A work culture fit for mid-life women.

How trust and openness to learning are the keys to necessary change

There is a lot of attention on mid-life career women in the UK and how they can be encouraged to stay the course in organisational life.  But women, or perhaps the organisations trying to encourage them, don’t appear to be playing ball.  Statistics show that in London the number of women between the age of 35 and 44 in the workplace is the lowest in the EU and many of those are working part time.  The gap between men and women narrows in the over 50 bracket, with women of this age at an all time high in the workplace – although many of them hold caring functions or are in low-paid employment.   We are a long way from any kind of equality and I come across many talented mid-life women who would like a more balanced work and home life or who cannot find a way to re-launch their careers after a break without essentially starting again.


Getting to the bottom of why women get out and stay out of the work force is perhaps trickier than might first appear. Much of the focus has so far been on how women can be helped to fit into current working environments often described as “male” and characterised by long hours in offices dominated by men.  This so-called “Lean-In” approach works on the premise that if women work really, really hard over long hours each day - and have a helping hand from a benevolent mentor - they can succeed in these “male” environments. Women are presented with a binary all-or-nothing “choice” of staying in on those terms or opting out completely. Some find compromise, sacrificing their career for a back-office part-time position where their skills are underused and they have no real chance of advancement.  Given the limited range of options, many are now taking matters into their own hands. The rate at which women are setting up their own businesses has doubled since the 2008 crisis (in 2014 70% of the newly self-employed were women), even though women traditionally find it more difficult to secure funding for their own businesses and earn less than their entrepreneurial male counterparts.  In the majority of cases, the reasons women give for becoming self-employed relate to flexibility; making money is the most common motivator for men.


Then there is the complication of childcare, which we are notoriously poor at providing at affordable rates in the UK.  Part of the problem might be that despite being one of the least productive nations in the developed world, we also work the longest hours, so the childcare we would need is substantial. If only, the argument goes, we could make it easier for women to have their children looked after all day and most of the evening by somebody else then they would skip right back to the office full-time without a backward glance.  They now have the added benefit of being able to spread the burden of childcare at least in the early months through shared parental leave schemes, in which a whopping 2% of working parents are said by the government to have participated over the last 12 months (HMRC puts the figure even lower according to the FT). Sharing parental leave appears to involve sharing the same career cul-de-sac, as well, if early reports from men who have tried it are to be believed. Why at a time when you need more money and stability would both halves of your pair commit career suicide? Current models for success do not seem to work for most women.


I would suggest that trust and willingness to learn provide the key to change.  Few corporates offer an environment where people are prepared to share openly their experiences and desires for their working lives that are in any way outside of the current norm, primarily because they don’t believe that there is any possibility their organisation would be prepared to meet them even half way. I have listened to many women (and men) talk about their careers over the past 10 years and they offer a nuanced picture.   The women I have spoken to are mainly in well-paid senior positions. Affording childcare is not in theory a problem and it is certainly not the most pressing challenge they articulate. Research has shown that many of the most successful women limit themselves to having one child. Many are in relationships where their spouse has taken on the flexible role: career success for some women seems contingent on limiting time out on maternity leave and/or role-swapping with their partners.


Most of those I spoke to expressed other concerns - feelings of isolation and exclusion in a workplace where they cannot trust their colleagues and where they feel they are penalised for being women, either as a consequence of taking maternity leave, by reaching a cul-de-sac in a support role function or through lack of access to powerful networks. Women who described themselves as generally very confident felt must less so in high-powered work situations, where they are surrounded mainly by men. In an unexpected twist, the company chairmen I interviewed for my thesis expressed similar feelings of isolation and displayed a great deal of empathy for women’s work struggles.


In all cases, the stories I heard are infused with emotions including fear and vulnerability that cannot be expressed in the workplace. Career coaches know how frequently these conversations, even with the toughest women, result in tears in the safety of the coaching room. Stephen Fineman has written extensively on the culture of “measuring” emotions at work and the hierarchy that has resulted. On the value scale of acceptable corporate feelings, more upbeat ill-defined, but powerful sounding concepts such as “emotional intelligence” or high “self-esteem” score well – the opposites do not. There is certainly no place for tears.


Fineman describes how moving towards non-judgemental story telling can allow real emotions in all their complexity to emerge. The recent relational mentoring movement believes that high quality mentoring relationships with open communication can lead to transformational outcomes. My experience supports both those positions. Through shared stories, told within supportive mentoring relationships built on trust and confidence, meaningful disclosure and learning can occur. We can thus begin to grasp the full picture of how current models of working are not meeting so many women’s (and men’s) needs, as well as what might be done to change them.  We are now in the post Lean-In era and companies have launched ambitious initiatives to bring about cultural shifts, as well as some laudable Women Returners projects. Innovative change is needed if more women are to remain on track with their careers. Positive workplace relationships based on trust, empathy and a willingness to listen and learn should form the heart of change initiatives. Providing the necessary environment for honest conversations should enable new models of working to emerge that are more inclusive of women (and a fair portion of men) and within which diversity, with all its benefits, can flourish.