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workingwise.co.uk speaks to Dr Lucy Ryan about her new book, Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it.
The growing focus on and mobilisation around the menopause has been a factor in the increasing number of books coming out about older women. But for Dr Lucy Ryan, author of one of them, Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it [published this month], there is a danger that, despite the need for more awareness about the menopause, the focus on it is reducing older women to “a middle-aged, hot sweaty body” when they are so much more. She says: “I want to broaden the conversation.”
Based on in-depth interviews with 40 older executive women, her book looks at the plethora of issues that is leading to an exodus of older women from the workplace. It highlights myths about women not wanting to progress past a certain level. She says 70% of the women she spoke to wanted to step up their careers in middle age.
Ryan pinpoints three main reasons women are leaving the workforce in middle age:
The book emerged out of the work Ryan was doing as a leadership coach. She started noticing a pattern of changes going on with her middle-aged female clients. “They were at the point of stepping up and instead were stepping down, moving sideways or out,” she says. She looked to see what research there was on the subject and discovered there was barely anything.
At the time she was wondering what to do for her PhD and thought there must be something going on that was worth studying given it was so underexplored, particularly in comparison with maternity or other big events in women’s lives. “I set my sights on understanding what was wrong,” she says. She thought other academics would be interested, but effectively she was told by others in the higher education world that a PhD on this would be almost unpublishable. One of the people she was coaching at the time was Channel Four’s ex-head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne, now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. She told her what the reaction had been to her proposal and Byrne hit the phone immediately. She also wrote the foreword for the book. Ryan adds that the knockbacks only galvanised her to start work on her PhD.
She began by talking to friends and reached out to women’s networks. Halfway through her interviews she paused as she felt too many of the women she was speaking to had similar stories in that they had the money and pension that made it possible to choose to stop work and do what they wanted to do. She widened her research to look at women from different social strata. What did those with less choice do? Some carried on in corporate environments even though they were sinking; some stepped away despite not having a good pension or savings; and some took on a portfolio career, working several jobs.
Ryan remarks that the knock-on impact of this exodus is that there are fewer role models and senior women to encourage others left. Asked what was the most surprising thing she learned through doing the research for the book, Ryan highights the amount of times death was mentioned in interviews. Not just death as a result of losing parents or friends, but also their own fear of mortality. “They wanted to live their next chapter of life with vivacity and fulfillment,” she says.
Ryan would like to see employers doing more midlife check-ins to get a handle on how middle aged people are feeling, particularly women, at a time when there are so many cross currents. “It comes down to whether they are serious about retention. Gloria Steinem said the revolution starts with a conversation. If employers are really serious about retention they will have those conversations and find out what is going on in people’s lives and how they can retain them,” she says.
Perhaps, she adds, they just need a temporary pause to catch their breath as they face different life events, from getting help for an anxious teenager to caring for a dying parent. “We do manage that with maternity leave. It’s not impossible,” she says. “It starts with organisations wanting to lift the lid and explore what is going on.” She thinks such pauses should be available to everyone who is facing a huge life challenge, something that is likely to become more common as the workforce ages. She adds: “The saddest interviews I did were with women who said I would have stayed if someone had just had a conversation with me and given me a moment to breathe. One woman said I just needed five weeks and I would have been okay.”
The last section of Ryan’s book shows just how vibrant, resilient and creative the women who leave can be and what a loss they are to the workplace. “They have fought fire and are branded with energy,” says Ryan, mentioning a woman who had for five years looked after her mother who had locked-in syndrome. She had seven grandchildren and still wanted to work full time, having been CEO of a building society, but she couldn’t get back in. “She had done so much and was so extraordinary and so full of energy,” says Ryan.
She says the response to the book has been really positive so far, but mainly from women, although there were several men at the launch who came up to her afterwards. She is keen that it is not just a conversation for women. She is also keen for employers to get on board. That is where she thinks change is most needed. The focus has been on getting women up the pipeline, she says; it needs also to be on keeping them there.
*Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it by Dr Lucy Ryan is published this week by Practical Inspiration Publishing.