Don’t lose your mid-career women
"How can organisations support women in mid-career and build a strong pipeline for future female leaders?"

In a white paper on the challenges of mid-career for women, I read an analogy that resonated for me (spot the middle child!) Being a mid-career women is similar to middle child syndrome. You often feel ignored, you’re given short shrift, have to compete for attention, try harder to be heard and don’t get as much praise compared to your siblings. That sounds familiar to my career experience and for many women that I’ve worked with.

Avivah Wittenberg Cox talks about the phases of women’s careers and describes their 30’s as being “culture shock” as many have to make decisions about getting married and having children that will affect their careers. Men don’t have the same dilemma traditionally.

A survey carried out by the Chartered Management Institute in 2017 highlighted the challenges for women as they progress in their careers.

Their research showed there were more women than men in entry-level positions (64% vs 38%) but at middle management level, the ratio had changed to just 40% of women and decreased further at senior management to 36%. This obviously means there are less female candidates to progress to the director and board-level positions. The concept of a “leaky pipeline” for women is referenced in a number of sectors and industries, particularly financial services, STEM and Academia.

So what’s happening here?

Let’s make a rough estimate at when employees get their first management role, probably between 5 to 10 years of starting their career, so if they’re graduates that’s between 27 and 32. 

The age at which women are having children (if they make that choice or are able to) is increasing. Around 60% of women in their 30’s have a child and 80% of 40-year-olds. At the point when women are making a choice whether to have a child it’s likely she may already be a manager or is ready to be. 

We know anecdotally that women are often not considered for promotions or roles within an organisation because the assumption is they will not want the additional responsibility, increased hours or more travel. Those assumptions are often reached without even having a conversation. Our belief is that these assumptions can affect all women at the mid career stage women whether they have children or not.

We did our own survey and focus groups in 2018 within the media and marketing industry to find out the career aspirations of both men and women under 40. There were some interesting differences:

37% of Men had been promoted more than once vs 29% of women

21% of women felt they were doing a job beneath their level of experience vs 14% of men

52% of Men had received formal training vs 39% of women

We have coached and trained hundreds of women who tell us they are often given non-specific feedback for example that they are not visible enough, or they lack leadership without a suggestion of what they can do about it or any kind of development plan or access to training.

We’re strong believers in individuals taking responsibility for their own career progression but the organisation also needs to provide the right framework to develop, advance and ultimately retain their employees.

Here’s what we think is needed to support mid-career women.

Training is key, from our own experience and a quick straw poll most people were promoted into a management position without any training, some did get training a few years in but some not at all.

We believe in starting leadership training as early as possible, helping people build good behaviours and self-awareness rather than picking up bad habits. At mid-career getting people ready to step into leadership roles and signposting what they have already and what they need to develop is crucial. Developing their communication, confidence and coaching skills will support both the individual and the organisational culture. 

So what about your culture? Is it set up to support women’s careers? Here are some questions that you need to ask

What does the data tell you? 

At what stage are you losing women from your organisation and do you know why?

Are women returning after having children?

How do you support parents? 

The case for flexible working must have been proven during lockdown, what options do you offer?

Do you have shared parental leave?

Do you offer maternity coaching to help the transition back into work?

Are your recruitment and promotion processes unbiased and transparent?

What does your GPG data show? 

Do you track your female pipeline and most importantly is it converting?

Mentoring & Sponsorship

Our research showed that women, in particular, wanted a mentor and felt they lacked female role models

Do you offer mentoring and sponsorship to support your employees?

Embedding a learning culture

We know in lockdown many people are saying that 121s aren’t happening and they are not receiving any feedback on their performance

Does everyone have a development plan and a regular conversation about their career with their manager? 

How is feedback given?

How are employees recognised for their contribution?

Having those structures in place will drive performance, attraction and retention of talent and ultimately engagement and performance of all employees. If it feels like a long list then identify the pain points and start small.

We know that Women need different support, particularly through this mid-career transition, don’t lose or underuse your female talent, help them make good career decisions and build a strong female leadership pipeline and make changes that will benefit everyone.