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Is going gray an asset in the workplace?

Opinions changing as baby boomers age

CHICAGO -- Gray hair may seem like a good career move to some, especially men, but not for Aliza Sherman Risdahl, 40, who has felt unspoken pressure for years to color her prematurely gray hair. ''No one takes women more seriously because we have gray hairs on our head," she said.

Opinions about the impact of gray hair in business remain conflicted as the workforce gets collectively older, with the first baby boomers set to turn 60 next year.

Does gray add gravitas for those seeking to be hired or promoted, or is it a drawback that is best disguised? Experts say the answer depends on the circumstances.

Twenty years from now, one in every four adult Americans will be over 65. As a result, ''this way of evaluating older Americans by their gray hair will have to change," said Dr. Robert Butler, an expert on aging and chief executive of the International Longevity Center in New York.

Gray hair is common for men at the CEO level. But whether rank-and-file employees or job applicants benefit from gray is another matter.

While quantifying the effect of gray hair may be impossible, there's been no big dropoff in a statistical category closely linked to ageism. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 17,837 age discrimination complaints in 2004 -- down slightly from the previous two years.

Kathy Kolbe, 65, a Phoenix-based public speaker and corporate consultant, is one of the comparatively few gray-haired women in business. After alternating between dyed and not, she declares herself now ''permanently gray." She says the ''look of wisdom" has a positive impact on both employees and clients.

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