PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION
A WEIRD LIBERATION: WHY WOMEN ARE EXPOSING THE WILD TRUTH ABOUT MIDLIFE AND MENOPAUSE AND BEARING THE BRUNT OF AGEISM AT WORK
The edgy, angry, upbeat reality of life as a woman in your 40s and 50s has long been hidden. Now a new wave of writers is telling all.
Sitting at the bar, martini in hand, Kristin Scott Thomas rolls her eyes briefly heavenwards.
And then she declares, in one of the most memorable monologues of the cult BBC drama Fleabag, that menopause is the “most wonderful thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get hot and no one cares. But then – you’re free! No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person, in business.”
That scene, viewed over half a million times on YouTube, sticks in the mind because it represented something rare in popular culture; an older female character who actively made younger women want to be her.
This autumn brings a spate of books and podcasts exploring middle-aged women’s experiences with the same raw honesty previously applied by female writers to climbing the career ladder, childbirth and chronic anxiety.
Caitlin Moran’s instant bestseller More Than a Woman, sequel to her 2011 hit How to Be a Woman, includes a heart-rending account of parenting a daughter with a serious eating disorder (from which she has now thankfully recovered). Yet its upbeat central theme is older women’s resilience in coping with whatever life throws at them.
The BBC presenter Gabby Logan recently launched The Mid-Point, a podcast interviewing men and women who have made midlife career changes or simply become more comfortable in their own skin.
Meanwhile, a menopause memoir by Meg Mathews, the former music PR and fixture on the Britpop scene hits the bookshelves and we also learn that Michelle Obama recently described on her podcast the day she had a hot flush en-route to a presidential engagement, and worried she wouldn’t be able to go through with it.
Moran says of her decision to write about midlife, “The last ten years of feminism has been brilliant, and I was a part of it, but now I guess it’s the next phase of life.
“I really wanted to describe capability and strength. It’s great to talk about female vulnerability and mistakes, but you don’t really see capable women getting on with it. We don’t sell the idea of being an older woman to younger women. We don’t show that you are still the same brilliant, clever, funny person – and now you’ve also got systems, you can cope.”
Older women’s lives are too often written off as boring, she argues, when really they are rich with drama; these are the prime years of divorce and bereavement, of teenagers going off the rails and sorrows that can’t be easily drowned. And often all this hits just as the menopause is turning emotions upside down.
Even Moran, who at 45 is peri-menopausal rather than fully at the eye of the storm, says she can feel something changing as the softening effects of oestrogen recede. “It’s like coming down off an E. All that kind of loving forgiveness … once it’s gone, you suddenly feel as rageful and unwilling to help people as men have all their lives. There does tend to be a sobering bit when you think: Hang on - all the time I was making a lovely cosy house, my male colleagues were putting money into ISAs.”
Sam Baker, the former Red magazine editor whose new book The Shift describes her own experiences said, “Midlife is often painted as a time of tragic invisibility for women, mourning the way men’s heads no longer turn. Yet a panel of 50 women interviewed concluded that sailing under the radar of the male gaze seems to be a problem for precisely - no one”.
“What bothers older women more, she argues, is becoming professionally invisible!
“When people talk about not being whistled at by builders any more – that’s not the point, the point is suddenly men with the exact same CV are being made CEOs and you’re just … disappearing,” Baker continued, “I absolutely understand why anybody would have Botox and dye their hair because it’s a way of dealing with it. That’s the patriarchal system you’re living in, where women’s value, in particular, is physical.
Why do women appear to bear the brunt of ageism at work?
Older men, Baker argues, are seen as having valuable professional experience, but some of the older women she interviewed complained of being told they had become “too expensive” to hire and as soon as women show any visible signs of ageing, they are viewed as not only less attractive, but less competent - as women get older, they face the double whammy of sexism and ageism.
Sarah Williams is Associate Director of the University of Wolverhampton Business School, she told Prosper, “From a business perspective, decades of experience result in increased confidence and knowledge, which not only improves business decision-making but also ensures stability for the business.
“Women in their 40s and 50s are flexible and reliable; we have spent years juggling home, work and family when our children were young, and have learned vital prioritisation and project management skills which, now that our children are older and more independent, benefit our employers.
“I would say that as a professional woman, particularly one who has worked for the same company for many years, embracing middle-age (and I am 48 now) has been invigorating.
“On a personal note, I feel more comfortable in my skin now, less reliant on the validation of others, and less inclined to say ‘yes’ to everything at the expense of high-quality work and my personal life. And I’m not slowing down either!
