Dr Lucy Ryan

The Silent Revolution – why midlife women are walking out at the peak of their careers

Why are so many midlife women leaving corporates just as they should be coming into their work prime? Lucy Ryan reveals a silent revolution

A toxic combination of a patriarchal system, gendered ageism and midlife pinch points is causing senior women to quit the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. So why aren’t we hearing more about this shocking drain of talent? And why isn’t anything being done to prevent it? Lucy Ryan has her theories. 

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 – battled sexism at work; learned to demand a pay rise; understood that ‘having it all’ is an indecent myth; found her voice and is starting to see the future she wants. It’s just that her future is not with the organisation currently employing her.

Dr Lucy Ryan

II wish I could 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 met with silence. Silence from the organisation, 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.

This is a female midlife revolution

The only loser is the business, with older female wisdom, talent and experience leaking out at the fastest level yet. Indeed, according to McKinsey’s 2022 research, Women in the Workplace, for every female director promoted today, two are leaving their workplace.

So what’s the reason for this? If the workplace isn’t interested, I am! My 50th birthday present to myself was to start a 5-year part-time PhD to get to grips with the ‘why?’ (just birthday cake would have been a lot simpler!).

The three reasons why women quit

It appears there are three reasons why women quit their senior roles. Power, Collision and Revolt. 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 a glacial pace. Why wait?, we shout, as we throw our energy and talent into audacious new adventures.

But let’s take a step back and consider why Revolution is even 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, who is neither young, nor male, and who might just threaten the power structure.

The experience of Ana, one of the women in my study, is typically revealing: “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.” 

The underlying message

And 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. Meera, a media industry expert, articulated this passionately: “The message was clear, ‘if you’ve got corporate memory, it’s time to go, this place belongs to the young. I was past my ‘sell-by date’ and given the not-so-subtle message I needed to move on. The irony was my male boss was older than me, and still there!”

Many of you reading this will know these are not an isolated examples. Take any sector or organisation, public or private, in the UK, and senior women will still be in the minority, sometimes by as much as 10:1. Across the 5,166 positions of power in UK society, women make up just under a third – 32% – of the total. That means 919 women are missing from the top roles!

Midlife maelstrom

But there is another major reason why women walk out. Let’s call it Collision, a maelstrom of midlife events, that can leave those of us 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), 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 Dionne said, ‘tsunami of stuff’. 

I still remember interviewing Lori, 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 battling 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 business woman 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”.

After the storm, comes the revolution

That is, a turnaround. A change. A revival. A motivation to live with energy, meaning and purpose. And 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. An entirely different ‘career clock’!

Listen to Gail, 61, who left her inflexible workplace after her mother developed locked-in syndrome, and eventually set up a thriving horticulture business:  “I’m more energised and engaged about the exploration of this world than ever before. I think the future is open and there’s is a whole new journey waiting for me. I just want more of it really!”

Dr Lucy Ryan is a leadership coach, consultant, and passionate advocate for women’s professional development. She is the author of RevoltingWomen: Why midlife women are walking out and what to do about it 

8 responses to “The Silent Revolution – why midlife women are walking out at the peak of their careers”

  1. Mary says:

    So much truth in this short article and so much of the ‘collision’ aspect obviously links back to the role many women play in also taking the lion’s share of responsibilities for dependents….I think women have to fight against ageism in a way that men do not. Assumptions that women will be ‘past it’ and will be incapable of innovation, which is at odds with the energy levels and the revolution mindset of so many women.

  2. Clare says:

    I was a business coach / mentor for 18 years and I always talked about this with my clients. When competent, decent business leaders are coached and mentored into thinking properly about the value of mature women they come to their senses. So often they just haven’t thought through the pros and the benefits. I am now working for a business myself and in the receiving end of extreme ageism.

  3. Siân Dalrymple says:

    Such a powerful article. Thank you. I can so resonate with this and changes I have faced in the last 4 years.

  4. Rhonda says:

    I left a senior leadership/director role this year at 47. After battling so long to get to the table, I didn’t like what I saw when I got there. Perhaps the wisdom of age also kicked in. Why fight to change those who have no intention to do so?

  5. Sarah Clein says:

    This article rings so true. I work with many midlife public sector female leaders. Many of them are utterly knackered from the midload of bringing up kids, looking after parents, navigating menopause at a time when they might be doing the biggest jobs of their lives. Taught to think they, we, can have it all, there’s a stinging realisation which comes with midlife which is you could maybe have it all, but the cost to health and sanity isn’t worth it.

  6. Heather says:

    This article resonates with me. I was 54, a Director of Marketing and leading a successful, award-winning team. First my child started having some health issues following the Pandemic, then my 84-year-old mother dealt with delirium following an operation.

    I thought that 25 years of long hours and excellent service would protect me during this short personal rough patch, but I was mistaken. My position was eliminated.

    I’ve been looking for work since Spring 2022, even at lower levels and reduced pay levels, but it’s hard to bounce back after 50 in this job market.

  7. Catriona Gravatt says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this article’s account and even more with the comments that follow. Especially Heather’s. Such a similar experience I cannot tell you. Trying to find senior level marketing work since the end of my last contract in June, (a contract I took reluctantly and did not enjoy, (overqualified, patronised and degraded), having lost my permanent role in the pandemic, has been truly awful, including 3 times being appointed and then later having offers withdrawn!. This, in addition to supporting twenty somethings with anxiety and depression, and the horrendous decline of my last remaining parent with vascular dementia, who passed away just a week before my 60ieth birthday, I think has made this year the most bruising year so far. I am still hoping and hunting, but I’m not sure how long I will last. 😢

  8. Elizabeth Dewing says:

    I turned 60 in July and had my first experience of slamming into the ‘silver ceiling’ when I was rejected for a role I REALLY wanted after a final interview with two men in their 30’s. I absolutely aced the final interview and the feedback was 99% fabulous, but I was rejected on the basis of a trivial concern that I could have presented at least 5 references to dispute. It made NO sense – until I realised I was probably ten years older than their oldest current employee and when they said they wanted ‘diversity’ they were thinking in terms of race and disability – not age. I’ve seldom felt so utterly disempowered and still haven’t really made my peace with it.

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