NEW YORK – 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 hairgray. 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. "I think women in the workplace are highly pressured to look young. If I were an older working person, the last thing I would do is go gray."
Yes, he’s a man, 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 grayhair are experienced and women with grayhair are simply old may still be an issue that affects employees in workplaces across the U.S.," she said.
Some of today’s new gray panthers also offer strong words of caution.
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.
In 1950, 7 percent of women dyed their hair, Kreamer 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.
"When women were going to work, it was like they could reinvent themselves and say, ’I’m no house frau anymore.’ Hair dye got kind of linked in there and we never looked back," said Kreamer, who went prematurely gray and colored for 25 years. "It’s still very complicated."
Sandra Rawline, 52, in Houston knows how complicated it can be.
A trial is scheduled for June in her federal lawsuit accusing her boss at Capital Title of Texas of ordering her to dye her gray hair in 2009, when her office moved to a swankier part of town. The suit accuses him of instructing her to wear "younger, fancier suits" and lots of jewelry, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Rawline, an escrow officer and branch manager, wouldn’t comment for this story. The newspaper said her superior called her lawsuit preposterous.
The new "gray movement" doesn’t keep tabs on membership, but blogs like Terri Holley’s Going Gray are proliferating, along with pro-gray Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds.
"Society has boxed in women on what’s considered to be beautiful, and this defies how we’re supposed to look," Holley said. "People say, ’I’m so glad I found you. I’m so glad we’re having this conversation.’"
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.
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."