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How gendered ageism hits the bottom line

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E19 | October 19, 2023


Dr. Lucy Ryan is a leadership coach, consultant, author, and passionate advocate for women’s professional development. Her doctoral research project explored the phenomenon of midlife for professional women, a long-standing data gap, and she works with companies internationally to unlock the potential of this key talent pool.

Improved diversity and inclusion have become gradually understood as beneficial to business. Yet the sheer volume of midlife women leaving the workplace is still not discussed enough. Dr. Lucy Ryan is on a mission to change things.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.


Michael Hainsworth: In her book, ‘Why midlife women are walking out,’ Dr. Lucy Ryan explains that when women step in after an absence from the workforce to care for children or dying parents, their energy and enthusiasm quickly dissipates. But through her research, she’s learned that there are things companies can do to stem the mass exodus and that putting them in positions of boardroom power boosts the bottom line. We begin by discussing how gendered ageism harms the workplace.

Lucy Ryan: Well, it harms the workplace, Michael, in that what you're finding is that older women are exiting the workplace. It harms the workplace because the older women are exiting the workplace, the less gender parity we have at senior leadership level, and board level. All our efforts for diversity of boards and for having a rich mix of men and women leading our companies are being lost.

MH: There's a loss of institutional knowledge as well as the unique perspective that half the population brings to any given board.

LR: Yes, you're absolutely right. Well, there's institutional knowledge that is actually leaking out, if you like, of the system.

MH: There's research that's been done on this in the past for stock market investors, and we've learned that women make better investors because they are more risk-adverse. Is there the same sort of research that's broadly done on the role of women in the workplace and at the board level? Because it seems to me, at least upon reading your book, that at the university level, when you were getting your Ph.D., they didn't seem to be at all interested in recognizing that there was a gap in that knowledge or doing anything about it.

LR: Yes, I think it's a funny thing, isn't it? I went to try and find a supervisor for my Ph.D., thinking there's a data gap and everyone would leap on it and be interested. I then found out there was a data gap because no one was interested. I think that is improving but not at a fast enough rate. So, without doubt, there is a data gap regarding the positive impact of older women within senior leadership.

MH: Why is there that data gap to which do you attribute it?

LR: Lip service has been paid to it. So, up until now, we've managed to keep the system intact, and the system, let's face it, is mostly male at board level. What we've managed to do is go around the problem by increasing female non-executive directors. Certainly, in the UK, we've got 40% female Non-Executive Directors (NED)s on our boards. Ergo, there's not a problem anymore. But we have a major problem in that globally, we've got 11 to 14% female employed executives. We're actually not solving the problem at all. We're going around the problem, and basically, the system is staying intact, and that's suiting the people who are still at senior level while the women are leaving silently.

MH: What you're saying is that on the corporate ladder, the lower rungs are occupied in part by women, but the higher up you get, the less likely you are to find them. Why?

LR: Yes, definitely. There are broken rungs at every stage. You're absolutely right. Bottom rungs of the ladder, lower leadership in general, we still have 50/50, 60/40. The higher up the ladder, the more broken the rung. The why, certainly in my research, there are three very clear reasons. One is that the power structure is still very much intact. I would describe the glass ceiling as almost welded steel for the older woman. They're not young, they're not full-time, they're not male, and they are struggling to get through to that higher level. They also experience a midlife, what I've called a collision of events, and there's a certain amount of revolt also. They leave because they can and because they want to redefine their careers; they want to redefine career success in these latter years in a way that suits them.

MH: But companies today will boast of building diversity strategies…

LR: The diversity strategies are robust in terms of maternity, paternity, gender, ethnicity, but age is very commonly left off the agenda, and we're still tackling it. That’s why, I will still come back to the fact that up until now, it's still not of enough interest to organizations who are more wedded to keeping the status quo intact.

MH: So then, let's come back to that idea of a loss of institutional knowledge and diversity. Can we quantify what it means to an organization to have more women on the board of directors? Are they more profitable? Are they more successful? Are they faster growing?

LR: Well, there's a ton of data now that says that if we have gender parity at board level, we have greater profit, greater performance, greater growth. And I'd go further, though. I'd also say that once you've got gender parity at board level, you also have your role models for the younger generation. You cannot put a figure on that. You have a whole younger generation of women who can go, oh, I can be like that. If I can see it, I can be it. Whereas at the moment, what they're seeing is, I can't really be it because they leave. So yes, if we want to go economic data, there is a ton of data that goes, you'll be more profitable, more performance. And it's more.

