Queenagers quitting and the second brain drain: it's not just menopause
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (October 9th 2023)
It's World Menopause Day next week - but the change is just one part of the Midlife Maelstrom
As you read this I will be winging my way to France to spend a week in silence – meditating, yoga-ing, washing up, swimming in the river, doing a little sunbathing – relaxing. It is a digital detox too – no phones, computers or contact with the outside world. I feel pretty tired having been writing my book all year so this is my post-delivering-the-manuscript, post dropping-both-kids-at-uni, treat to myself.
On October 18th – the week I get back – I am hosting an online Noon debate for World Menopause Day. It’s free for Paid Subscribers to this newsletter and others can join too. Here is the link to get tickets. We have a stellar panel: Dr Nighat Arif (author of The Knowledge, Noon Advisory Board member and TV doctor who specialises in women’s health) Ritula Shah (ex World Tonight, now Classic FM who left the BBC after 30 years and wrote a great piece for us about that transition), Dr Lucy Ryan (who acclaimed book Revolting Women is all about why so many Queenagers are quitting or being whacked from the workforce, read her article for Noon about it here) and Rachel Weiss, Founder of the Menopause Café in Scotland who wrote this great piece about her work for Noon). The debate is going to be passionate.
The Queenager with Eleanor Mills is a reader-supported publication. To support Noon and my work please become a paid subscriber (£6 a month). Paid Subscribers also get free admission to our menopause event, discounts on retreats and tours and a free book four times a year for the Noon Book Club. Plus an exclusive invitation to our monthly Noon Circle in person and online
The British Menopause Society say one in ten women are leaving their jobs because of menopause every year. It is certainly true that midlife women are leaving the workforce in large numbers. It’s even been dubbed a Second Brain Drain: McKinsey find that for every woman promoted to being a director, two women leave. In fact the OECD is so concerned about the exodus of midlife employees from the workforce that they are discussing it this week.
Governments realise that because of the pensions crisis and because of a global shortage of talent they need us all to work for longer. But the message hasn’t got through to employers who are still merrily exiting those who are 50 plus. Hardly any companies are thinking about what longevity means for the workforce, or for consumers. They should be: the Queenager pound is behind 90% of all household consuming spending decisions but we appear in less than 10 per cent of advertising. And as we all live longer, women’s most productive career years may well be the time between 50 and 65/70 – what we call Q3 in the 100 year life – once the majority of our caring commitments are over. Unfortunately too many women are never getting to realise their full potential in their Queenager years because ageism(often gendered) removes them from companies just as they are getting going. It is a huge problem which needs fixing. Getting health equity around menopause is just the beginning.
So what is fuelling the Queenager Exodus?
Our Noon research suggests that while menopause is a big factor, it is far from being the only trigger for the great quitting. We found that over half of women of 50 have suffered five or more big life events – divorce, bereavement, redundancy, their elderly parents needing care, teenagers having a tough time because of anorexia or anxiety or self harm (of which there is a current epidemic) their own health troubles, abuse – and of course menopause. But what makes them leave their jobs is when a bunch of these biggies hit at once in what we call rudely the Midlife Clusterfuck (or Midlife Maelstrom if we are being polite). This is really common. It is why 47 is officially the unhappiest year of our lives, across multitudinous data sets all over the world according to the economist David Blanchflower .
What we find in the thousands of women we talk to at Noon is that it is the Midlife Clusterfuck, often with menopause symptoms as the straw that breaks the camels back, which makes women give up on their jobs and careers. It is tragic because often with a bit of understanding and accommodation through these pinchpoints, women could be kept in the roles they love and are good at (and which the economy needs them to keep pursuing). The trouble is that this broader understanding of the pressures on Queenagers is just not there in our society or workplaces. If we’re lucky, we get a menopause policy. That is great, but it is not enough on its own.
Our research showed that flexibility is 16 times more important to midlife women than status; yet status, (the big title, the office and a lack of flexibility) is usually the norm as we get more senior. We see women being unbearably stretched with caring responsibilities (their mum gets dementia just as a teen has exams or an eating disorder) and they leave work to cope. Yet often these caring situations come to an end relatively quickly… but by then it is too late. The Queenager has left the building and it is hard to get back in.
In the last few years the menopause conversation has ramped up. That is great. 50 per cent of the population go through menopause and the medical care on offer has been woeful. Until last year it wasn’t mandatory for doctors to have any menopause training and too many women were given anti-depressants when what they needed was HRT. Care is still a postcode lottery with women in the richest parts of Britain twice as likely to be prescribed HRT as those in the poorest parts. There is intersectionality here with women of colour also getting worse treatment. I applaud the efforts of people like Davina McCall and Kate Muir, Mariella Frostrup, Carolyn Harris MP and the Menopause Mandate crew in raising awareness on this crucial issue of health inequity.
