In the hairdressers the other day, I was having my usual dye and trim treatment when I remembered the phrase we used to use when I worked in a consultancy 20-plus years ago: “This one needs some grey hair.” This meant the client was tricky to impress and needed a more mature consultant to front the job than the keen bright young things we were (in our 20s and 30s – and usually female). The ‘grey hair’ consultants were always older… and they were also always male.
Slightly irksome admittedly, but it seemed to work. But why, now I’m 57, with the experience and wisdom to go with this, am I not the ‘grey hair’ myself? And what are the consequences, if any, for me personally, for women in business generally and for strategic talent management in particular, of being overlooked in this way?
Hair starts to go grey at 30-35 and, by the time you reach 50, 50 per cent of us will be 50 per cent grey. It’s a gradual and variable process, but many women prefer to pretend it isn’t happening. Many of us dye our hair throughout our 40s and 50s. We enjoy a more youthful look and avoid all that goes with the image of a grey-haired woman. We are avoiding the ageing effect at a time when we are heading for the top of our careers, when we should rightfully be proud of our experience.
The M word
We are also going through the menopause – something else we don’t often talk about. The menopause represents a period of significant change in our hormonal patterns: the deconstruction of our reproductive cycles and structures in contrast to the construction of them through puberty. Each of these transitions takes many years and brings with it physical and emotional challenges. This is alongside the significant shifts in self-image and identity, which then need to be integrated with the challenges brought by older women facing additional kinds of unconscious bias.
The menopause starts with the perimenopause stage of changing/slowing periods, hot flushes, emotional variability and sleep disturbance, alongside exhaustion and anxiety. At the same time our bodies start to change – our hair thins and gets courser as it greys, our skin becomes drier and our drive often shifts to a calmer, more serene state.
After a year of no periods you are post-menopausal, but the whole transition will usually last 7-10 years. Only 20 per cent of women will go through this stage with no symptoms; most will experience some difficulties, and 20 per cent will report significant life-impacting issues. Some will look to hormone replacement therapy and many will need to adjust their lifestyle and working practices to cope.
The challenges of menopause are made worse by stress and improved by physical exercise and eating healthily. Some women may therefore need to work fewer hours, and minimise travel and additional responsibilities. It might feel like a personal failure. The woman in question might justify a move to a less demanding role by maintaining it’s of ‘more interest’, with the concomitant loss of confidence hidden behind youthful non-greying hair. While the impact of this on individuals is often significant, so too will it be for businesses, which suffer the loss of experienced women from the level needed for diverse boards.
Important roles for women in their 60s
Our boards need wisdom and most of them need more women, so we could really do with seeing confident grey-haired women in important roles in their 60s. But we need new thinking to support women through their 50s so they are not totally lost from us when we need them the most. HR has a critical role in speaking for those women who are reluctant to share their experiences. Key actions that can be taken are:
- Reviewing talent management policies to ensure the needs of this group are taken into consideration properly
- Considering sabbaticals, part-time working and lateral moves for senior employees
- Creating hiring practices that seek out those who have taken career breaks
- Offering support and care through education, coaching and counselling
- Incorporating the prioritisation of wellbeing into company values and practices
- Introducing mature female mentors to encourage, inspire and nurture others
In the broader context of the history of employment, women are still unfortunately relative newcomers. It was not so long ago that only unmarried ‘spinsters’ were allowed to work – and certainly not in senior roles. We now, as individuals, expect to stay senior and productive leaders until our mid-60s, but we should take care not to ignore our true physical needs; battling against your biology will not serve you well.
We forget we are in the vanguard of female corporate leadership and, as such, we can tailor work in our 50s and 60s in a way that truly works for us. In some societies (and species), the post-menopausal females form a key role in their communities by being the wise ones who connect others and foster collaboration. Perhaps it would be useful to re-engage with this idea.
Elva Ainsworth is CEO at Talent Innovations