Whilst some progress has been made in improving the representation of women in recent years, we know that women are still leaving, or thinking about leaving, their corporate careers in droves (one in three women considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce in 2021).
The key to advancing gender equality in the workplace is more Queenagers like you in leadership positions. There is overwhelming evidence that more women at the top of organisations makes good business sense, and there is a clear competitive advantage for companies that get this right. Businesses need to wake up to this and make changes now to retain midlife women and offer them opportunities to progress. So, what can organisations do to make this happen?
This is a topic very close to my heart, and one which I tackle in my new book, ‘Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work’. In it, I highlight how achieving gender balance in the workplace isn’t about fixing the women, it’s about changing the system to create cultures where women can function better, flourish, and most importantly, remain.
The first step is ensuring that leaders have a true understanding of the obstacles and challenges that female employees can sometimes face, even before they get to the office door. Midlife women can often face a perfect storm of challenges – whether that is caring for children, looking after elderly relatives, or dealing with difficult menopausal symptoms. This can result in women not applying for and reaching more senior roles, or even worse, the female exodus we see from the workplace when women hit their forties and fifties and leave the workforce altogether. If companies continue to lose women at this life stage, they risk losing not only their current female leaders but also the next generation of female talent.
Menopause plays a key part here: women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing demographic in the UK workforce today, yet 99% of menopausal women report that their symptoms negatively impact their work, 84% say that there is no workplace support, or they are unsure that it exists, and one study reported 42% of menopausal women considered leaving their job due to symptoms. As Julie Dennis, a menopause specialist, explains: “For women, it hardly seems fair that at a time when they may well be at the top of their work game, suddenly their body and mind seem to turn against them which can knock a career off track.”
And for some women (in the ‘sandwich’ generation) caring responsibilities also come to the fore with care extending both ways to elderly relatives and childcare. Midlife women can often be caught between generations of family members requiring care: parents and in-laws, spouses or partners, children and grandchildren. According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, a quarter of women aged 50–64 have informal caring responsibilities for a sick, disabled or elderly person.
Recognising the challenges that midlife women can face and the impact that they can have is a good starting point for any organisation. In Don’t Fix Women, I outline three cultural frameworks and provide practical solutions that organisations can take to support women at work: flexibility, allyship, and coaching.
Let’s start with flexibility which can bring so many benefits to women juggling life and work; for a menopausal woman, it can make the management of symptoms more bearable, perhaps by avoiding the crowds at busy travel times, starting later due to a bad night’s sleep caused by night sweats, or being able to structure the working day to ensure she is at her most productive; or as a carer, flexibility can allow her to be there for appointments and emergencies and work at times that suit her best. As my friend Jacqui Brassey, who works at McKinsey & Company, said to me: “What makes the difference for women in these situations is flexibility, as this goes for many topics in life where you are juggling multiple responsibilities for personal health, family and work.”
The second framework of allyship is about ensuring women feel supported and that leaders and colleagues are mindful of the challenges women can have that can potentially affect their work. When it comes to menopause, education is vital. There needs to be a continued effort within organisations to normalise conversations around the menopause, a topic previously considered taboo in the workplace. I’m pleased these conversations are now on the rise and am also proud to be working with the British Standards Institution to create a new standard for menopause in the workplace which will help organisations develop more supportive policies. Other ways in which organisations can support women include publicising resources and relevant policies, offering information events, seminars or workshops, and educating managers so they are better equipped to have empathetic conversations with female colleagues. Even a simple question from a manager such as “What can I do to support you right now?” can make all the difference.
Finally, coaching can enable women to share concerns and challenges and help guide them through issues they are facing. Whilst coaching can often be put in the ‘too expensive’ box, there are many other ways organisations can support midlife women coping with menopause, caring responsibilities, and the work life juggle. Some examples of initiatives that work well include creating Menopause Champions who can signpost to further support, offering a Working Carer Passport scheme, making practical adjustments to improve the working environment or group coaching which can offer a safe space for women to support each other and share experiences.
Many organisations are now recognising the challenges faced by women and are taking action to support them in the workplace. Those that prioritise the retention of midlife women and enable their progression into leadership roles will be those that will win the race to gender equality.
Noon members can get 20% off the paperback edition of Joy Burnford’s #1 Bestseller book ‘Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work’ at https://practicalinspiration.com/NOONDFW20.
By Joy Burnford
Joy Burnford is the Founder and CEO of Encompass Equality, a recognised gender equality trailblazer and the author of a new #1 bestseller book ‘Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work’. With over 25 years’ experience as a business leader, non-exec director, podcast host and speaker, she supports organisations to navigate a path to gender equality and enable the retention and progression of women in the workplace. Joy and her team do this through research and consulting, leadership development programmes, knowledge sharing and coaching.
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