Is the ‘invisible woman syndrome’ real?

UK intelligence agencies have decided to boost their recruitment of middle aged women - and for good reason. When it comes to spying, these over 50s are already 'invisible'.

MI5 has set itself a target of a 45 per cent female workforce by 2021.

It comes as a shock to many women that, after decades of keeping their eyes down and trying not to attract attention on the street, the onset of menopause means that, now, they can’t even get served a cappuccino without threatening a riot.

This is something that, generally, doesn’t happen to men. Yes, marketers are youth-obsessed and many of them only seem to create advertisement campaigns for people in their 20s, but most middle-aged and older men still get treated with respect in public.

He may be slumming it in baggy jeans and a paint-stained T-shirt, but observers are well-schooled to know that this man could still be a CEO or billionaire. He may still be ‘useful’.

Performance coach, Louise Mahler, says she started to feel like her presence was being erased as soon as she turned 50.

Easily reaching six-foot in heels, with a commanding presence from her background as an opera singer, you would think it would be almost impossible to ignore the impeccably-groomed Mahler. And, because she is one of the most popular speakers for conferences around the country, she is well-known wherever she goes.

However, during a recent booking to speak at a company conference in the US, she was reminded of just how awful it can be for a woman over 50 when no-one knows who you are.

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Women 50+ have strong experience and ideas that shouldn't be ignored

Not scheduled to appear in front of the international delegates for a couple of days, she decided to put their social skills to the test.

Breaking the silence in the lift, she would smile and say something like: “Hi. Lovely day isn’t it?”. “They would literally look at me and turn their heads away in silence and not respond,” she says.

“I find people look at me like I don't exist.”

Of course, once Mahler appeared on stage (garnering the highest rating of the conference from the audience for her talk about communication and body language), the delegates couldn’t be friendlier. “They were all over me like a rash.”

And, at the bar at the Qantas lounge recently, Mahler was ordering a cappuccino at the same time as a male traveller, when she complimented his voice and asked where it came from. “Australia.” She imitates a flat, dead, scornful tone. “And he just walks off.”

So, what is happening? Mahler is a keen observer of human behaviour and speculates that women are still judged by their sexual attractiveness and that men instinctively have no use for post-menopausal women.

“It is as if people feel they would be embarrassed to talk to you. As though, perhaps, someone might think that they are attracted to you or that you are chatting them up. They don't want people to think they are desperate and have to talk to you - even when there is no sexual reference whatsoever. I find this on a constant basis,” she says.

“If I didn’t have my work and find my credibility through my work, it would be a very lonely place to be.”

Men of the same age may well become sexually impotent, but people on the street would not know and they wouldn’t be judged by it anyway. “Men [are perceived to] have other qualities, such as  money and status,” says Mahler.

When she coaches business leaders, Mahler counsels them to resist these sort of judgements: “They have to greet everybody.”

“I am very keen for people to learn that we have to get out of the jungle, we have to stop this base behaviour that is driven by primitive hormones. If you are a leader, you have to understand that and go to a different level. Perhaps, be aware of one’s primitive response and override it.”

If business leaders are captive to this kind of bias, it makes sense that it would flow through to the companies they work in. A survey of almost 8,000 Australians aged over 50 in March by MevCorp on behalf of WYZA®, finds that the over 50s are well-aware that the commercial world ignores them. Only 12 per cent of people over 50 feel that businesses care about them and tailor products and services to their needs, according to the survey.

This seems like commercial incompetence, given that there are 8 million Australians in that age group (growing to 9 million by 2020) and they hold 40 per cent of the nation’s net worth and spend $200 billion each year.

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Only 12 per cent of people aged 50+ feel that businesses care about them

4 ways to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’

Tip 1. Learn to attract attention: A female CEO in the superannuation industry uses sudden movements in meetings, says Mahler. When she is not being heard, she announces she wants a coffee, jumps out of her seat, gets one, and then remains standing. Then, when she speaks, people tend to listen.

Tip 2. Equalise the height: Corporate coach and former managing director of Apple Australia, Diana Ryall, just scrapes in at five foot three and says she asks people to sit down when they talk to her, so that she is not at a disadvantage.

Tip 3. Use movement: Mahler says she uses a technique developed by actors to draw attention, movement followed by standing still. “It is time to start playing the games,” she says.

Tip 4. Mindfulness: Find ways to deal with other people’s rudeness. “I use a mantra to not get angry,” says Mahler. “Forgive them Lord they know not what they do”.

Is this an issue you or your parents are dealing with? We want to hear from you. Email us at admin@wyza.com.au.

Look out for this series of six articles Fiona Smith is writing for us based on the latest information discovered about the 50+ in March 2016 by MevCorp on behalf of WYZA®.

Are you and your husband or partner treated differently as you age? Join the conversation below.