When an older, grayer Jean West returned triumphantly to television news, the backlash drove her to call her colorist. Now, she issues a wake-up call on the age discrimination women face at the news desk and in the workplace.
Written by Jean West | Photo by Kylene White
It came out of the blue. Several years after I had retired from my 22-year tenure as anchor and reporter for WHAS, I got up one morning, turned on my computer and received an unexpected email notification. The subject line said “Hello from WAVE 3!” I clicked on the email and to my surprise, it was an introduction from their new News Director who wanted me to audition for their morning anchor spot.
Having been out of the daily news machine for a while, I was intrigued. I responded to the email, went in discreetly for an interview (the stations were very competitive, and this was kept hush hush), was offered the job and accepted it within a week. I was on the air a few weeks later. The immediate reaction from the community was overwhelmingly positive. One memorable note came from my former WHAS-TV Co-Anchor Doug Proffitt. It said, “I love the gray hair! It looks great on you. Don’t change it!”
Phew! Honestly, that had been a concern of mine. In my fifties at the time, I was reentering a daily broadcast career among producers and reporters who were my children’s age. Being the face, literally, of the team, I knew that what I represented to the viewers was important. It was encouraging to hear that the older, grayer me was being well-received. For the most part.
Flash forward to a few months later when I was taking a much-needed Caribbean vacation. I had scheduled a massage, filled out the medical history and was being led into the treatment room by the massage therapist who looked at my paperwork and said, “You look great! I’d never guess your age, except for your gray hair!”
For some reason, that really hit me. That’s when I began thinking: Is that what people see first? My graying hair? What does it say? Was it a distraction? What should I do about it?
When I returned home, there continued to be talk on social media about my return to daily newscasts. One gentleman questioned WAVE’s decision to “Haul out dusty Jean West to revive their morning show.” That one stung. “Dusty?” I called my colorist. “We need to fix the dusty,” I said.
While the station was supportive, the undercurrent of chatter about my hair and my age – never my work – was no secret and I knew it was concerning to management. I went into this new role believing I could be accepted by viewers as the older, wiser Jean West. It worked for Walter Cronkite, didn’t it? But the pressure was real and the message was clear: Women are expected to be youthful, pretty, and smart in business; choosing to age naturally rather than fight it with everything you have can be a career-ending decision.
Just read the headlines. As recently as September, 58-year-old Canadian news anchor Lisa LaFlamme was let go after 35 years at CTV (Canadian Television). The front-page stories announced: “Firing of Canadian news anchor reportedly due to gray hair.” The head of the news division allegedly asked who approved the decision to “let Lisa’s hair go gray,” according to news reports.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1983, Christine Craft became the first female anchor to sue for age and sex discrimination. In the lawsuit against KMBC-TV in Kansas City, it says Craft was told she was demoted to reporter in 1979 because focus group research found she was “too old, too unattractive and wouldn’t defer to men.” She was awarded half a million dollars.
There are at least half a dozen of these types of cases over the years. A recent suit against Meredith stations was filed by longtime female anchors who were replaced by women 10 or 20 years their junior. In one case, the difference was more than two decades. Meanwhile, male anchors at Meredith are on average a decade older than their female counterparts.
Broadcast news isn’t the only industry where women face increased age discrimination. Nearly two out of three women age 50 and older say they are regularly discriminated against at work, according to a 2021 survey by the AARP.
For me, the decision to color the gray was a matter of self-preservation. I wanted to keep doing a job I loved. But, the choice I was forced to make still stung. Once the gray became auburn highlights, my hair was never mentioned again. And to this day, my stylist and I often experiment with color — keeping the gray hidden for my videos, television appearances, even the picture of me for this article. It’s not because of vanity, but because of the distraction that the gray hair was unfortunately causing.
LaFlamme’s firing prompted support from companies like Wendy’s and Dove, both of which temporarily changed their logos to have gray elements and raised awareness for aging in women.
What is needed is a sea change in the perception of aging. Businesses and advertisers need to reflect women of all ages, colors, and body types. And we, as women, need to support companies and products that promote the visibility of older women. We need to demand that we not be erased once we reach “a certain age” which seems to get younger every year.
I recently had dinner with Faith Lyles, a Louisville legend who is now in her eighties. After a career in education, she became the first African American to host a daily morning show in Louisville called “Omelet” on WHAS. She and her co-host, Milton Metz, interviewed prominent politicians, entertainers, and athletes from 1970 to 1979.
As we were wrapping up a lovely evening at Varanese, the band stopped playing, came over to our table, stood in awe, and said “ Are…you…Faith Lyles?!” “Yes,” she said. They literally gushed. “You’re beautiful! Just ageless!”
And she is. Faith radiates confidence, wisdom and the beauty of a life well-lived. Her timeless beauty brightened their evening and mine. It doesn’t come from anti-aging moisturizers or a bottle of hair dye, and it’s not in spite of her age, it’s because of it. Everyone in the room felt it. I found that moment to be profoundly inspiring.
Faith’s beauty is a reminder of what we as women can aspire to and what we can hold up as an example of what it means to be beautiful and valuable, at any and every age. When the world finally embraces that thinking, that will truly be breaking news.
Read Jean West’s Modern Family column about Violent Media and Children.