MH: So, they leave. Do they leave out of frustration, or do they leave out of a societal expectation that when mom and dad get ill, it's the daughter that is the one who takes care of mom and dad, when a child is sick, it's mom who stays at home, these types of issues versus I'm just fed up with my sexist boss?

LR: Yes, both, I'm afraid. A frustrating answer for you, but it's in both. There are reasons such as; I'm frustrated with my sexist boss, I don't want to do this, I want to live the rest of my life in a way that suits me or a different company that gets me and values me more. But there is a bigger issue of societal expectation. So still, in terms of caring, 91% of women take up the caring load, and once you get to midlife, the caring load that you think your children are going to leave home and that caring load is going to decrease. It actually increases, because then you've got family health issues, you've got parental care, and you've often got older children with mental health challenges as well. You've got a greater range of care issues, and women are still expected to pick up that load.

MH: If that's the patriarchal system at play, what of that 1950s-style sexist boss component to it, the idea that there's still an old boys club? I was surprised at how successful I was in my career. I never played golf once with the boss.

LR: And plenty of women play golf, too, but there is what one of my interviewees called the ‘Back Slappy Boys Club’ still at play, and we don't have to just call it out on the golf course. I see it more in terms of sponsorship. What you'll see is men get greater mentorship, greater sponsorship informally and formally. They are shown how to navigate the whole leadership career path nationally, internationally, and they're given brilliant role models, and women still don't get sponsorship in the same way or still the opportunities in the same way.

MH: But does the old boys club die when the old boys club dies? Is there a generational evolution, is what I'm asking?

LR: One would hope so. The Gen Z we're seeing coming up the ranks have a greater knowledge about the importance of gender diversity, but women are still taking up the caring load. So, paternity and maternity are only at parity in Scandinavia. In all other parts of the world, women are still taking up the caring load. Once we have that broken rung, it's only going to increase further on. I'd like to think that this is just a gender evolution at the moment, and within one or two generations, it's going to decrease. But post-pandemic, that's not what we're seeing in the data. At the moment, they're saying that we might reach gender parity in 136 years.

MH: Didn't we say that 136 years ago?

LR: We certainly did, and we certainly said it in the 1950s.

MH: To your point about Gen Z. There is a pushback against the concept of always-on, 24/7 I'm working. You point out in your book that there's a pushback by women generally over the age of 50 from the idea that I need to be on call 24/7.

LR: And I call it full-time foolishness. We have gotten used to needing flexibility in our workplaces lower down the ladders. When it comes to senior leadership, board roles, we are wedded to full-time 24/7. Until that's addressed, those figures at the top of organizations are not going to shift. And we have some solutions staring us in the face, such as job sharing, and that's not adopted even vaguely enough.

MH: I want to talk about some of the solutions to this problem because your book pointed out that there are three of them, but as we work our way towards that, I'm wondering if the pandemic helped us in providing some of those solutions. As you pointed out, women leave the workforce because they need flexibility even if they're older, even if they're empty nesters. There are reasons why a woman over the age of 50 needs flexibility in her work life. Has working from home helped with that flexibility, or has it been a double-edged sword?

LR: It's definitely been a double-edged sword. At first, it was like, wow, we can work from home, and we can all be productive. What we then saw within about 12 months was everyone within the home went, wow, it's nice having you back at home. Now, can you pick up the housework and the care load again? And it's become harder and harder for women to reenter the workplace at the same level that they were at when they exited home. What’s happening is that men are getting back to the workplace faster in number than women do.

MH: And as well, women are leaving the workforce to attend to elderly parents or children with problems, or even their own health-related issues. Whereas to your point, if it's the women doing the heavy lifting 90% of the time on family-related issues and exiting the workforce, it's much more difficult for them to reenter the workforce, whereas the man has been climbing that ladder the entire time.

LR: And that's what I mean by that difference between a linear and a zigzag career. So stereotypically, men have a linear career, they enter the workforce, and they follow a fairly steady trajectory upwards, and then they get to retirement, they get 60, 65, and they go, okay, I'm ready now to move into another phase of my life. And I think it's great data. It was one of the most surprising things from my research. It's like women are working from a different career clock, Michael, they're doing a zigzag, they're stepping out, they're stepping back in. They're stepping out, they're stepping back in. After they’re post-menopausal, their parents sadly have probably died. Their children are sorted. They're like, wow, I've got energy, I've got motivation, I've got talent. I'm ready to go here. I'm ready to step up. How come no one wants me?

MH: You interviewed 40 professional women about their experiences, and from what I understand, 70% of them said they wanted to step up, not step out.

