The midlife maelstrom
Organizations need to consider the needs of women at all life stages if they are to improve talent retention and close gender pay gaps.
In 2015, 193 member nations of the United Nations (UN) came together to commit to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 5 focused on gender equality. It set the target of empowering women and girls everywhere and achieving gender equality by 2030. It was a welcome statement of intent. Yet the UN’s own 2022 SDG progress report presents a discouraging picture of gender equality progress around the world. The goal of helping women achieve parity across all facets of societal life has slowed during the past two years.
In fact, at work, we are getting further away from gender parity. The World Economic Forum (WEF) reported that in 2021 we were 268 years away from closing the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, compared to 202 years in 2018. The pandemic undoubtedly imposed a disproportionate toll on working women. In 2020, women lost $800 billion in income and 64 million jobs, according to Oxfam. While many of those jobs have come back, in markets such as the US, nearly 830,000 jobs previously held by women are yet to be recovered. The lack of gender equality is most glaring at the highest levels of government and business. Only 4.8% of the Fortune Global 500 have a female chief executive. In the FTSE 100, the Cranfield School of Management and EY reported in late 2022 that the number of women in executive directorships increased only “marginally” in the past year, from 31 to 36, or 16.8% of the total. Globally, women represent just 27% of manager positions, according to the WEF.
The evidence is clear: there is a persistent lack of women in leadership positions.
How can we ensure that the role of women in the workplace is central to efforts to rebuild economies in the post-Covid era, and that women do not fall further behind?
The most significant problem for companies when it comes to gender equality is the leaky talent pipeline. Employers have struggled to retain women. Yet they can make a difference – often, relatively straightforwardly. I have seen first-hand how ‘quick wins’ delivered today can create ripples that support big change in the future. In my new book, Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work, I outline the organizational-level work needed to update an antiquated business world that wasn’t designed for women to thrive. We need leaders who take action to progress gender equality, who role-model inclusive behavior and create the level playing-field needed to retain women and create a better culture for all.
The first step is ensuring that leaders have a true understanding of the obstacles and challenges female employees can sometimes face before they even get to the office door. That means considering the specific challenges of women of all life stages. There is a particular cohort whose obstacles have, until very recently, been overlooked – and even considered taboo. 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, an exodus of women from the workplace altogether when they hit their forties and fifties. 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.
The midlife maelstrom
The challenges facing women in midlife include family responsibilities and health concerns – specifically the menopause. Many women in this so-called ‘sandwich’ generation find themselves caught between caring responsibilities that extend three ways: to parents and in-laws, to children and grandchildren, and potentially also to spouses and partners. According to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine in the UK, a quarter of women aged 50-64 have informal caring responsibilities for a sick, disabled or elderly person.
As Drew Gibson, head of inclusion, belonging and wellbeing at Santander UK, said to me: “If you look at typical career journeys and expectations for men and women, I don’t think there’s ever been a moment in time where someone has said to the male collective, ‘How do you want to fit in your work around your family?’” That has far-reaching implications. “This mismatch in experience between men and women has far-reaching consequences, both in terms of how we view and value men, and the inequality we continue to see in career progression and outcomes for women.”
Employers are also increasingly recognizing that menopause is a significant influence on women in midlife. Women’s reproductive health and hormonal challenges have long been considered taboo in the workplace, yet their side-effects can have a major impact on women’s confidence levels, career progression and wellbeing.
Although many businesses are some way off normalizing this taboo, some are tackling it head on. “As a firm, we want to create a safe and inclusive working environment, where anyone who is experiencing the menopause feels comfortable asking for the help they need to manage their symptoms,” says Liz Cope, senior diversity, inclusion and social impact manager at law firm Stephenson Harwood. There are some notable examples of organizations taking action to support women with the menopause. Service retailer Timpson pays for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prescriptions, for example. Fashion retailer ASOS has implemented a menopause leave policy. Builders’ merchant Travis Perkins has run a menopause group-coaching program to support employees experiencing symptoms. In total, more than 2,000 employers have now signed the Menopause Workplace Pledge developed by the Wellbeing of Women charity, committing to recognizing that menopause can be an issue in the workplace and to supporting those affected.