But, and it is an important but – we need to make sure that the myriad of issues affecting older women – aren’t all labelled ‘menopause’.
This isn’t just me. In our Noon research we found that 70 per cent of women aged 45-65 in the UK did NOT want to be viewed through a menopausal lens. Just as you wouldn’t see a roomful of middle aged men and refer to them as the Viagra-posse or the Limp Dick Club, so we Queenagers don’t want to be labelled walking hot flushes with fog brains. (Last week I was horrified to see that one moniker for midlife women now is the ‘meno-posse’!!!! I’ll be sticking to Queenager, thanks!)
Dr Nighat says that a quarter of women find menopause really difficult – they suffer from over forty symptoms, both physical and mental. They need treatment, sympathy and understanding from employers. That’s where menopause policies and protections are vital.
But we must also be careful to remember there are three quarters of women for whom it is not that bad, particularly if we have access to the right help (HRT sometimes, but not for everyone, some women with breast cancer risks can’t take it and some don’t need to). Personally, I haven’t taken HRT. I had some ups and downs, but now, being post menopausal feels like a liberation. I almost feel scared to write that because the current conversation is all about menopause being a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be and I’m worried we are terrifying the women coming up behind us. Of course they should have easy access to treatment and information, but we should also tell them it isn’t always a car crash.
The reason that this matters is because of the way our biology is always used against us women. The Victorians reckoned women were like dogs or children, incapacitated because of our wombs, not capable of rational thought; literally ‘hysterical’. We need to remember that those kind of thoughts still lurk in our culture; that misogyny doesn’t disappear, it mutates.
At 52, I don’t want to be defined by my biology; that used to be one of the basic tenets of feminism. Certainly, as a young woman I didn’t want to be defined by whether or not I had had a period, or was currently bleeding or not – in fact I was often enraged when I was accused of being pre-menstrual, code for moody. Post fifty, I really don’t want to be defined as a walking hot flush, an hysterical collection of brain fog and sweatiness, disabled from doing my job by my pesky hormones. It is not true, for starters.
So yes give us menopause fairness, but let’s remember we are Queenagers, not walking hot flushes. It’s not an accident that brands have jumped on the menopause bandwagon to sell us hot pink menopause products. Or that companies are keen to put older women into a hot-sweaty menopausal box at work just when we should be taking up top management roles. Our generation entered the work force in the same numbers as men, thirty years ago. We should be seeing that parity reflected at the top. But it’s not happening.
The truth is that at the top it is almost as much of a boys club as it ever was. In 2023, still only 14% of senior roles are going to women; only 8 FTSE 100 CEOs are women. It’s not just in business either. There are more female doctors than males at entry level, but the leaders are all men and the misogyny is vicious (just read this report on sexism in surgery). While in law it is a similar story; more women than men at the bottom, less than 20 per cent female partners at the top.
That’s why the Queenager Exodus matters. Given that the average age of a CEO is 56, and a Chair is 61. If all the women disappear at 50 – victims of the Midlife Maelstrom, or dismissed as walking hot flushes – then we aren’t going to get the women leaders we need to change the workplace for the women and men coming up behind us.
Last week at the Noon Circle a female banker in her 50s told me that midlife women were seen in her world as: Frail, Frumpy and Forgettable. That’s what we’re up against.
So on World Menopause Day let’s take a pause and remember…
Our generation are pioneers. We’ve stuck it out, raised our kids (if we had them), pushed for more flexibility around caring, endured three decades of ‘the hand on the ass’ as one very senior lawyer put it to me. Yet we’re getting floored by gendered ageism and the circling of the wagons at the top just as we should be storming the citadel.
So Yes, we need the menopause NOT to be taboo and for doctors to know what they are talking about but we also need to tackle gendered ageism and the sexist ageist attitudes that fuel it which are spitting women out of their careers just when they should be bossing it.
So yes, help women with menopause, but don’t use the menopause issue as a way to put us back into a hysterical/womb/biologically frail/useless woman box.
Let’s remember… Our Queenagers years are when we come into our power. When we have health, and experience and time, and purpose and so much more to give and to come. It would be a shame if a focus on menopause to the exclusion of all the other issues ended up killing us with kindness.
What do you think? Come and join us at our World Menopause Debate and have your say… and tell me what you think in the comments or email me directly firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll get in touch and pick them up after my retreat!
Oh and if you are part of an organisation which wants to retain more of its Queenagers, Dr Lucy Ryan, me and Noon have teamed up to create a new programme The Queenager Way, which draws on both or our sets of research to show companies how to hang on to their senior women. Email us at email@example.com if you’d like to know more. We’re just incubating our first batch of companies on the programme if you would like to be part of it.
By Eleanor Mills