Why are midlife women revolting?

Midlife women are facing a collision of different pressures and many have had enough, an event this weekend heard.


I spent part of the weekend in a field in Wales. Not just any field. A field of tents at the Hay Festival. One of the events I attended was about older women. The tent was packed with women and the occasional man [there clearly need to be more] and it felt like the beginnings of something – a joining of the dots. While there has been a lot about the menopause of late, with some companies and others seeking to cash in, the menopause is by no means the only difficulty facing middle-aged women when it comes to work.

The event was a conversation between coach Lucy Ryan [pictured above] and Dorothy Byrne, former head of Channel 4 News and Current Affairs and now president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. Dr Ryan’s book, Revolting women: Why midlife women are walking out, is based on her PhD on the subject [a subject she was told was not interesting enough for a PhD] and involves a series of in-depth interviews with women about their experiences at work. So why are women leaving? Dr Ryan talked about gendered ageism, including the sidelining of women as well as overt discrimination, and about “midlife collision”, the coming together of different factors – caring for children/teens, for parents, divorce, the menopause and health problems [their own and their children’s]. Sometimes, she says, menopause can be overwhelming, but often it is just the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

The questions kept coming at the end with woman after woman recounting their own experiences of redundancy, setting up their own businesses , being unpaid chairs of charities…The speakers spoke about the need for jobs for returners who might have to take breaks for caring or health reasons that are worthy of their talents and recognise their experience.

Byrne railed against ‘imposter syndrome‘, saying 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. The two women also spoke about how women adopt caring roles at work, volunteering for team development initiatives and so forth, and how that can hold them back. And they talked about the need for male allies. It is too easy, said Dr Ryan, for men to stay out of the debate and feel excluded. Byrne added that many men don’t like the competitive, macho, corporate culture. There is an alliance waiting to happen.

The  issues facing older women are just a pile-on of many of the issues facing younger women, plus ageism. Older women are part of a continuum that tends to exclude women. I remember looking around on the tube after I had my kids and wondering where all the middle aged women were. I went back to my old workplace and virtually all the men were still there [and had been promoted]. Where were the women? Freelancing? Retraining as a child psychologist/coach? That seemed to be the pattern. I haven’t looked recently, but I bet it hasn’t changed that much, although maybe more of the women are running their own businesses as technology has made this easier.

There’s still such a long way to go. Life is a battle and older women, exhausted as they are, are rising up.

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