Undertaking Multifaceted Coping and Resistance Strategies
We now turn to specific coping strategies that can help defuse ageist situations and counteract behavioral and organizational forms of exclusion and marginalization. In seeking to take direct action in response to exclusionary or differential treatment, individuals can deploy an array of strategies that enable them to restructure the situation, counterbalance power, neutralize antagonists, and even take the offensive. Because tenured faculty have considerable due process employment protections, they have been more willing to discuss their approaches to coping with ageist discrimination. These
Counteracting and Resisting Ageist Frames 99 individuals have courageously shared their stories with us in confidence with the altruistic goal of helping others. In some instances, these faculty members have faced severe and prolonged discriminatory situations in which their competence, worth, and contributions were continuously challenged.
Preemptive strategies. While research on coping strategies in higher education is limited, a study of 192 women administrators in higher education with 52 percent of the sample in student affairs found that difficulty with management identified by 17 percent of the respondents was the sole workplace factor viewed as stressful 100 percent of the time (Kerch, 2018). This factor can increase a sense of job insecurity and control, as well as heighten ambiguity (Kerch, 2018). Fewer opportunities exist for administrators to offset acts of exclusion and marginalization, due to the at-will nature of their employment. The study found that, for some women, acting quickly was a proactive approach in order to assess, analyze, and interpret a situation, develop a plan, and move ahead (Kerch, 2018).This approach emphasizes the need to preempt a particular situation before it develops further and take some kind of counteraction.
A problem-focused strategy more available to tenured faculty is to outlast one’s opponent due to the frequent turnover in higher-level administrative positions such as provost and dean. An allied strategy is simultaneously to engage in other validating professional endeavors and take the initiative to undercut exclusionary actions including by taking a temporary leave.
Take the case of Margie, a white female faculty member in a public research university, who began her teaching career in her late 40s, having returned to obtain her masters and doctorate at the age of 39, following many years of teaching in the public schools. Margie describes the situation in her department where she felt she was not valued and had to seek other avenues for professional attainment. To navigate the political dynamics within departments, she recommends that faculty establish other professional avenues and connections outside the department within the institution that tap on their expertise and interests. She particularly suggests focusing on academic writing and publishing:
Because deans come and go and department chairs come and go, leadership always changes so it is best not to get too bogged down in politics. The key to faculty success is writing. If you are writing, you will survive. Because I now coach faculty on academic writing, I tell them that writing and publishing are the best insurance policies for an academic career.
Margie thus advises, “You can fight campus politics for a while, but, then, stop, step back, close your door and write. Find something to write about that you care about. Find something that is affirming, exciting and engaging.” She emphasizes the need to take initiative as well, “I think you can’t wait for the institution to be responsive: you are going to have to go out and create opportunities for yourself.” Margie created her own writing support program and gathered a small group of faculty colleagues to discuss academic writing and support each others work. She called it her own cross-disciplinary “satellite writing program.” After a year, she realized how much faculty appreciated these opportunities and then approached the campus faculty teaching and learning center to create a partnership with that unit. The center was eager to adopt and expand the writing program as part of their offerings. Over the last seven years the program has reached out to faculty all across the campus and created a large community of writers. Some departments now even use the faculty writing program as a recruitment tool.
Even though Margie taught a very popular doctoral level class for years, her department chair refused to put her on the doctoral program committee. She took another tack and applied to become the doctoral program director. Subsequently, the faculty elected her to the directorship and she earned an automatic seat on the doctoral program committee. Another strategy Margie adopted was to attend conferences and make connections outside of the university. In her words,
You have to go to conferences; you have to have those outside connections, because these feed your soul. Find some friends off campus that you can talk to. You can find people who will write recommendations for your promotion and tenure file and whom you will bounce ideas off of; you will feel affirmed. Even if you cannot get much financial support to attend from the university, try to get to two or three conferences a year. If you just stick around your own department, academic life can be very discouraging.
