You’re never irrelevant if you stay relevant. But that’s on you. Staying relevant is a game; you have to treat it that way and get good at it. It’s really not age-related or gender-related, or even race-related.
When I first entered the workplace, women were pretty marginalized, as older people are today. They did the trivial tasks, made the coffee, and ran errands, the younger equivalents of WalMart greeters. On the day John F. Kennedy died, I was on the top floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, which at that time held the offices of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, one of J. Walter Thompson’s biggest clients. I, with a BA from Cornell and an MA from Columbia, was delivering an envelope from JWT to a Singer exec. I was a messenger.
I was doing a necessary, but invisible task. In those days, women weren’t relevant in careers. When I learned Kennedy had been killed, I went home and quit my job, vowing never to be trivial or irrelevant again.I constantly dedicated myself to proving my individuality. I refused to be lumped into a group called “women,” and therefore marginalized. It was hard work.
I went back and got the ultimate in street cred, a Ph.D. No matter what they tell you, men are still intimidated by a woman with an advanced degree. With that degree I could never be “written off” as not smart enough. After all, I was a professor.
I worked all the way up to the days I delivered my two children, and went back to work two weeks later, proving I was serious about my career as a professor. I then carried my infants in backpacks to work. No one did that in the 70s. Most women quit work 3 months into their pregnancies and never came back.
I fought to allow women into the Men’s Grill at the Phoenix Country Club in the 1970s, proclaiming myself a “Womens’ Libber.”
I quit my professor job cold and started a PR company in 1980. I adopted all the technology I could, because it was all new and many men were unfamiliar with it. It was a huge competitive edge. What were the technologies? The telephone voice recorder, the Apple 2, and the cellular phone. The fax machine. In 1980 these things, no longer useful, hadn’t even made the hype cycle yet.
I always tried to know about something before other people did.
I walked in slightly late to meetings, as the men did, announcing that my time was as valuable as theirs. I, too, was busy. Jerry Colangelo, who owned the Phoenix Suns and chaired a community board I was on, once threatened to lock me out if I showed up late again. But he really couldn’t do that because he needed me to do the PR for the organization. I did not change my behavior.
I drove a Mercedes, like the men did, and procured one of the earliest cell phones by joining a syndicate of men who were buying them in bulk when they first came out. I ran 8 marathons, I became capable tournament tennis player, and I competed on every playing field.
I invested alongside men.
It was a game. I got really good at it. I never internalized it; I never allowed those guys to throw me to the sidelines. Nor do I allow that now. Just like you have to make your own happiness, you have to make your own relevance. Two words. Neil Young. Two more. Mick Jagger.