One aspect of women’s experiences in the workplace that has received little attention is what happens at mid-age. Men are at the apex of their career at age 45 to 55, and many of them are looking ahead to retirement. Women on the other hand, for many reasons, have not had a similar ascent in organizations and with the kids grown want to focus more fully on their careers and the fulfilment it can bring.
But executive coach Lucy Ryan’s research suggests as women grapple with the possibilities, they are deciding to quit. “This is the female midlife revolt,” she writes in Revolting Women. “A revolt against the expectations of the full on, no flex, head down senior management norm. A revolt against the discrimination that just gets louder for women the older they get and a revolt against a patriarchal system that is changing at glacial pace.”
It’s a quiet revolt – a woman here and there, exiting and finding new ways to self-actualize, perhaps starting their own company or immersing themselves in voluntary organizations. But it has implications for those leading our organizations because they are losing talent – not the young talent often obsessed about, but experienced people who have overcome many obstacles over the years and have the wisdom and fortitude that could be helpful. In Ms. Ryan’s interviews with midlife women, this was often summed up as the loss of an untapped resource, a waste of good talent or even a tragedy.
That study, for a PhD degree she sought at midlife, involved 40 interviews with women at various levels in the organization, some in management and some not. She found three factors underpinning this revolt. First is the maintenance of existing power. This cohort is not male and not young and often have followed non-linear careers given the constraints of their family life. For those reasons, they are excluded from the roles they might serve – ignored, near invisible.
Second, their own life is facing a collision of midlife changes as they handle menopause, older motherhood, parental care, family health issues and perhaps divorce. “It’s a whirlwind that can scoop you up, leaving you breathless,” she says.
But despite those significant barriers, the third factor she found is many midlife women in her study want progress and achievement, feeling a need to step up in their organization and be celebrated for their knowledge and experience. They didn’t want to opt out, step down or move sideways. They reject the notion of decline and don’t want to escape to retirement, but are seeking flexible ways to navigate the significant issues surrounding their lives at this age while still actively pursuing career advancement.
In a sense, this is an echo of what they were feeling when two decades earlier in their life they – and their organization – struggled with how to handle them having children. And again, many organizations are fumbling the ball, not able to take advantage of what the women are offering. “If they can’t step up within your company, they’ll do it on their own,” she warns.
Margaret Mead told Life magazine in 1959 “there is no greater power of creative force in the world than the zest of a postmenopausal woman.” Philosopher Julia Kristeva referred to “the sparkle of female genius” in describing middle-aged women. That may be over-the-top, but is a needed counterbalance to the belief of many that these women are old and gray, so why care if they leave?
Ms. Ryan appeals to top management: Your aging female talent is draining away. Younger women are losing their role models and might follow suit. It makes business sense to keep them, finding the right roles. It’s also the right thing to do – part of creating a diverse, inclusive, talented workplace.
“Are you prepared to take this seriously?” she asks. “There is lip service and there is action.”
Action starts with the diversity, equality and inclusion team. It should study your female pipeline and where it starts to “leak,” as women leave the organization. If midlife women are leaving, find out why through exit interviews, and learn what would enable them to stay. Don’t wait for perfect data, letting that be an excuse for inaction. “Anywhere you start will be a positive,” Ms. Ryan stresses.
She strongly recommends conducting midlife check-ins with those who have not yet bolted. Find out what they are struggling with – what are they juggling? Talk to them about how they see the next chapter of their life and how you can help them embrace it. “I can immediately think of many women whose decisions to exit their company could have been stalled with a very good, careful, internal conversation,” she writes. In doing this, don’t single out just one or two women. Indeed, maybe not even all women; such check-ins would be useful with men as well.
Be prepared for flexibility. This is something top executives have been wrestling with over the years, sometimes earlier in these women’s careers, and more recently with the pandemic’s work-from-home complications and the hybrid workplace. Top execs may be tired of being forced to be flexible. But flexibility is an overrising concern for midlife women facing generational caring demands. They are revolting and she says the executive suite must pay attention.
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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.