These external connections ultimately led Margie to take a sabbatical that would allow her to exit a tense political situation. After connecting with a colleague at a conference who was seeking someone to start a program at a university overseas, over the objections of her dean, Margie took a years leave, followed by a yearlong sabbatical. The overseas program included 50 seminars where she worked in the community and developed new approaches to teaching and assessment. Realizing it was best to “write about what you do,” Margies assessment work subsequently led to the writing and publication of a major book that later sold 40,000 copies. She sums it up by stating: “And that book came out of a disaster where I felt like I was not valued, so I got out of Dodge. Exit stage right. My dean said, ‘You can’t go.’ I said,‘I need to go’ and I left.” Margie also recognizes, however, that having tenure was a deciding factor that enabled her to be more outspoken and to take decisive action:
I am not always good at playing politics. I often offer alternative solutions to problems. I am not afraid to speak my mind. I question authority at times ... when I see something that doesn’t make sense to me and it seems like a bad idea, I tend to say something about it ... I believe in leadership with a big L. Leadership with a big L takes risks, and seeks to make change from within and with courage and integrity ... Certainly, I was even more noisy after tenure.Yet, even though I had some troubles in my department, strangely enough, whenever I raised my hand in a meeting, my chair always called on me.
Margies proactive approach in “getting out of Dodge” enabled her to create alternative sources of recognition and solidify her professional accomplishments in lieu of receiving institutional support. Although the potential for taking a sabbatical or leaving the workplace temporarily may not be a viable option for many faculty and administrators, the importance of taking some form of preemptive action can allow the individual greater distance and control over the situation.
Accessing available institutional resources. Seeking support through both informal and formal avenues can help individuals offset ageist actions and determine appropriate countermeasures. Informal and confidential avenues of institutional support such as through an ombudsperson, the Employee Assistance program, or the human resources, affirmative action, or diversity offices can provide an opportunity' to go on record to share situations without filing formal grievances. A clear advantage of early informal consultation is to seek advice before irreversible turning points have occurred (Keashly and Neuman, 2010).Yet even so, individuals must weigh the potential for possible reprisal should confidentiality be breached, even when safeguards against retaliation are addressed in institutional policy.
Take, for example, Marianne, a white female faculty member who experienced a male administrator who was sabotaging her work and denigrating her personally. She took action to protect her professional reputation and standing. Marianne contacted the university ombudsperson who gave her advice on next steps and assured her that her story' mattered.This support made a difference to her both psychologically' and in terms of her institutional standing, since the ombudsperson had “the ear of people who were keeping track of these kinds of things” (Chun and Feagin, 2020, p. 184). Further, establishing a contemporaneous record within the institution of incipient situations can create a documentary trail should the situation escalate.
In public institutions, when faculty or staff are represented by a union, filing a grievance or a class action lawsuit can afford the opportunity for employees to address disparities in institutional processes such as compensation. Veronica, the African American administrator cited earlier who formerly served as a sociology faculty' member at a public research university, describes a grievance filed by the faculty union that resulted in corrective action by the institution:
During my' faculty career I was at a public institution, so we did take action through our faculty' union, and the institution did put in some corrective measures in response to try to equalize salaries. It partially' solved some of the issues, but of course they can’t address the longstanding issues, some of the legacy salaries. But having a faculty' union and being able to grieve almost through a class action grievance, we were able to show the disparities and the institution put in corrective salary benchmarking strategies ...
I think indirectly [age], because hiring an assistant and associate professor, and they tended to be younger ... I don’t think ... [age] was the primary variable, but I think it was an unintended consequence that all the new hires were at lower ranks, and they tended to have lower salaries and that also correlated with more diversity, racial/ethnic diversity, sex diversity, and age, so it tended to be diverse and young.
Veronica also notes, as a woman of color, that she personally experienced being offered salaries at the bottom of the range compared with the salary offers of white males at her institution.The creation of advisory committees and commissions on the status of women with a direct line to the president or chancellor at a number of public and private institutions has resulted from pressures by faculty women to provide a forum for addressing systemic issues of exclusion and disparate treatment.
Concealment, impression management, and counteracting “lookism.” Recall our discussion in Chapter 4 of how “lookism” can intensify the impact of age discrimination, both positive and negative, for female faculty and administrators. Erving Goifman’s description of stigma and identity' reveals how impression management or what he terms “strategic control” over self-image can enable individuals to controvert the influence of ageist social norms by' creating a more desirable social identity (Goffman, 1963, p. 130). As shown in a qualitative study' of 30 individuals aged 45 to 65, one of the major strategies adopted to counteract perceived age discrimination is concealment and impression management by altering one’s physical appearance (Berger, 2004, 2009).
