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Opinion Thank you, Miss Clairol

Lisa LaFlamme poses with her Canadian Screen Award for best news anchor on Aug. 17. (George Pimentel/Shutterstock)

“Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

If you are old enough to remember this 1956 ad for Miss Clairol — the line, intended to convince wary women it was acceptable to color their hair, resonated for years — you understand what happened to Lisa LaFlamme. The chief anchor of Canada’s most-watched nightly news show, LaFlamme, 58, was canned by the CTV network where she had worked for 35 years, replaced by a 39-year-old man. The network said it was a “business decision” prompted by “changing viewer habits.”

As it happened, something else changed too. LaFlamme, like many other women during the pandemic, had stopped dyeing her hair. “I finally said, ‘why bother? I’m going gray,’ ” LaFlamme explained. “Honestly, if I had known the lockdown could be so liberating on that front, I would have done it a lot sooner.”

But LaFlamme’s move incurred the seeming displeasure of the network’s new boss, Michael Melling, who was reported to have “asked who had approved the decision to ‘let Lisa’s hair go gray.’” Seriously? A grown-up, award-winning journalist doesn’t get to make that choice for herself?

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So, was it her hair or wasn’t it? Maybe only Melling knows for sure — the executive and the anchor reportedly clashed over spending on foreign coverage and other issues. But it seems about as obvious as gray roots that the toxic intersection of ageism and sexism played some role in LaFlamme’s sudden departure.

To be blunt: The workplace is kinder to older men than it is to older women. A 2017 economic analysis found “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women, especially those near retirement age.” Why? “Evidence suggests that physical appearance matters more for women and that age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men,” the authors surmise.

This double standard operates at all corporate levels. Older male executives grow gray and take on the air of elder statesmen. Older female executives — well, we don’t have enormous experience with how to think about them, but it’s clear that many feel the need to take measures, some more extreme than coloring their hair, to appear youthful. Take a look at Fortune 500 female CEOs and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a gray hair.

And in some industries, such as acting or television, where — let’s face it — looks matter even more, that gender gap becomes cavernous. To take a nonrandom example: Lloyd Robertson, whom LaFlamme replaced in the anchor chair, retired at 77. Somehow “changing viewer habits” didn’t do him in.

“Men age on TV with a sense of gravitas, and we as women have an expiration date,” Roma Torre said when she and four other NY1 anchorwomen, ages 40 to 61, sued the local news channel in 2019 for age and gender discrimination. (The case was settled in 2020.)

As a result, female television journalists let themselves look old at their peril. There are no gray female heads among the talking heads.

Not mine, I’ll admit. My conviction that I’d never hide the gray shriveled at the first hint of it, and I can think of just two friends who have resisted the urge. Our question isn’t does she or doesn’t she — it’s in home or at the salon?

Is this personal vanity? Or professional self-preservation? Some of both. We’re unfazed by graying husbands, but we’re freaked out by our own, and probably for good reason. For all the pandemic-era exulting about being “liberated” from having to finance — and find time for — touch-ups, I suspect most of us did not go full LaFlamme: We resumed covering the gray even more quickly than we gave up masking.

This is all so drearily antiquated — and that, I think, is the point. So much has changed for the better in the world of working women. But so much sexism, especially of more subtle varieties, remains stubbornly embedded in the culture, and in ourselves. If anything, with the dominance of youth culture, the ageism now may be worse than ever.

Once it seemed shameful to color your hair. Thank you, Miss Clairol. Now, it’s just basic maintenance. “Hair dye has changed everything, but it almost never gets the credit,” Nora Ephron wrote. “It’s the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture. … I can make a case that it’s partly responsible for the number of women entering (and managing to stay in) the job market in middle and late middle age.”

This is what passes for progress, I guess. But it calls to mind another ancient commercial aimed at women, the 1968 Virginia Slims campaign, with a tag line simultaneously empowering and demeaning: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Have we? Ask Lisa LaFlamme.