Zoe Amar: How can charities better support older professional women?

With a new book outlining the layers of workplace discrimination faced by midlife women, I wondered how those in our sector fare

As it is National Inclusion Week, I have been thinking about an aspect of diversity that doesn’t get enough airtime: “midlife” women.

I was inspired by Lucy Ryan’s excellent new book, Revolting Women: Why Midlife Women are Walking Out, which outlines the layers of workplace discrimination experienced by professional women over the age of 50.

It made me question if we are doing enough as a sector to retain and develop midlife women aged between 40 and 65.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the number of women aged between 50 and 64 who were not working and not seeking employment rose by 151,000 between November 2022 and January 2023.

Almost a fifth (19 per cent) of women who responded to the survey said they were looking after their family or home, compared with 8 per cent of men.

In her book, Ryan explores the challenges facing midlife women, which included caring for ageing parents, partners or older children and managing the menopause. I wanted to find out how these issues are affecting women in our sector.

I know plenty of inspiring charity leaders who fall into this category, with one survey from Civil Society Media finding that a third of chief executives leading the UK’s largest charities are women.

The women I spoke to for this piece saw midlife as a time of opportunity as well as challenge.

Clare Mills, director of policy and communications at the Charity Finance Group, says: “I don’t have the mental load that I see many younger women having to manage, alongside the practicalities of childcare, however supportive partners are. Mental load still falls massively on women, and isn’t widely recognised or valued.”

Mills advises charity leaders, including men, to “recognise that ‘lack of progression’ in our careers to date doesn’t mean we’re content to stay at our current level, and don’t care about development or taking on more senior positions”.

She wants charities to help their female employees find coaches and mentors so that they can benefit from the talents of midlife women.

Emma Pears, founder and chief executive of the children’s charity Selfa, has had largely positive experiences working for a charity, but has also faced barriers.

“I’d say the challenges include not being taken as seriously as I might be in other sectors,” she says. “I think people have been surprised that this is my full-time job, or that I have been paid for this.”

Another female leader, who is changing roles after a year of fundraising in a tough climate while dealing with bereavement, health and family issues at home, told me: “A focus on the wellbeing of the chief executive should be a primary focus for the chair and the board.”

She urges charity leaders to understand the value that midlife women can bring “as resilient individuals who have invariably ‘been around the block’ with lots of life experience; wisdom; experience and knowledge”.

What else can charities do? Tracy Riddell, senior programme manager for age-friendly employment at the Centre for Ageing Better, advises charities to gather data about recruitment, retention and development opportunities for older workers.

She recommends exploring flexible working and carers’ leave, as well as offering forums for employees to share their experiences.

Riddell believes the latter point is especially important for creating inclusive workplace environments for employees who are going through the menopause, which six out of 10 women aged over 50 feel has a negative impact on their work.

Training on menopause symptoms and resources should be made available to all staff, says Riddell, while signposting to further support will allow all staff to know more about the condition.

“For any employers wanting to improve work for people in their 50s and 60s, there is guidance and support available through the Centre for Ageing Better’s Age-friendly Employer Pledge,” says Riddell.

Midlife women have a wealth of experience, talents and life skills to offer charities.

I hope that this will be recognised by more organisations, and that it will lead to more female chief executives in our sector.

Zoe Amar is founder of Zoe Amar Digital

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