Female faculty and administrators are particularly' subject to socially' derived images of youthfulness, leading to the need to disguise their age such as by' dyeing gray hair. In contrast, gray' hair for male faculty is viewed as a distinguished and even desirable characteristic. The impact of gendered ageism is demonstrated in a study of 44 women aged 50 to 70 who felt they needed to engage in beauty work such as dyeing hair, make-up, or cosmetic surgery in order to counteract the invisibility they experienced both in the workplace (Clarke and Griffin, 2008).The women felt compelled to disguise their chronological age through beauty work in order to “maintain credibility, power, and social currency” and, ironically, to overcome the invisibility' associated with their visibly' older appearance (Clarke and Griffin, 2008, p. 654). As a 59-year-old woman explained (Clarke and Griffin, 2008, pp. 662-663):
You disappear off the map once you hit 45 or 48, and absolutely positively' by 50. If you can’t get a job, you don’t exist ... You can go and apply for a million jobs and you might as well be invisible because they’re not going to take you; they’re going to take the young woman.
On the other end of the age spectrum, we have seen how more youthful-looking faculty have donned professional attire and adopted hair styles more consistent with a mature appearance to dispel negative stereotypes related to competence and expertise. Consider the startling feedback received by Lori Varlotta, the first female president at Hiram College, from a search firm consultant regarding a previously unsuccessful presidential interview (Varlotta, 2019, para 10):
“When you look around you and you see the faces getting younger and younger, you know you’ve got to keep it up. Even if you can’t afford it, that’s the one thing you need is your bottle of dye.”
- (Female employee, aged 58, Berger, 2009, p. 327)
- • Even though I was almost 50, I still “looked” too young to be a president.
- • My navy pinstripe business suit (six years old at the time) was not particularly chic.
- • My uncoiffed hair could be tamed a bit, and my face, bare except for a little lip color, could be more “made up.”
- • At the very least, my lipstick could “pop a little more.”
- • One more thing, she added: “Don’t rely so heavily on data and facts when answering questions. When interviewing women, most search committees want to see their soft side-be a little lighter and less intense ... sprinkle some fluff in with your facts and data.”
Although Varlotta later did make minor modifications to her make-up, hairstyle, and approach to speaking, she concluded that she needed to seek a post where the institution wanted her. Nonetheless, her experience clearly reflects the differential standards applied to women in terms of their age and appearance as well as the socially driven, sexist stereotypes that create pressure to conceal age-related characteristics.
Building psychosocial resources through networks and external support. Irrespective of generational status, reliance on external social networks and supportive family resources can serve as a major source of strength in the face of discriminatory treatment in the higher education workplace. Social integration and a sense of belonging are integral to facing employment challenges, especially among individuals from older generations. Older individuals tend to be at increased risk of social disconnectedness and isolation due to the unintentional loss of partners or allies and decreased size of social networks (Stokes, 2019). As a result, when facing such situations, individuals may lose confidence in their coping abilities and resort to more passive, emotion-focused strategies (Trouillet et al., 2009).
In conversations about the impact of family support on coping strategies, one female faculty member speaks about how the loss of a partner or close family member created a void in terms of vital social support:
Being an older widow, the experience that I have had in spaces, committees, and so forth, is twofold. I think it goes to both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, I feel like I have respect, on the other hand, I feel as if I were invisible. What I find is that it’s very rare that people think through the lens of someone who has been through that kind of experience, or even someone who is single. People don’t register when they are talking, what the experience is. Generally the assumption is that one is partnered, has a family around which one’s life revolves. It’s a whole different dimension ... what it means to experience something like that, and go home to an empty' house.
Stephanie, the white female faculty' member cited earlier who suffered harassment and pressures to retire from her department chair, similarly' describes the support of her life partner as a critical coping asset. While at times within families there may not be recognition of the severity of the stress arising from continuous workplace bullying and mistreatment, Stephanie explains how her partner’s awareness of what she was facing grew as he noticed her chair’s pettiness in avoiding greeting her in the hallway:
I had a very supportive life partner, although he found my descriptions exaggerated at first, like the first year or two ... he would say, ‘Try to get along with him.’... One day I was walking down the hall [with my partner] and my' chair saw me and he did an about face and walked in the opposite direction and went all the way to another exit to get out [of the building] ... And so my partner saw that and he said, ‘That’s unbelievable, your chair won’t pass y'ou by and say goodnight.’ And I said,‘That’s just one typical example of what it’s been like.’My partner said,‘But 1 can’t believe that anybody would be that petty. Why would he do that?’After this incident, he started looking at things [differently'].
