Revolting women: why midlife women are walking out

Dr Lucy Ryan’s new book is a passionate and well researched study of why talented older women with bags of experience to offer are leaving the workforce and what employers can do about it.


After years of almost nothing, there has been a small trickle of books on older women of late, perhaps encouraged by the interest in the menopause due to high-profile supporters such as Davina McCall. The latest is Dr Lucy Ryan’s Revolting Women: why midlife women are walking out, and what to do about it, based on in-depth interviews with 40 older executive women. Contrary to popular conception, 70% of the women she spoke to wanted to step up their careers in middle age. Yet, says Ryan, they face bias, including the idea that they are not up to or don’t want promotion, and a lack of the flexible working they may need to do so. This group, she argues passionately, are understudied – due in part to academic bias – and underobserved.

Instead older women are either subjected to a narrative of decline, in which the more challenging experiences of the menopause at work fit, or, more recently, a narrative of flight and freedom which places all the responsibility on individual women.

For Ryan there is a third, messier reality where women are creatively, dynamically, getting on despite the challenges they face.

She pinpoints three main reasons women are leaving the workforce in middle age:

  • The maintenance of power, through exclusion, bias and inflexibility
  • The collision of midlife changes, from health to grief and caring responsibilities 
  • A revolution against gendered ageism – for the positive reason that they are rejecting the structures that have kept them down and, if they can’t move up in their organisations, they are setting up on their own. 

Ryan says there are myriad reasons why employers should take note. It is not just the right thing to do; it makes business sense in a world of labour and experience shortages.

Female exodus

The book is divided into different parts according to the three main reasons women are leaving. Under power, Ryan discusses the lack of senior woman role models – with most board-level increases being due to non-executive directors – and the lack of flexible working in senior roles. She says employers have been turning a blind eye to the female exodus and are losing women just at the moment when they are realising their own power.

She talks about ageism at work, the presumption, for instance, that talent=youth, the doom-laden scenarios about demographic time bombs and how efforts to get over 50s to go back to work are too little too late. She also covers attitudes to middle age – the idea that it is all about crises when people can have crises at any age, the view that middle aged women are losing their erotic capital and becoming both invisible and hypervisible in that all that people see when they look at or talk about them is their age and the pressure to appear younger.

Other chapters cover stereotypes about women leaders having ‘soft skills’, loss and letting go, including career change, the mixed messages of the menopause debate and the need to normalise conversations about it and include a range of experiences, elder care and the blind spot we have for it generally and the growing sense we have of our own mortality as we age.

A major transition

Ryan argues that middle age is a major transitional period and one we do well to pay more attention to. She writes: “Midlife is a transitional age. And it’s messy and complicated, often leaving midlife women gasping for breath, for a break, a pause. Sometimes, by disconnecting each midlife event (think menopause, parental care, or children leaving home), it’s easy to forget the sum of the whole. No wonder women walk away from their beautiful full-time careers, as they experience juggling like never before, emotional wrangling, or simply, as Lori said, ‘a tsunami of stuff’.”

The last part of the book is given over to revolution and how we can make – and how women are making – midlife a positive turning point. Ryan says that women are different from men – they often come into their own later in their career – often when their children are older or leaving home and when the overemphasis on erotic capital has cooled and gain in personal power, influence and confidence. They feel more able to challenge received ideas about success and ambition and can start rewriting their own career success script if they are given enough flexibility to do so.

The book ends with a call to arms – a positive agenda for change. Companies, says Ryan, need to do more to value a life well lived and pay more than lip service to diversity and inclusion by addressing their leaking pipelines. That means monitoring age data, doing midlife career checks, improving flexible working, especially for senior roles, sponsoring older women, training older women and talking about the menopause. Women can also play their part by being more visible and vocal and challenging the many assumptions made about them.

Gendered ageism

This is a much needed book about the nature of gendered ageism and the cumulative impact of so many different assumptions, biases and experiences. It would be good to widen the lens a little to embrace more older women and not just those at the top of their professions. That might make for more interesting reading and make visible women who are much more likely to have been passed over and excluded. There are, after all, a lot of books about career women – although not nearly enough about midlife.

The book ends with a note of optimism, which is hopefully warranted by older women’s growing confidence in speaking out despite everything. Ryan writes: “The novelist, Isabel Allende, in her TED talk, ‘How to live passionately – no matter your age’, said, ‘Inside, I feel good, I feel charming, seductive, sexy. Nobody else sees this.’ I see it. I see the worth of the vibrant and creative middle-aged woman, who adds immeasurable energy, productivity, and wisdom to the organization. And I’m cautiously optimistic that society is learning to see it too and to recognize the beautiful reality of the value of the middle-aged woman.”  It is surely in everyone’s interests that it does.

*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.

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