The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (July 17th 2022)
We don't have a sell-by date: we are in our prime.
Hope you are not all melting in the heat! Strap in as it looks like it is only going to get hotter… I’ve had a week which has made me think about how we create change – and how powerful we women are when we stick together and support each other. On Wednesday I hosted an event at the London Stock Exchange (some of the Paid Subscribers came along which was lovely!) to celebrate 10 years of the 30% Club mentoring scheme.
This was a real moment for me because when the campaign launched over a decade ago, I used my column to talk about the inequity of men making up nearly 90% of all board members when women are 50% of the population. I remember chatting to Helena Morrissey (now on the Noon Advisory Board and founder of the 30% Club) back then about how we move the dial – and her telling me about how she’d been doing a deep dive into the data and that the German Telecom company had a target of 30% for women on all their boards, because research shows that it is when you have at least three of a minority in the room that you hit a tipping point and they feel empowered to speak up. That was why she called the campaign the 30% club; I thought it was a great idea then and it still is now – particularly since UK businesses now have 40% women on boards, partly through their efforts! So it was brilliant to be on stage celebrating how far we have come (though there are still only 10 Female CEOs in the FTSE 100 so there is a long way to go).
It made me think about how big change comes from individuals with a big idea. When Helena kicked off the mentoring scheme with the backing of EY and a few chairmen (eight other companies joined then too) she had no idea how successful it would become. Now 16,000 people have been part of it across the world, 700 companies in 50 countries – this scheme is now the biggest push for diversity in business across the globe. It is an area in which the UK really leads the way. Here is a free link to the article I wrote about in the Financial Times last week I feel excited by how that small acorn of an idea (which I helped to water in a small way) has grown into a mighty forest. It gives me hope that by starting the conversation at Noon and on this Queenager newsletter about how we need to change the narrative about the lives of older women, what we are capable of, how we are misrepresented by the wider media, we can drive similar kinds of change in this space too.
It is already starting to happen. It needs to; we Queenagers are a pioneering generation, there have never been women like us in midlife before. It’s there in the statistics – in the 2019 census, women over 40 began earning more money than women under 40 for the first time ever. That is huge because it used to be that women’s wages achieved parity with men in our twenties, but then we hit the maternity years, and our earning power fell back. What that statistic shows is that a whole generation of women has gone on working and earning and becoming more senior through and beyond their childbearing years (and indeed nearly a third of university-educated women DON’T have kids, 40% of those by choice) – so we are hitting midlife with our own financial powerbase as professionals. We are a new cohort in the world. This is why we need a new story which recognises our generation of midlife women as the powerhouses we are. We don’t want our mothers’ midlife, or their menopause experience; we are a force, and we are on the march!
Our Queenager research for Noon (which we did with Accenture, it is the biggest study of this demographic done yet) shows that two-thirds of women 45-60 say they would be far more likely to buy from brands who represent them; and that over half feel invisible in wider media. It is depressing that often the midlife women we do see are disguised as younger women, as if the only acceptable older woman is one who looks freakishly youthful. It’s there in all the anti-ageing rhetoric beloved by the beauty industry; that terrifying drumbeat that we don’t count if we don’t look young and hot. I HATE the narrative that a woman’s worth is defined by her fuckability and fecundity – that is a classic male lens perspective and it shows how much that patriarchal view still informs so much of our society. It is everywhere. I was at a gorgeous double 50th birthday party last week in which the doting husband went on about how his wife only looked 35; she doesn’t, she looks like a gorgeous, fulfilled, amazing 50-year-old. And what the hell is wrong with that? I found myself muttering with frustration during the speeches. It was all well meant but it reinforced that narrative which is everywhere in our culture that a woman should be celebrated for looking young; not proud to be a fabulous Queenager. I don’t want to look 35, I’m not. In fact, when I was in my mid-thirties, I was knackered, had had two kids in swift succession and sported giant eye-bags and baby sick as my main accessories. I feel so much better now – and so do so many other women I know.
Everything I am doing here at Noon is about changing this story: I want my daughters and every other young woman to look forward to being fifty, to understand that midlife is where women come into their prime, become the women they are supposed to be. It is where we look down from the brow of the mountain at all we have achieved, all that we are, all that we want to be. Where we take a breather and work out what the next 50 years (if we’re lucky) might look like; maybe where we return to some of our earlier dreams or ambitions and start fulfilling them too. I’m not being Pollyanna-ish. I know that we also hit the midlife maelstrom, where many troubles come at once. I was talking to a pal this week who has a super-anxious teen, an ailing mum, a job she wants to leave and an ex-partner who is driving her crazy (not to mention the wrong oestrogen gel, so her hot flushes have come back with a vengeance). I understand that Queenager life isn’t always fun and roses. But I also know that those dark times eventually give us strength; in our Queenager research, we call it being Forged in Fire. I know from my own experience that those dark times, when we are really tested, and we feel desperately sad and challenged do bear fruit in the end. That cycle is there in the earliest myths. The Assyrian goddess Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, descends into the realm of the dead and gets stuck there, suspended on a post in the dark. She is visiting to attend the funeral rites of her sister’s husband, and as she goes through each of the gates to enter she has to give up some of her earthly finery, her gold ring, her lapis beads, even her royal robe. The judges of the underworld pass judgement against her; she is struck.
“Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death/She spoke against her the word of wrath/ She uttered against her the cry of guilt./She struck her. Inanna was turned into a corpse/ A piece of rotting meat/ And was hung from a hook on a wall.” The Goddess stays there in the dark until she is rescued by her mortal friends who come to look for her. She emerges from this fallow period more powerful, wiser – she has united the two worlds.
So it is still for us Queenagers. We will go through some dark times, but if we are kind to ourselves, and engage the loving support of family, friends, and particularly the ministrations of a new tribe such as the one we are creating here at Noon, we can flourish again. Change is difficult. Shedding old identities and ways of being is hard. But as Inanna herself found, afterwards we are pruned back to our essence, ready to rise again: “You mount the steps to your high throne/In all majesty you sit there/queenship and godship in your hands.” Queenager-ship even! (I was so excited when I found that quote!) It just sums it up. We can rise again – have a fantastic next chapter, move into the light, and refind our joy. I did. You can too.
The key is for all of us to support each other. We’re trying to do that – our first support group for parents of kids with eating disorders kicked off this week (here is the Eventbrite link if you want to sign up for that). And if you need a Queenager reboot and a new tribe come to our retreat at Broughton Hall in September (we still have a few spots left). Another opportunity to meet other Queenagers is at the Barbican Library in London on Thursday July 28. Some of you will remember our International Women’s Day event about Female Determination (featuring Louise Minchin and Christina Lamb OBE as well as amazing others); the authors Melissa Collett and Tom Campbell would like to invite you all to the launch – I will be there. Come and say hello, click here to register for that. Melissa is an awesome Queenager, a super-high flying professional who is also in a rock band – and an old school-gate mate of mine! And here is a link for the inspirational book itself which is a great portrait of amazing role models if you are interested in buying a copy.
I am so grateful to all the women who have and are supporting me in trying to tell this new story – yes I am talking about you Claire, Circe, and Jen and all the incredible women on my Noon Advisory Board who lent their names and support to my new venture. And most of all you fab Queenagers out there who read my musings every week. Thank you!
P.s. if you really love what we are doing please become a paid subscriber to this newsletter, it funds our work on Noon and changing the script about Queenagers.
By Eleanor Mills