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Gray hair's in style, but a problem in workplace

Jeanne Thompson began going gray at 23. She colored her hair for years as she worked her way into management at a large Boston-area financial services company, then gave up the dye for good about a year ago.

The earth didn't shake, and the 44-year-old Thompson was promoted to top management the following year.

She is among a new type of gray panther, a woman who aspires to do well and get ahead on the job while happily maintaining a full head of gray.

"Women put pressure on themselves to color," said Thompson, of Exeter, N.H. "It's a bold statement to be gray because it's saying, 'You know what? I did let my hair go, but I'm not letting myself go.' People take me more seriously now. I never apologize for the gray hair."

But not everyone finds it so easy.

Laws, of course, exist to ward off discrimination in the workplace, yet legions of men and women have no interest in letting their gray fly. Not now, when the struggling economy has produced a stampede of hungry young job-seekers.

But gray heads have been popping up on runways and red carpets, on models and young celebrities for months. There's Lady Gaga and Kelly Osbourne -- via dye -- and Hollywood royalty like Helen Mirren, the Oscar-winning British actress.

Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund chief, is one of the most powerful women in the world, and she keeps her hair gray. So does Essie Weingarten, founder and now creative director of the nail polish company Essie Cosmetics.

For regular working women, it's a trickier issue.

"I don't think a woman in the workplace is going to follow that trend," David Scher, a civil rights attorney in Washington, said with a laugh. "Women in the workplace are highly pressured to look young."

Yes, he's a dude, and at 44 he has virtually no salt in his hair, but he wasn't alone in issuing a warning against workplace gray for women.

"While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was created to protect employees 40 years of age and older, some men and women may still encounter ageism in the workplace," said Stephanie Martinez Kluga, a manager for Insperity, a Houston-based company that provides human resources services to small and medium-size businesses. "The long-standing perception that men with gray hair are experienced and women with gray hair are simply old may still be an issue that affects employees in workplaces across the U.S.".

Some of today's new gray panthers also offer strong words of caution about exactly how well those anti-discrimination laws work.

Anne Kreamer is gray and proud, but she didn't unleash the color until she left her day job to become self-employed. She dedicates an entire chapter of her 2007 book "Going Gray" to workplace issues.

"We only fool ourselves about how young we look with our dyed hair," said the Harvard-educated Kreamer, a former Nickelodeon executive who helped launch the satirical magazine Spy.

When it comes to gray on the job, Kreamer said, context counts. The color might be easier in academia over high-tech, for instance, and in Minneapolis over Los Angeles. Job description and your rung on the ladder might also be in play: chief financial officer versus a lowlier, more creative and therefore more gray-tolerant position like assistant talent agent, for example.

Kreamer dubbed the largely unspoken phenomenon "hair-colorism."

In 1950, 7 percent of women dyed their hair, she said. Today, it's closer to 95 percent or more, depending on geographic location. In the '60s, easy, affordable hair dye in a box hit store shelves, changing the follicle landscape for good.

Dana King, 53, started going gray in her 20s, began dyeing in her 30s and went to work for San Francisco's KPIX in 1997, rising to news anchor. In January 2010, she first approached her general manager, a man whom she had known for a decade, about her giving up the dye.

"He didn't like the idea at all and he asked me not to do it," King said. Soon after, she did it anyway, with the comfort of a no-cut contract good to May 2013.

"It got down to the point where I was dyeing it every two to three weeks. I just decided, 'I'm not doing this anymore.' I felt like I had sold my soul and betrayed myself," she said.

After sharing her hair story on-air, King was deluged with emails from viewers, including many women who colored and some who worried she had fallen ill. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," King said. "They said it was a relief for them, that they could see someone that made it OK to be gray."

King knows her road to gray wouldn't have gone so well had she been a TV news star elsewhere.

"I work in a youth-oriented industry and I'm not an idiot," she said. "This is not Miami. This is not Los Angeles. I would have been fired had I worked in some other markets. I can't get a job anywhere else, I don't think. I have no illusions about what I've done and I'm good with that."

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