A piece in today’s Times:
Nearing 50, Neil McClements applied for an NHS job taking hospitals over to new technology. He scored top marks at interview and met the female team, eldest member 33. But oh dear: for all his experience they found him “nothing like” the young woman he would replace. They chose “a better fit”, a woman in her twenties who did less well at interview but was more like them.
The doctor who would have been his boss airily explained that she would be uncomfortable giving direction to a man with an 11-year-old daughter. He claimed age and sex discrimination. He won. Good.
It is true that women have a history of being discriminated against and patronised, but that is no excuse to circle the wagons now and be as blindly prejudiced about age and sex as any 1950s buffer. And frankly, if a manager is “uncomfortable” about giving orders, she shouldn’t be in the job herself. Indeed, it implies a nasty typecasting of middle-aged men: calling them “gammons”, perhaps, and assuming that they hold outdated views.
The pity is not just the unfairness but the team’s timidity, despite all millennial mantras, about real diversity. For if there is one thing worse than a workplace full of weary old codgers it is one staffed by socially identical, group-thinking youngsters with short memories and opinions machine-cut by their peers. I don’t presume that this NHS team was like that — but if they’d got away with discarding a middle-aged dad on principle it would be a terrible precedent.
An extended family is a better working model than either a sixth-form cabal or a retirement home. We know that mixed-sex workplaces do well, and so do ones with an age mix. Ideas need challenging from different perspectives: a good team is thus wiser than the sum of its parts.
Sometimes a bright kid vaults over the problem, sometimes it’s an avuncular newcomer, like Robert De Niro in that refreshing film The Intern. If anyone is dragging things down it is as likely to be a dewy but idle youngster as a dozing dad or a sniffing auntie.
The theory that middle-aged men can’t take orders from younger women is rubbish, too. I spent my youth in the Radio 4 Today office watching Brian Redhead and John Timpson being crisply directed by bright young woman producers.
Or think of veteran actors meekly taking direction from gifted tyros, eminent writers accepting briefs from baby editors and nervous chaps on holiday humbly taking instruction on skiing or river-rafting from some slip of a girl. Authority and competence always matter; age and gender rarely do.
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