Photo: Zhou Xun/Facebook 

43-year-old Chinese actress Zhou Xun is an award-winning actress and style icon, yet her age is one achievement she’s not allowed to claim.

The actress recently starred in the hit Chinese palace drama “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace” where she stars alongside Taiwanese actor Wallace Huo. As Zhou Xun and Wallace Huo also play the younger, teenage versions of their characters in the drama, the former was widely criticised for taking on the role of an adolescent in the period drama.


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Netizens felt that Zhou Xun’s voice was “too raspy” and “mature” for a teen. Some viewers also commented that she was not “youthful enough” to play the younger version of her character and even went as far to claim that most the budget of the has gone into post-production to make Zhou Xun look younger.


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It is unfortunate that Zhou Xun’s performance in the drama was overshadowed by nasty comments about her age. Zhou Xun is certainly not the first female actress to be shamed for being “too old.”

A study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative found that in half of the films (of the 25 Best Picture-nominated films from 2014 to 2016) that did feature a significant or supporting older character, the film contained lines that emphasized or joked about age.

Another study from that same university reflects the same worrying trend. Out of the 100 top films of 2015, five of these films portrayed female leads/co-leads 45 years of age or older. This is in stark contrast to the 26 movies in 2015 that featured leads or co-leads with males 45 years of age or older.

It’s important to recognise that this form of prejudice doesn’t just happen in show business or the entertainment industry.

While ageism (prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age) might seem like a far-off concept depending on just how old you are at the moment, the reality is, this form of discrimination is insidious and sneaks into our lives in a myriad of ways.


Double whammy

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This most certainly includes the workplace. There are many ways ageism can affect your job, especially if you are a female, some are more overt and others more deceptively subtle.

So why is it that women tend to face more age-related discrimination at work?

In a 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Is it harder for older workers to find jobs? New and improved evidence from a field experiment,” the authors suggest that such a phenomenon is a result of age discrimination laws failing to do more to protect women who may face age and sex discrimination and, based on earlier research they’ve done, “physical appearance matters more for women” since “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.”

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Lauren Rikleen, earlier in their careers, women were subjected to assumptions about whether they would get married and have children and how their family obligations would interfere with their commitment to work.

And when their children grow up, they race back into the workforce, only to see their careers stalled by a reduced tolerance for ageing women at work.

While age discrimination should not be tolerated in the workplace and is illegal in Singapore, in practice it’s often difficult to prove. Whether an older co-worker is making a genuinely passing comment about your youth or you feel like you’re being slighted for your age at work, here are some ways to deal with this problem.

Don’t be afraid to dispel your own assumptions about age

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Do you stop yourself from taking on more responsibilities because you think you’re too old? Are you unconsciously shying away from assignments because you think your company wants someone older to lead the project? You can be your own worst enemy when you let your assumptions influence the perceptions of others. Work towards challenging these assumptions and dispel them.


Knowledge is power

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Know your rights and familiarize yourself with the Retirement and Re-employment Act (Chapter 274A) of Singapore. The act prohibits employers from dismissing employees before they attain the “specified age” for a reason that is solely on the ground of their age.

The “specified age” is the prescribed minimum retirement age (currently 62) or the retirement age stated in the contract, whichever is higher. If you are let go and you suspect your age is a factor, referring to and leveraging your rights will help you negotiate a better settlement.


Age is just a number

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Move out of your comfort zone and foster strong bonds with co-workers across generations. Doing so would expose you to ideas, trends, opinions, and technology that you may not have considered otherwise. These relationships can change the perception that you’re out of touch, and potentially these colleagues will stand up for you in the event that your job is in peril.