Her partner’s awareness of these challenges increased as Stephanie began to receive annual review letters from her chair laden with unsubstantiated accusations. Stephanie contrasts her situation with that of another female faculty member who was also bullied by the chair, but did not have a supportive partner to help her mitigate the harassment. As she explains,“! think that was very difficult for her and made the whole situation more difficult. Whereas I had somebody' who always said,‘You’re doing a good job ...’ That was a big help with my coping, just knowing that I had that kind of support.”
Jenna, the white female faculty' member at an elite university' cited earlier, realized the importance of curtailing her socializing with other faculty' in the workplace and seeking trusted sources of support outside academia. Jenna’s multifaceted approach to coping with stressful conditions involves a recognition of the potential for other colleagues in the workplace to undercut her achievements and the resulting need to seek external sources of support. Being more guarded at work and offsetting stressful situations through
Counteracting and Resisting Ageist Frames 105 writing, traveling, and external contacts have enabled her to maintain balance. Like Margie, she found a positive outlet in writing and publishing:
My life and my career over the years—because I am a very outspoken person especially around like racial issues—has been filled with an enormous amount of stress. So for example ... I have dealt with quite a bit of academic bullying over the years that has come my way and a lot of it has to do with when you are successful and when you might outperform other people. Even if you are not aware of it, people can be very, very jealous. I think the way that I have coped with it ...
I have a really, really good, close tight groups of friends, that involves academics and non-academics ... I take vacations and I use them. I love to write and so writing has helped me immensely to get through most things, and when I am really, really stressed, I write a lot, it helps me to escape. Over the years, I have moved away from most socializing with faculty ... But part of it is that I trusted people a lot in the beginning, I just kind of moved away from that. I should have listened to my mom a long time ago who told me, ‘Be careful who you tell your secrets to.’ I had to find things outside of academia in order to maintain my sanity.
Meghan, the gay, white female professor cited earlier, drew strength from therapy and from other healthier outlets in determining whether or not to respond to insensitive questions related to her sexual orientation and family status. She now picks her battles, responding to some questions such as those about how she spent her holiday breaks. Like Jenna, she also has become more circumspect and reserved in her workplace interactions:
I started going to therapy. And I think that I have some outlets that are a little bit healthier. Now sometimes I actually do say something back. I pick my battles. Sometimes I will say,‘Oh, have you thought about [the fact that] everyone’s break might not be spent with family?’ I don’t really talk a lot about my family. A lot of it has to do with gender and sexual orientation: just assuming that people are all busy with kids and family is one of those things. I started going to therapy. And I think that I have some outlets that are a little bit healthier. Now sometimes I actually do say something back.
These examples demonstrate how the external support provided by family, colleagues outside the workplace, and therapeutic outlets have bolstered the ability of these female faculty members to cope with everyday ageist mistreatment and discriminatory situations.
Efforts to attain dignity and workplace justice remain the goal of individual strategies of resistance and resilience. Yet from the narratives shared by those who have faced ageism coupled with racial, gender-based, and/or heterosexist exclusion in the higher education workplace, avenues for addressing exclusionary situations are quite limited. As we have shown in the examples here and throughout the book, ageist situations are decidedly worse for women, minorities, and LGBT individuals. Nonetheless, coping approaches that enable successful adaptation and resilience range from building external networks and support, contacting internal institutional resources, outlasting opponents, exiting difficult circumstances, and creating external opportunities for professional recognition and fulfillment. Importantly, early recognition and identification of challenges can assist individuals in developing proactive and anticipatory coping strategies. We know that the stress of everyday ageist behaviors and actions can undermine professional commitment with significant psychological, physiological, familial, and career costs. Ultimately, ageist mistreatment and disparate workplace outcomes including social closure and forced retirement result in the loss of valuable expertise, talent, and intergenerational knowledge to the educational process and the institution.
In the next chapter, we identify proactive human resource and diversity approaches that will help reduce workplace ageism, build generationally inclusive cultures, and ensure greater equity in institutional processes.