Here is a bizarre business reality.
Just at the point where the talented middle-aged woman is ready to step into a more powerful position in the workplace, she quits. Strange?
For sure. After all, this is the woman who has navigated her career often for some 30 years. She’s battled sexism at work; learned to demand a pay rise; found that ‘having it all’ is an indecent myth; found their voice and is starting to see the future they want.
It’s just that her future is no longer with you.
The wall of silence:
I’d like to say that her departure will be greeted with collective outrage, but it’s not.
The exodus of midlife women from the workplace, at the peak of their careers, is typically met with silence.
It’s met by silence from the organization, and from women themselves, who – often surprised by the messiness of midlife – quietly exit, pause, gather their resources, and then plan for the next chapter of their brilliant lives.
What we’re talking about is the recently identified female midlife revolution.
The only losers are employers themselves – with older female wisdom, talent and experience leaking out at the fastest level yet.
Indeed, as t McKinsey’s recent Women in the Workplace report revealed, for every female director promoted today, two are leaving their workplace.
Power, collision and revolt:
So what’s the reason for this?
It appears there are three reasons why women quit their senior roles: Power, Collision and Revolt.
There is a revolt against the expectations of the full on, no flex, head down senior management norm.
There is a revolt against the discrimination that just gets louder for women the older they get.
There is a revolt against a patriarchal system that is changing at a glacial pace.
A revolution is needed
You could say the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ becomes welded steel as the older woman nudges into power.
This is the point that ‘gendered ageism’ really flourishes, that is, a prejudice against the middle-aged woman – those who are neither young, nor male, and who might just threaten the power structure.
Ana, one of the women in my own study, states it well: “We hired an HR director into one of our business lines and there was an internal candidate, who was a woman, who I thought would be brilliant. She’s 50, and the discussion was, ‘well, it’s not that she wouldn’t be good at the job’, everyone could see that she’d be good at the job, but ‘she’ll be a blocker’ and ‘this will be her last gig’, and ‘where’s she going to go next?’ and ‘we’re not kind of elevating the game through putting her in it’. So, we went outside, and we hired a guy who was one year younger, 49.”
This was quite overt, but sometimes the language of power is more subtle, more ‘taken-for-granted’.
Women I talked to sensed feeling sidelined, with projects quietly going elsewhere, and that, as the past, they couldn’t be part of the organisational future.
But there is another, major, reason why women walk out.
Let’s call it collision, a maelstrom of midlife events, that can leave women at midlife gasping for breath, for a break, for a pause.
Sometimes by disconnecting each midlife event (think menopause, parent care, our children’s mental health challenges, the empty nest etc.), it’s easy to forget the sum of the whole.
Little wonder women walk away from their brilliant full-time careers as they experience juggling like never before, emotional wrangling, or simply, as one person I spoke to said, ‘a tsunami of stuff’.
I still remember interviewing Lori. She is a quietly-spoken 50-year-old talent director, with twin 16-year-old daughters. In the space of a year her full time, full-on career changed tack, with her menopause symptoms colliding with her mum’s heart attack and one of her daughter’s battle with anorexia, “I just decided I wanted to be there for them. But it’s really hard and the pain and angst rips my heart open. There’s no easy solution here and no endgame. Being a businesswoman I’m used to being able to control things, fix stuff, sort everything out, but I can’t here. But I can give my time.”
But after the storm, comes the revolution! That is, a turnaround, a change; a revival; a motivation to live with energy, meaning and purpose.
However, this desire for change can differ substantially between men and women.
A staggering 70% of the women in my study were ready to step up in their careers after their midlife maelstrom, fuelling their energy and ambition into new projects.
Just as men develop an ‘exiting consciousness’, women are still striving to make their mark on the world.
They have an entirely different ‘career clock’!
So why should leaders listen?
Thankfully, the message here is optimistic.
With a talent shortage and an upwards ageing demographic shift, retaining women over 50 will soon become business critical.
And, this is a population who wants to stay and grow with you.
Once an organization decides to take this seriously, they will find an open door of talented women who are ambitious and available.
So, start by listening to the diversity of experience of your employed midlife women and incorporating their recommendations into policies that are right for your company.
Because these are women who are waiting to reconfigure success together with you and listen to your refreshingly different approach to structure, to age and to flexible working in this era of the 50-year career.
Dr Lucy Ryan (PhD), is author of Amazon Bestseller ‘Revolting Women‘