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Careers advice: how to be more assertive at work

It’s true that some people dream of it, but when you’re missing out on promotions because everyone thinks you’re 10 years younger than you actually are, the struggle is real. Writer Becci Vallis explains…

From being passed over for promotions, to being talked over in work meetings, looking younger than you are can be seriously frustrating, especially when it comes to career progression. 

Does this situation sound familiar to you? Read on for some expert advice on how to be more assertive at work.

woman at work
How to be assertive at work: read on for some expert advice

“No way, are you really 36?!”

This is a question I hear about once a week, no word of a lie. The reaction makes it seem as though I’ve performed some amazing party trick, like turning water into wine, but all I’ve actually done is reveal my age. And yes, I am ‘really’ 36, I’m not just saying it for a laugh.

Take my stint at Stylist, when I stepped in as Acting Beauty Director while the magazine was on a recruitment drive. Junior beauty writer, Ava, was gobsmacked when I revealed my age. Her reaction left me questioning why people don’t believe my age (yet again). Was it because I act immaturely? That I don’t have a ‘presence’? Or that I can’t lead a team? 

Apparently it was none of the aforementioned, it was just that I look “so young”. 

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It’s a very tricky topic to share my gripes about. I know that it hardly sounds like a bonafide problem, and no doubt I’ll be glad of my youthful appearance when I get accused of trying to withdraw my pension early. But dealing with the disbelief on a regular basis is incessantly infuriating.

OK, so I didn’t mind it so much when my local barista thought I was in my mid 20s when I explained that I was going ‘out out’ for my sister’s 30th, and they hadn’t realised I was the older sibling. The same applies for the cautious supermarket workers who ID me when I’m buying a bottle of red.

becci vallis how to be assertive at work
How to be assertive at work: writer and editor Becci Vallis

But when it comes to the career I’ve been slaving away at for 14 years, the reaction wears a little thin. Because let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, the younger you look, the less experience you are considered to have. And the less experience you have, the lower your chances of being taken seriously/given a promotion/asked your opinion. It also proves that however you dress it up, we remain a society that’s guided by first impressions. Plus in this case, it’s just rude to ask a woman their age. I just have to bandy mine about sometimes to feel heard.

Take the endless beauty launches and events I attend. So often an expert will be talking to me about how one’s collagen depletes post-30, or the age at which you should start using retinol. More often than not, they remind me that obviously I don’t need to think about that just yet. 

Or they might reference a product that’s been discontinued from the 90s that “I’m too young to remember”. But how’s this for a surprise – I used to use it. Yes, I remember Charlie Red and Sun-In and coloured hair mascara FROM THE FIRST TIME AROUND. I did not grow up with hair straighteners, tweezers were the only means of brow shaping and the most exciting thing to happen of an evening was my mum’s Avon order arriving with something for me from the Little Blossom range (that nail polish tint was the best thing ever). 

Of course, once I’ve relayed all of the above, it sets them up for either an awkward backtracking episode or a barrage of flattery about how good I look for my age. To be honest, I’d prefer their respect.

how to be assertive job interview
How to be assertive at work: "My real despair and frustrations surface when it comes to job interviews"

History often repeats itself during features meetings, where I’ve had colleagues call out old school popular culture references that “might be lost” on me. But my real despair and frustrations surface when it comes to job interviews. Having been freelance on and off for my whole career, the number of publications I’ve worked on or written for is pretty extensive.

This confuses editors interviewing me when we talk over my CV (while I don’t go for permanent roles, I’m an avid maternity cover candidate, hence an interview). Looking back, I can’t remember a single job interview where I haven’t had to address my age. Usually because the interviewer can’t understand how I’ve fitted so much in when I must be, what, 28?

Instead of cutting them off by telling them how old I am, I’ve learnt to use various markers to try and guide them towards my age and experience. For example, when I worked at the original fashion and beauty website, handbag.com, or how I wrote the copy for the spa website Wahanda (now defunct, since it rebranded as Treatwell). Or I’ll drop in anecdotes, such as when Twitter first launched and I used it backstage at London Fashion Week, only to be forced to delete any images I took by a PR because they didn’t want anything leaked. It’s a far cry from today when social media handles and hashtags are practically thrust in your face as you enter the backstage area.

I’ll often drop in the ‘husband’ line where appropriate too because yes, I am married, and I wasn’t a teenage bride. The subject of motherhood also comes into play the older I get, although that’s a trickier path to navigate. Many of my peers at the same level as me are moving on to baby number two, while I remain childfree, meaning editors/PRs/colleagues tend to once again presume I’m not at that stage yet – not that conceiving is quite that simple. Mention the latter and I’ll be greeted with yet another ripple of “but you’re still so young”, silenced only by the big age reveal yet again…

how to be assertive work meeting
How to be assertive work: "I’ve come to realise that proving my worth through experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing"

Of course, looking young isn’t all doom and gloom, and watching my mother regularly receiving compliments about her youthful complexion is a happy glimpse into the future. Conversely, it’s also made me more assertive in the workplace, and I’ve come to realise that proving my worth through experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Once people know your history, your age won’t ever be mentioned again. 

I’m also pleased that my junior team members see me as approachable while still learning from me. Respect used to mean being fearful of the hierarchy but I’m very much one for giving everyone a chance and the opportunity to learn from experience. Yes it’s frustrating and no, there’s nothing you can do to change it, but my advice to anyone experiencing something similar would be to use it to your advantage.

“If you’re savvy about it, it can enable you to ‘be all things to all’ – those more senior than you but also your junior colleagues,” says Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of Hypersanity: Thinking beyond Thinking

“At times you can play on your youthful appearance to relate to the latter and at other times you can emphasise your age, seniority and experience to make the situation more advantageous to you.”

How to be assertive at work (especially if you look younger than you are)

Keen for other ways you can assert yourself when people think you’re younger than you are? Neel has shared these useful tips to take away with you…

how to be assertive at work get promotion
How to be assertive at work: remember to use failure or rejection as a springboard to higher things

1. Be careful to ‘act your age’ and not the age you look. Don’t let your colleagues establish the terms of how you engage with them, but firmly and gently assert yourself – repeatedly, if necessary. With both older and younger colleagues, establish clear boundaries and systematically enforce them.

2. Get to know your colleagues. Looking younger than your age is much more problematic in a new job or working around new people but the more people get to know you, the more they will see you for who you are and what you can do.

3. Prove yourself. Get the job done, well and on time. Most people will remember this rather than the way you look.

4. Remind people of your age. It’s OK to occasionally remind a colleague or your boss of your age and years of service. Depending on the nature of your relationship, this can be done in the form of a joke, an anecdote, or even a heartfelt plea.

5. Use failure or rejection as a springboard to higher things. Studies have found that people who switch jobs receive bigger pay increases than colleagues who stayed put. If you keep on getting passed over for promotion, don’t feel like you need to stick around.

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Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy of author

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