“In the last year, I have completed a PG Certificate in Leadership, been promoted at work, completed a professional CPD course, and been elected to the regional committee of my professional body against the backdrop of homeschooling and COVID-19, defying the myth that middle-aged women lack energy and enthusiasm.
“Middle-aged women are an asset to the workforce: committed, organised, knowledgeable,
confident and pragmatic; every team should have a middle-aged woman at its core!”
HR expert and leading diversity champion, Teresa Boughey told Prosper, “As a teenage mom I endured challenges and stereotypical hurdles which I had to overcome. My youth clock spun around so quickly that I barely had time to experience and appreciate it.
"My 20’s and 30’s were spent climbing the corporate ladder. Long hours, late nights, lots of travelling until I stepped over the corporate treadmill in my mid 30’s to have my second child and set up my own consultancy. Comments I often received when working with clients were. ‘you’re so young’, yet, age was irrelevant, it was my skills and capability that they were benefiting from.”
Teresa continued, “But now the next phase of my life is moving sharply into focus. I’ve tipped the scales (and I don’t just mean post lockdown) and I’m moving closer towards 50 than 40.
"I’m still often the only women in the boardroom, and whilst at times it can feel daunting, the phase of my life that I’m actually at means I feel quite liberated. I have a seat at the table, I have a voice which is valued. I bring different views and perspectives and I enable a different dialogue to take place.
“I’m proud of the time I’ve spent so far – I’m hugely excited about the Non-Executive Director time-zone I’m now in. The view of the boardroom is changing and I’m proud to be the change. Women already make the majority of the world’s purchasing decisions, so companies should take a look at the talent that is out there.”
Baker meanwhile, who resigned as editor of the women’s glossy mag Red six years ago to launch the now-defunct website The Pool, writes of pitching to one tech investor who announced that he liked the product but said, “I’m worried you ladies will get tired, you’re not so young anymore.”
At the time, Baker was 48 and her co-founder, Lauren Laverne, in her late 30s. No wonder, she argues, many older women are boiling with rage. “If you look at all the things we have put up with or enabled, however, you want to put it – doing more and being paid less; taking the lion’s share of the emotional and domestic labour, taking more responsibility for children – a lot of the women I spoke to said they got to around 50 and just thought: ‘!!!! this.”
Yet the post-menopausal prize, she writes, is emerging with a new fearlessness and a “righteous fury” at injustices she had previously let slide.
Such qualities have long made older women threatening figures in a patriarchal culture, which consequently tends to dismiss them as harridans, crones and battleaxes. But Baker is all for reclaiming those words. “I honestly don’t care if someone thinks I’m an old bag now, and I would have five years ago.” The millennial generation, now nearing 40, will, she thinks, be even less willing to go quietly.
Gabby Logan still remembers the conversation she had with a former boss at Sky TV when she was just starting out. “I was 24, and I said I really wanted to do live football, and he said: ‘But you won’t be on my screen after the age of 28,’” recalls Logan, now 47. “People always said to me: ‘Why are you in such a hurry?’ Well, that’s why. At 40, I couldn’t believe I was still on air.”
Times, she says, are changing even in the notoriously ageist world of TV. For her podcast she recently interviewed Claudia Winkleman, currently fronting Strictly Come Dancing aged 48; meanwhile, Joanna Lumley is presenting documentaries in her 70s. “Now I think, why wouldn’t I be working for another 10 years in telly if I want to?”
Yet old anxieties run deep. Logan bills herself on the podcast as “middle-aged and unashamed”, a giveaway phrase if ageing really is shedding its stigma. “If you think about it, ‘that’s so middle-aged’ – it’s never said in a complimentary way. Whatever context it’s in, it’s always negative,” she concedes. “But I think midlife is a period where you grow and change.”
A woman approaching 50, she points out, still has about two decades of working life left. “We’re not going to be retiring like previous generations, so we need to be doing things we want to do.”
“It’s telling perhaps that none of these women would choose to be 35 again if they could, valuing more the lessons learned in midlife.
“The big one with my daughter is that I’m not scared of sadness anymore,” says Moran. “I was so scared of being sad, and other people being sad, and now I can just sit with someone and say: ‘You’re sad, you’re angry, let’s talk about this.
“And I’ve finally worked out a great storage system for my Tupperware. I will not have all lids and no boxes anymore - life goals, as they say.”