This recognition is not before time. After all, women of menopausal age are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce in the UK (and a similarly significant group in countries with comparable demographics). Yet according to one study, despite 99% of menopausal women reporting symptoms that negatively impact their work, 84% said that they had no workplace support or were unsure if it existed. Another study found that 42% of menopausal women considered leaving their job due to symptoms. Globally, it is estimated that with about a quarter of women experiencing this biological transition, the related productivity losses could amount to more than US$150 billion a year by 2030.
So, what can leaders and organizations do to retain their female talent and support women through their midlife challenges?
Understanding the obstacles
To make the shift towards more equal career progression for men and women, companies need to recognize and help clear the obstacles that women face at work throughout their working lives – including in midlife. Based on my extensive research, I have distilled the many obstacles cited for midlife women into three key areas: hormonal challenges (which I call the four Ms – menopause, miscarriage, maternity and monthlies); caregiving responsibilities (including childcare, elderly care, wellbeing and self-care); and confidence at work.
It is the struggle of balancing these challenges with work that often stops women applying for and progressing into more senior roles. The point is not to ‘fix’ women. It is to change the system in which they work. By adjusting traditional practices and policies, organizations can create more equal and balanced workplaces for the benefit of all.
Brian McNamara, chief executive of Haleon (formerly GSK Consumer Healthcare), shares an example of how understanding personal challenges in the workforce can deliver these benefits. Four years ago, the quality function was headed up by a woman, Teri Lyng. She had a change in personal circumstances and no longer felt able to perform a full-time role. Rather than resigning and leaving the firm, she had an open and honest conversation with McNamara to understand the challenges and barriers. Together, they looked at her role, changed the organizational structure and added new leaders to reduce her direct reports. This worked well and – once the personal circumstances changed – she was keen and able to return to full time hours. Lyng now sits in McNamara’s leadership team. As he says: “If, at the time when Teri needed to focus away from work, we had not had that conversation, I would have lost key talent. Why would you lose someone for their entire career instead of accommodating a shift?”
Developing a gender-balanced culture
In Don’t Fix Women, I outline three cultural frameworks and provide practical solutions that organizations can take to support women at work: flexibility, allyship and coaching.
One of the biggest challenges traditionally facing mid-career women was a lack of flexibility. Throughout my career I have witnessed many women drop out of the workforce for this very reason. But this barrier was removed almost overnight as a result of the pandemic. Organizations can now use this opportunity to create a flexible framework for the future, in which both women and men can work in a way that’s good for them individually, while continuing to meet the needs of the organization.
One flexible working option that needs more recognition as a tool for retaining women in the workplace is job-sharing. If done well, it allows individuals – women and men – to progress their careers alongside family and other commitments. Charlotte Cherry and Alix Ainsley job-share the role of director of talent and learning at the John Lewis Partnership, the department store chain. They explain that job-sharing has not only helped them to balance their careers with motherhood, it has also helped to progress their careers in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d worked alone. As Cherry points out, “Why wouldn’t you consider job sharing as a tool for creating diverse thinking in your leadership teams?”
The second framework is about ensuring women feel supported and that leaders and colleagues are mindful of the challenges women can face that may affect their work. When it comes to midlife, education is vital. There needs to be a continued effort within organizations to normalize conversations around the menopause. Other ways in which organizations can support women include signposting 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 – “What can I do to support you right now?” – can make all the difference.
Coaching can enable women to share concerns and challenges, and help guide them through issues they are facing. Group coaching can be effective too, creating a safe space for women to support each other and share experiences. Other initiatives that work well include creating menopause champions who can support women or direct them to further support, and a ‘working carer passport’ scheme for those with caring responsibilities – a record of practical adjustments made to improve individuals’ working environment, which can be helpful if they move roles or their line manager changes.
Increasing numbers of organizations now recognize the challenges faced by women in midlife and are taking action to support them. These myriad issues can’t be fixed overnight, but there are many things employers can do – steps that will also help improve employee relations, drive recruitment, retain key female talent, reduce the costs of absence and potential employment disputes, and improve productivity. Those that prioritize the retention of midlife women and enable their progression into leadership roles will be those that will win the race to gender equality.
Joy Burnford is the founder and chief executive of Encompass Equality and author of Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work (Practical Inspiration Publishing).