Fact checking Don Lemon: Women reach their ‘prime’ later in life, Northeastern experts say

Kaitlan Collins, Don Lemon, and Poppy Harlow smile at eachother in front of a step and repeat
Kaitlan Collins, Don Lemon, and Poppy Harlow attend the 16th annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN

Don Lemon’s comment that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is past her prime fundamentally disregards women as professionals, according to a humanities expert at Northeastern University.

Lemon, a co-host on “CNN This Morning,” also said a woman is considered to be in her prime in “her 20s, 30s and maybe her 40s.” Haley is 51.

“Why on earth would someone say 20s, 30s, 40s,” says Martha Johnson, associate professor of government in Mills College at Northeastern University and in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. “That’s only if you are thinking of women and their appearance or their childbearing capacity, their sort of sexiness.”

Johnson says that women actually reach their stride in politics and in the corporate world much later in life than men, according to research. Because of the way that family responsibilities are still broken down in our society, women often have competing obligations to have children and take care of them earlier in life.

“If we’re talking about politics, a woman’s prime is your 50s, 60s, 70s,” she says.

The same is true for the labor market, says Alicia Modestino, associate professor of public policy, urban affairs and economics at Northeastern and research director at Dukakis Center.

Labor force participation rates, or percentage of the civilian population that is working or actively looking for work, peak earlier for men—between the ages of 25 to 45—than for women (between the ages of 45 to 50), she says. Women also reach the highest levels of earnings in their career later than men because they don’t hit their prime at the labor market until their children grow older or leave for college.

During a show on Feb. 16, Lemon, 56, was discussing with his co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins a suggestion Haley had made announcing her run for president in the 2024. The next day he said he regretted his “inartful” comment.

Haley, who previously served as the governor of South Carolina and as United States ambassador to the United Nations, said she would support mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over age 75. Some interpreted her suggestion as a criticism of President Joe Biden, 80, and former President Donald Trump, 76, who is running for office again.

“She says people, politicians are suddenly not in their prime. Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime,” Lemon said on air. “A woman is considered to be in their prime in [their] 20s and 30s, and maybe 40s.”

“Prime for what?” Harlow responded.

According to Modestino, employers promote men more readily than women, especially, at “greedy jobs” that require high numbers of hours and round-the-clock communication with clients like lawyers, consultants and other managerial positions. Women get penalized for doing a lot of caregiving for children but not giving as many hours of labor at work.

Looking at physicians, Modestino found that for men and women who don’t have children wage trajectories looked exactly the same.

“It’s only when they do have children that women fall off and it is really in terms of hours,” she says.

Those reasons also make it harder for women to get initial positions and get financing to move forward with their political careers, Johnson says.

Once women candidates have the force of their party behind them and get a nomination, voters don’t display as much gender bias as we might expect, according to voting patterns, Johnson says. But the problem is that within parties there is that bias in the nomination process as well as in subsequent media coverage.

Although there is some variation in research, Johnson says, female candidates receive different types of questions from the media, there is bias in terms of their stance on social and family issues and they are often questioned about their competence. In addition, a lot of coverage focuses on physical attributes of women-politicians.

On average, women candidates are often more qualified than men because they have to have more on their resume to show that they are able to run for offices, Johnson says. 

Johnson doesn’t believe that age itself matters for whether a politician is able to do the job. What matters much more, she says, for both male and female candidates, is their ability to govern. They have to have accumulated resources, meaning experience, expertise, connections and money. 

“That takes time,” Johnson says. “So that’s part of why successful politicians are often older.”

Regarding Haley supporting mental competency tests, Johnson says it wouldn’t be unprecedented because other places in the world have or had an age limit for politicians. But what is problematic, she says, is setting an age for a mandatory test.

There is no reason to target older individuals specifically, Johnson says, as difficulties with mental competence can come into play at any age for a number of reasons. 

Modestino believes that age limits would be reasonable for positions where an individual is making decisions that affect other people either in the workplace or in terms of policy making.

She says age matters in every job. Blue collar workers usually retire earlier because the body wears out faster than the mind does, and everybody reaches the point when they decline cognitively.

“There is no superhuman for whom that does not happen,” she says, and it is up to scientists to recommend age limits.

Aging has a negative stereotype while cognitively it is the opposite, says Christie Chung professor of psychology, associate dean for research, scholarship and partnerships and director of Mills Cognition Lab.

In biological literature, the brain fully develops and is in cognitive prime in the early 20s, but that is only one thing, Chung says. With age people develop many other capabilities that might be more important for a leader.

“As you grow older, you just know more things. So if you focus on that, cognitively, there is actually an increase as we grow older,” she says.

In her research Chung found that although some types of memory start to decline with age, they get compensated by the development of semantic memory. 

Semantic memory is a conscious long-term memory that is responsible for storing information as well as for meaning, understanding, and conceptual facts about the world. That is why our knowledge base, vocabulary and wisdom grow with age.

Chung also discovered that older individuals are better at regulating their emotions. They are better at taking other people’s perspectives as they grow older as well.

Additionally Chung studied the positivity effect which means that growing older humans tend to focus on things that are meaningful to them. And the meaningful pieces of information are positive a lot of times, she says.

“If you are thinking about healthy older adults, they have a lot to contribute to society, especially in terms of leadership, Chung says.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.