The silent revolt of older women

A debate at the Hay Festival covered the reasons older women are leaving the workforce and what we can do about it.


Older women are fed up of being sidelined or discriminated against at work or are facing a ‘collision’ of different pressures which are causing them to leave the workforce. That’s the findings of a PhD-now-book on older women and was the theme of a Hay Festival event at the weekend.

Dr Lucy Ryan is author of Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it, and she was in conversation with Dorothy Byrne, former head of Channel 4 News and Current Affairs and now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. Lucy, a leadership coach, has coached Dorothy in the past and Dorothy, who commissioned Channel 4’s first menopause documentary with Davina McCall, provided the foreword to Lucy’s book and championed her PhD after she was told that the subject matter – older women’s experience of the workplace – was ‘uninspiring’ and ‘unpublishable’. One professor said, to quote Dorothy, ‘no-one wants to read about older women’.

Why are women leaving?

Lucy said the main reasons why midlife women are leaving the workforce include gendered ageism – such as being sidelined or bullied or sacked. Often, if they are senior leaders, they are the only women in the boardroom or, at least, the only female executive in the boardroom [progress on getting more female executives on boards has been stagnant for years]. She spoke about discrimination and the string of negative words used to describe older women.

Another reason they are leaving is what Lucy called ‘the midlife collision’. That includes menopause, divorce, parental care, looking after older children with mental health problems, health problems, bankruptcy and more.  Lucy said menopause may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is usually an accumulation of things that lead to a decision to leave work. Often if they take time out women don’t mean this to be permanent, she added. Indeed 70% of the women she interviewed wanted to step up, but they could not cope with the collision of events at a particular moment, left and could not get back in. Many choose to set up their own businesses to create a flexible environment that works for them.

Lucy added that women leaving in what she calls ‘a silent revolution’ [due to the lack of outcry] not only affects their careers, businesses’ bottom line because they are haemorrhaging talent and experience and by extension the economy, but it means there are fewer role models and mentors higher up an organisation for younger women. Indeed, because of the rarity of women leaders, many find themselves sitting on multiple boards. Dorothy spoke of being begged to be on a panel as a representative of female journalists in the Middle East, even though she lives in North London and has never worked in the Middle East.

What needs to change?

Calling on employers to take the issue seriously, Lucy said they need to ask women what they require to do their job well and thrive. She added that diversity initiatives rarely measure age and what older women are facing is a combination of sexism and ageism.

The women in the packed Hay Festival tent, who included several entrepreneurs and the unpaid chair of three charities, asked a whole series of questions, including about imposter syndrome. Dorothy said she tells her graduates to  remember Boris Johnson when they are thinking they need to wait to have all possible qualifications before applying for a job and to always ask for a pay rise. Another question touched on the caring role adopted by women at work as well as at home and whether this acts as a barrier to their careers.

Lucy and Dorothy also spoke about the need to include men in the discussion [Dorothy said many men don’t like the macho, corporate culture] and about how having more women’s voices in leadership will address some of the challenges facing women at all levels. Lucy commented: “I would love to find a way to change the system from the inside. The more women who leave, the more the system will stay the same.”

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