“Mid-life for women is where ageism meets sexism”

Written by Eleanor Mills CMgr CCMI Wednesday 19 May 2021
Senior women nurture workforces, and have the clout to force change – so why are many organisations dispensing with them?
Middle-aged woman holding a hot drink by her desk

You would have to have been living on Mars to not have noticed the diversity drumbeat over the last 12 months. Ever since George Floyd was brutally killed by a White policeman on 25 May 2020, many well-led organisations have looked to their own institutional bias and examined their diversity policies.

When it comes to race, there is much work to be done – research I commissioned last summer as chair of Women in Journalism in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests revealed that not a single front-page article in the week we monitored the UK press was written by a Black journalist, and only one Black person was quoted. That is, of course, not good enough – and it’s not just the British media that has a long way to go when it comes to being representative of all the people who make up this country.

Amidst all of this there is another important cohort whose story is not being heard, and who are key players in ensuring diversity and fairness improve within organisations: senior women.

Women have been hit hard by the pandemic across all age groups; studies all over the world show Covid-19 putting equality for women back by a generation, as women are hit hard by the double shift – that’s increased domestic responsibilities, particularly home schooling, looking after elderly relatives, housework etc. (My favourite statistic in all of this is that the only families within which men do 50% of the house chores are where the women are the main breadwinners, and even then chaps only do half.) McKinsey found that worldwide, women’s job losses have been nearly twice as high as men’s.

The situation is even worse for senior women. According to the World Economic Forum report into the Gender Pay Gap 2021: “LinkedIn data shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles, creating a reversal of one to two years of progress across multiple industries.” It singles out “severe destruction of overall roles” for women in the consumer sector, not-for-profits and media and communication, with a marked difference “between men and women’s likelihood to make an ambitious job switch.” The Hampton Alexander Review of FTSE Women Leaders reflects this battering of senior female talent, finding many companies had lost their female talent pipeline during the pandemic and that out of 6,000 possible jobs at the layer just below board level (the marzipan beneath the icing), women were only being appointed to 2000 of them.

So why does the haemorrhaging of senior female talent matter? Well, first because at the top of all organisations – not just businesses, but government, academia, medicine etc – women only make up 25% of leaders. At the top of UK business, despite some progress on non-executive directors, it is even worse – only five women currently lead FTSE 100 companies. Depressingly it will take nearly another 135 years for women to reach leadership parity (according to the WEF). And losing senior women who are our best chance of being the leaders of tomorrow from the pipeline means that the timeline to equality just elongates further.

Apart from the innate injustice of women being half the population but only five to 25% of its leaders, when women do lead they do so with aplomb; countries with female leaders in the pandemic have seen far fewer deaths than those led by men. Given a choice between Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern I know whom I’d choose!

Additionally, new Women in the Workplace research (McKinsey and LeanIn.Org) proves that losing senior women from organisations also hits culture and diversity. “If we lose senior level women in leadership, it hurts other women and women of colour at every level,” says the study. Why? Because senior women nurture their workforces.

  • Companies with 50% or more women in senior leadership perform better (are more likely to outperform their competitors) and have healthier cultures
  • Senior-level women are more likely than senior-level men to be mentors, sponsors and allies to more diverse cohorts.
  • Over 50% of senior women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work (compared to under 40% of senior-level men)
  • 40% of senior women sponsor or mentor other women including women of colour (compared to 23% of senior men)
  • 63% of senior women actively listen to stories of women of colour experiencing mistreatment (compared to 40% of other colleagues)
  • 61% of senior women take a public stand for gender equality compared to 28% of employees overall.

I began this piece with the tragedy of George Floyd. I welcome the expansion of the conversation around diversity, but one protected characteristic should not trump another, the point is that diversity begets diversity. We can now prove that the expulsion of senior women from an organisation removes diversity champions who bring on the next generation of more diverse leaders.

This isn’t surprising. When I started on the Sunday Times, I was often the only woman in the conferences where the news agenda was decided. Twenty male eyes would look at me asking, “What do women think about this?” Senior women know what it is like to be the victim of microaggressions, to be the only person like them in the room, to be excluded by the majority in subtle ways. No wonder they are more empathetic to people of colour or others who don’t fit the majority paradigm. Senior women often act as allies to those wanting to transform culture, are a conduit to powerful male leaders and have the clout to force change.

So next time you are thinking of removing a senior woman, pause. Can your organisation really afford to lose her? And why is she being targeted rather than a man? We’ve all been trained in unconscious bias: mid-life for women is where ageism meets sexism. It is when women become less pleasing, both physically and in terms of being eager to be agreeable and pliant. Just as women shed the imposter syndrome and feel confident and able to wield their power, when their children are grown and the double shift ends, they get whacked.

This matters both in terms of broader equality and justice and in terms of the culture of organisations. Yet this is a new conversation. We need to have it.

Join the conversation with Eleanor Mills and CMI chief executive Ann Francke OBE on 2 June 2021 at CMI Women: The Broken Talent Pipeline: What’s next for women over 50? You can find out more about all upcoming events or catch up with those you missed through our digital events library at CMI Events

Eleanor is the founder and editor in chief of Noon, a new platform and community to empower women in mid-life. She spent 23 years at the Sunday Times, as a columnist, award-winning magazine editor and latterly editorial director. Her publications include Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs: 100 Years of the Best Journalism by Women (Hachette).

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