Picture:John Lee

Sheryl Sandberg talks to NOON about midlife pinch points

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO, talks to NOON founder Eleanor Mills about pinch points in midlife.

Just over a year ago I went to Palo Alto, the centre of the tech world, to interview the Queen of Facebook, its COO Sheryl Sandberg. In the shiny blue glass offices of Facebook’s HQ (there were probably more car parking spaces there than there are at Heathrow, and the campus is so huge you need a bike to get from one side to another) we ate peanut butter and apples and chatted. 

Sheryl was much more human than I expected, nervous about the photo shoot and elated that she had just got engaged again (her first husband died tragically six years ago aged only 47 on a treadmill while they were on holiday leaving her a single mother of two children). She was brimming with happiness about her new relationship and proud that she had asked him to marry her: “This is one of the biggest decisions we are ever going to make – why in 2020 do we still have men surprising women, and women waiting for men to ask and not bringing up marriage themselves?” 

It was classic Sandberg – perceptive, persuasive and quietly revolutionary.  

Sheryl liked my interview – so much that we have stayed in touch. When I told her I was launching a new platform to help women in midlife – NOON – she suggested we do a Facebook Live about the pinch points these women are facing; having spent lockdown with five teens (two of her own, three belonging to her new partner) she knew a bit about doing the double shift.

NOON’s research with Sheryl Sandberg and LeanIn

In advance of our chat on 9 June on the NOON Facebook page we did a survey of our NOON audience and Sheryl’s LeanIn Foundation to discover how women feel age will affect their careers. The results aren’t pretty. 75% think older women are judged more harshly than their male peers, 78% think being an older woman will hurt their career, while 80% think women who do well in business fit into masculine behaviour norms.

Covid, senior women and the big jobs

The Covid pandemic has hit senior women particularly hard, with them the most likely to be made redundant or furloughed – 4 times more likely than men. Additionally fewer women have been getting big jobs, and there has been an exodus of women out of the labour market at the double shift stresses of working and homeschooling, cleaning etc have hit women’s careers particularly hard. The Fawcett Society says the Covid pandemic has put women’s careers back by a generation – in America they are calling it the She-cession. Business leadership (and elsewhere) is still stubbornly male and when we lose senior women from the pipeline the prospects of greater equality at the top become even more elusive.

Midlife is where ageism hits sexism

Midlife for women is where ageism hits sexism – the mainstream narrative around the later parts of women’s lives is outdated and depressing. The tropes we see are grey-haired grandmothers, but a third of university educated 45-65 year olds don’t have children, so are never going to be grannies. With many of us having a life expectancy into our nineties, midlife is only half way through – we need to change the conversation and the map about what the second half of women’s lives can look like.  

I am so grateful to Sheryl for hosting this Facebook Live and bringing what we are doing at NOON to help women through the pinch points  of midlife to a wide audience – this matters for all of us.

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