LR: Yes. It was just so surprising. There I was thinking we were going to have interesting conversations about stepping down, stepping out, and it wasn't. It was, let me have more of it. What an adventure. Let me work more, let me step up. And it was getting back in and being allowed to step up that just wasn't available. So, therefore, they stepped out and are doing it in their own way. Women are setting up amazing companies, and what a rich source of new businesses we have set up by women, but what a loss to our organizations.

MH: What's the motivator for stepping up?

LR: Well, there are several motivators for stepping up. One of the most interesting ones that is not seriously talked about is the stealth motivator, which is actually the fear or witnessing of death. Now, who goes and says to their boss, you know what? I'm leaving because I'm terrified of my impending death. It's not a conversation it's ever had in the workplace. However, what you find with a lot of midlife women is they have witnessed death. They've witnessed their parents die. They've witnessed family and friends sadly starting to die, and they go, oh my God, I want to kind of have a good next chapter. And so that's one of the motivators, the stealth motivator. The other big motivator is that they've still got energy and talent to give that hasn't been realized in all these various steps in and steps out.

MH: You mentioned that the stealth motivator of watching your parents die, giving you this incredible desire to make the most of the next stage of your life is not a conversation you would have with the boss. But you point out that there are some simple changes an organization can make to better utilize women over 50, and one of them is prevention versus the exit interview.

LR: Yes. I think that what always happens when people exit an organization is that we have an exit interview. I would like us to have midlife check-ins instead, and how powerful would it be to have good midlife conversations that are all about, so how is it going? What is going on in your life? What help do you need right now? What flexibility do you need right now? On the understanding that any issues that a midlife woman is facing are temporary, and then she's ready to go. It's an investment now for the future, and I think we haven't gotten used to this idea yet of 100-year lifespans and 50-year career spans. We are used to women taking a step out from maternity leave, and we've got to get used to a potential midlife step out to step back in.

MH: If prevention - with midlife check-ins with employees and colleagues who are at that stage of their life - is one of the simple things an organization can do to better utilize a woman over 50. What's another one?

LR: Look at their career paths and their training for midlife. The classic career path, if you hit 50-55 in an organization, you are often offered training in retirement or financial planning or what you're going to do when you leave. And so many women I interviewed just said they were leaving because they were bored. They had so much creativity to give. The second thing I'd do is, I would look at the career path training that's offered to your midlife leaders. What are the creative things that they could do? How could they broaden their leadership horizons with you and use their talents across the breadth of leadership scope?

MH: Let's come back to something we had discussed at the beginning of this conversation as an example of a simple change an organization can make to better utilize women over 50. You pointed out that there hasn't been a lot of good data about this at the macro level, but at the organization level, I can imagine you building a gender diversity or a broad diversity program, but if you're not tracking it, you don't know whether it's working or not.

LR: One of the first things an organization can do is decide if they want to take it seriously. They need to add gendered ageism to their diversity agenda. So, age is commonly left off the diversity agenda. We think we've solved it, age, because there are lots of policies about not disavowing people from the workplace because of their age. So, ageism and gendered ageism actually need to be added to the diversity agenda and tracked so that organizations start to actually look at what's happening to their women over 50.

MH: As someone who is in that age group, I find there are a lot more women over 50 who are choosing not to dye their hair anymore. There are younger women who are saying, you know what? I'm going gray at 20-25. I'm going to just let that happen. You mentioned Gen Z. Are you optimistic that the next generation is going to make things that much better for the organization and for the next generation of women over 50? Are you optimistic about the future?

LR: I'm very optimistic about the future. I have to be. I've spent the last ten years studying this, and so small wins in my world are small wins, but they are progress. You are right. There's been so much talk about gray hair, and I still remember being told how brave I was to sport white hair. What I thought was cool was actually not in other people's opinion. I am optimistic that the generation coming forward is less wedded to the way we look, and I will be very curious as to whether that continues when they get post-50. You often find that the minute a woman turns 50, she starts really worrying about the color of her hair, and so much is talked about the way she looks. And you only have to look at the media to see that our women are in power; more is written about the way they look and the way they dress than their policies. But I still hope the generation below us is less wedded to that.

MH: If there's one thing to take away from this conversation, what should it be?

LR: For organizations? The one thing would be to take it seriously. Find out. Show it matters. Act. I know those are three things but take it seriously. Look at it. Look at your population.

MH: Well, I am wondering if we're starting to swap our identities here because I turned 50, and I am getting more and more concerned and dyeing my hair more frequently than ever before. I need to take a page from the next generation of women.

LR: Yes. Swap to my side, Michael, go white.

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