’ Ageing in the Workforce report.
That’s more than double the 9.6 per cent who reported feeling the same way in 2016.
Additionally, 42.7 per cent felt patronised due to their age - up from 13.6 per cent in 2016.
And 45 per cent said they had decided not to apply for jobs because they felt their age would be too big a barrier.
Skills aren’t the problem: Di Francesco
Already stunned by the recruiter’s comments, Di Francesco saw red when in late 2019, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced a plan to retrain over-60s.
All the retraining in the world wouldn’t help if this ageism crisis hung around, she said.
She wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald and received a tidal wave of letters from people who had experienced similar prejudice at work.
One former prominent CEO wrote to her after he had been removed from his position, describing how he had been having suicidal thoughts, and swimming was the only thing that kept them at bay.
Another former CEO told her he had to use his superannuation to survive because he hadn’t been able to land a job interview.
A single mother in her 50s had applied for 72 jobs but hadn’t heard back from a single one of them. She had a PhD, Di Francesco added.
“It confirmed for me that there is a major issue of ageism in our country and that we need a cultural shift to change it,” she said.
“Quite frankly, I was horrified by some of the stories that I heard, and I was horrified by the quiet desperation of some people over 50 who believe their life is over.”
And Di Francesco had been having her own challenges: she’d repeatedly been told she needed to “dumb down” her CV. A suggestion she considered ludicrous.
The birth of ‘Over Fifty Still Fabulous’
By this stage, Di Francesco had well and truly had it. She decided to launch Over Fifty Still Fabulous, an online community with a goal of helping older Australians realise their true potential.
This is an especially important lesson for women, who Di Francesco believes face sexism in addition to ageism.
There’s a problematic idea that once women hit 50, their lives, purpose and desirability disappear, but it’s ridiculous and untrue, Di Francesco said.
“I’m trying to give women the confidence that they can travel, they can work. They have so much life experience and are so useful in so many ways and in so many areas,” she said.
With Over Fifty Still Fabulous, Di Francesco shares stories and ideas on how over-50s can lead their best lives.
“I’m trying to get women to understand that there are other women in the community who embrace life after 50.”
She’s about to launch a travel section, dedicated to advice for single women looking to travel.
Advice for older workers
If Australia failed to harness the skillsets of its mature workers, it would lose a wealth of experience, Di Francesco warned.
And while ageism is a systemic problem, there are some steps individuals can take to improve their chances of landing a role.
“The one thing I tell people is to make sure that they understand the way in which contemporary business seeks employees these days,” she said.
That means making sure they have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile, and that they’re tapping into their network.
“Once you’re over 60, people have a really good network. People are ashamed, but they need to use that network.
“[And] you need to be prepared to go into a company and do work that you’ve never done.”
Di Francesco worked with one woman who had been unemployed for nine months and believed she had nothing.
She was wrong, Di Francesco said. She actually had a wealth of customer service experience and had spent years cooking for her family.
“One of the biggest learnings is to think outside the square.”
Di Francesco suggested she go to all the supermarkets in a 5-kilometre radius and paper the notice boards with posters offering to cook meals for families in the area.
“She did that, and she’s now employed four people,” she said.
“She kept saying, ‘I don’t have any skills.’ Well, she did have skills.”
Today, that woman is preparing meals for around 30 different families in their local community.
To Di Francesco, it comes down to individuals, employers and Australia more broadly valuing the contributions of older workers.
As she put on her website, by the time someone is 50, they’ve had 600 months of experience or 438,000 hours.
“We’ve had a cultural shift on [racism and sexism at work] in this country, and we need a cultural shift on ageism. It needs to come from Federal Government and it needs to permeate through all levels of employment,” she said.
“Until we have a cultural shift, nothing is going to change.”
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