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.
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!
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