The Hour Between Babe and Hag

I had never heard of Sam Bankman-Fried until his disheveled image began to dominate my news feeds in November — probably because whenever someone says “crypto” or “blockchain” my eyes glaze over and I enter a fugue state. Most photos I’ve seen of this 30-year-old man — accused of “orchestrating a massive, yearslong fraud” through his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX — depict him wearing ill-fitting T-shirts and shorts, sometimes with black sweat socks spilling out of his sneakers.

As The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Gallagher put it: “The erstwhile monetary whizkid was rarely seen in anything other than an oversize shirt and equally baggy khaki shorts. Slovenly attire was the centerpiece of the Sam Bankman-Fried brand.”

Every time I read the news and see Bankman-Fried’s unkempt visage I’m filled with just a little bit more rage, because I know — women know — that investors would never entrust a young woman looking this sloppy with a single cent, much less billions of dollars, for the equivalent of magic beans.

I get angry because Bankman-Fried reminds me that what experts call “gendered ageism” affects women both young and old. There seems to be about a 10-year period wherein you can hope to be taken seriously at work, and the ante for even sitting in the game means you’d better be dressed absolutely appropriately — whatever that even means — at all times and at every age. You’d better act as if you don’t have kids or convey in the most overt way possible that they’re always being taken care of by somebody else and never cause a single work-life conflict.

I like to think of that short window of time — in which you might maybe, possibly, in the best case scenario be seen as competent — as the hour between babe and hag. Tetyana Shippee, a social gerontologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, told AARP in June that “From ages 18 to 30, women report age discrimination due to being too young. From your mid-30s to your mid-40s is a safe time. Then age discrimination starts to pick up again after age 50, and it’s especially high after 55-plus.”

“Gender stereotypes frequently create a no-win situation for women leaders. The impact is even greater for women who hold multiple marginalized identities,” Lauren Pasquarella Daley, the leader of Catalyst’s women and the future of work initiative, told me via email. As Fortune’s L’Oreal Thompson Payton wrote of Bankman-Fried and his messy ilk, “a Black woman could never. Black women rarely get a first chance, let alone a second chance, and when we are promoted into leadership positions, it’s often without the resources we need to succeed.”

Catalyst’s research has found that women, no matter their ages or backgrounds, are walking a tightrope between being seen as effective and being seen as “nice”: “Women are often viewed as either competent or likable, but rarely both. As a result, women have to spend more time overcoming these biased impressions and often have to prove their competence as leaders” repeatedly, Daley said.

Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, called this pressure “prove-it-again” bias in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article about why women are underrepresented in STEM fields. “Two-thirds of the women interviewed, and two-thirds of the women surveyed, reported having to prove themselves over and over again — their successes discounted, their expertise questioned,” she wrote.

When you’re in your 20s and early 30s, proving competence can also mean dodging unwanted sexual attention and infantilization. In the FTX universe, this meant that Bankman-Fried could parade around in drab, even dirty-looking playclothes and still serve as the “respectable face of crypto” while Caroline Ellison, Bankman-Fried’s colleague with whom he was romantically involved, was characterized in a now-deleted puff piece on Sequoia Capital’s website as “bubbly” and for no real reason pictured in a cosplay ensemble with the description, “dressed as a sultry wood nymph.”

Ellison’s “sultry” costume, however, appears to be a modest long-sleeved shirt and black skirt that wouldn’t be inappropriate for church as long as she ditched the accompanying light-up crown. (Sequoia invested in FTX and subsequently apologized to its investors; Ellison pleaded guilty to fraud charges in December.)

In my early career, trying to prove my competence meant, as an intern, rejecting advances from an older, more senior male colleague and being criticized repeatedly and publicly for my “young-sounding” voice despite efforts to eliminate my upspeak. Most memorable was when a big-time magazine editor who had never met me looked me and my outfit — a tailored jumpsuit and heels — up and down and said, “That isn’t what I thought you’d look like at all.” To this day, I’m not sure if it was a backhanded compliment (I assumed you were a frump!) or a straight-up insult (I figured you’d be more attractive). Either way, it was an insidiously effective power move. And the subtext was clear: Your looks and presentation matter, and they are being assessed.

Then tack on the motherhood penalty, the reality that having kids tends to be bad for women’s careers and good for men’s — and is the biggest cause of the gender wage gap. The bias against mothers at work, which can happen at any age, can be so strong it has been referred to as a “wall” — though there’s evidence that it recedes as children get older.

My children are a bit older now, but unfortunately that means that, at 40, I’m also “older.” Research has found that age discrimination against women at work can start as early as 35, though Catalyst notes that “younger women (under age 45) are more likely to be called back for another interview (almost double the rate for older women).” There’s age discrimination against older men at work as well, but it may start a bit later than it does for women, and women often feel more pressure to take cosmetic steps like getting Botox or dyeing their hair to mitigate the signs of aging.

Returning to Bankman-Fried, my point here is not that we shouldn’t give younger people a chance to take big risks. (I probably wouldn’t fork over vast sums of money to someone wearing a washed-out T-shirt who was covertly playing a video game during a professional Zoom, however.) Obviously, I’m also not advocating that we break the glass ceiling in the arena of corporate fraud.

Rather, it’s that we should be doing due diligence no matter how superficially impressive a wunderkind might seem, and that investors, executives and anyone else in a position to dole out career opportunities should offer well-earned stretch assignments to young women based on the same criteria they use to give them to young men. While I feel grateful and blessed to be where I am in my career, I wouldn’t be here without a few editors and bosses taking a flyer and allowing me to work on more complex and high-profile projects than those I’d taken on before.

My other wish is that we recognize that there’s only so far we can go as individuals toward embracing our aging selves, or our “inner hag,” as the psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie suggests. Though it’s important for us to find power and confidence in aging, all the personal growth in the world won’t prevent society’s cocktail of sexism and ageism from affecting us if we have to make a living. As we get inundated with a barrage of “new year, new you” content, it’s essential that we recognize there’s only so far self-actualization can take us.

Still, there are limits to the world’s embrace of Bankman-Fried’s slob-genius shtick — limits he appears to have tacitly acknowledged. He didn’t wear a baggy T-shirt when he pleaded not guilty to fraud and other crimes in federal district court yesterday. He wore a suit and tie.

Want More?

  • In 2021, Jessica Nordell and Yaryna Serkez created a simulated workplace called “NormCorp” to show the impact of gender bias over time. As they explained in an article for Opinion:

  • A September 2019 installment of The Times’s Work Friend column tackled two questions about age discrimination at work. A senior attorney for AARP Foundation told the writer Megan Greenwell: “We haven’t made many inroads in fighting those stereotypes [that older workers] are not flexible, that they’re stuck in their ways.”

  • Fatphobia affects women at work in a way it doesn’t affect men. As The Economist reported in December, “Myriad studies find that overweight or obese women are paid less than their thinner peers while there is little difference in wages between obese men and men in the medically defined ‘normal’ range.”

  • One BuzzFeed headline from December sort of speaks for itself: “A News Outlet Tweeted That Hilary Duff ‘Still’ Looks ‘Great’ at 35, and It’s Sparked a Conversation Around People’s ‘Skewed Perception of Aging’ When It Comes to Women.”

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