Age Defying: Tips For Women Leaders Getting Older and Getting Better
My mother earned her MBA at 60 years old. She started taking classes at night at a local university when I was in college.
For most of my life, she had been piecing together volunteer work with the daily work of raising me and my five older brothers and sisters. Then when we were all in school or out of the house on our own, she pursued the post graduate degree she dreamed of, earning a 4.0 grade point average and marching in the procession wearing a cap and gown she purchased and I still have in my closet.
My mother was 25 to 30 years older than her classmates. She went to work full time for my father’s manufacturing firm in Chicago as chief financial officer, working until months before her death at age 80.
Thankfully more recently older women—once considered a bane to a corporate existence—are making a comeback in the workplace. Ageism has of course not been eliminated, but the advantages to the inclusion of women who are older, wiser and well-seasoned can be viewed as a plus.
Older women are also an unavoidable and growing portion of the workplace culture.
In her new book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, Margaret Morganroth Gullette writes that “overcoming ageism is the next imperative social movement of our time.”
“Recent data shows that the 55-to-64-year-old age group boasts the highest rate of entrepreneurship among Americans. Female founders are on an upward trend, too. Middle-aged women are at a time in their lives that’s ripe for innovation and entrepreneurship,” writes Sharon Bush, CEO of Teddy Shares, in Huffington Post.
“According to a Kellogg study, people are truly becoming more innovative at older ages. It takes time for all of our education and work experience to settle in our brain and trigger new ideas about better ways of doing things. In today’s world, where people are living longer, healthier lives, older entrepreneurs have the energy and the resources to act on those ideas,” Bush writes.
“By 2024, women over 65 are projected to make up the same portion of the female workforce as their male counterparts. This is particularly noteworthy when you consider that the participation rate of young women has stagnated. By 2024, the BLS predicts that there will be twice as many women over 55 in the labor force as women aged 16-24,” Preeti Varathan writes in Quartz.
Take The Lead Co-founder and President Gloria Feldt salutes her 75th birthday this year, culminating in Take The Lead Day November 14, a global day of activism with events in eight cities. Feldt has set the Take The Lead goal of gender parity in all forms of leadership across sectors by 2025. That is about the time that women and men over age 65 will be equally represented in the workforce.
What does it mean that more older women will be in the workplace? Divorced, widowed, or not partnered, older women may be finding that they need to work for the money, because there simply will not be enough for retirement.
“If they can work, and they don’t hate it, and they can get a job someplace, that’s what people want to do at this point,” Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, tells Alessandra Malito at MarketWatch.
“I talked to a lot of divorced women who said they would rather work part-time than find out at 85 that they can’t afford [their] medication,” Hounsell tells Malito.
Perhaps it is economic necessity purely, or it is a chance to be more visible. If they are like columnist Connie Schultz, who recently turned 60, they will be writing, sharing and being more publicly outspoken.
Sally Koslow in the New York Times, reminds that more older women in the workplace is not just about doing what seems fit, but also about avoiding poverty in old age, which more women are likely to see.
“When the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz studied such women, they discovered that many haven’t retired because they find work fun and, perhaps, because they’re making money. According to a report from the National Institute on Retirement Security, women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older,” Koslow writes.
But, yes, some women are staying in the game because they love the game.
Moving to the top after age 50 and later for a woman is still more an exception, than the rule, but we can learn from those who broke the rules. Here are some tips on how to cultivate the excellence of older women at work.
Beyond the Good Ol’ Girls Network. Multi-generational workforces, partnerships and teams offer better ideas with different dimensions. While baby boomers like the flexibility of working at home, and millennials prefer to work in the office, keeping them connected is key. “By offering workers secure and reliable access to key business applications, information, services, and tools to easily get in touch with co-workers at home, on-site or on the move, organizations can improve employee morale, performance, and ultimately retention and productivity,” according to Information Age.” This also includes creating the right work environment which balances multi-generational employee preferences and the needs of the business.”
Mentor up, down and across. As a leader with decades of experience, be open to the possibility of not just mentoring those younger than you, but entering into a reciprocal relationship where you can learn from someone who is in the early career stages. “The key to thriving as you grow older – or at any age – is finding networks of like-minded people who can mentor and support you, and vice versa,” Sue Black, founder of techmums, told The Guardian. “When I entered the industry in the 1990s I wasn’t meeting many other women in the workplace or at conferences, so I set up BCSWomen, the first online network for women in tech, so we could connect with each other. Now there are all kinds of different women’s networks out there, from programming to leadership.”
Share your legacy of success. We’re not talking about sharing stories of “the good ol’ days,” because frankly for women in leadership it’s better now than it has been. The truth is that even though fewer than 6 percent of the CEOS in the top Fortune 500 companies in the U.S., are women, it is an improvement over the complete lack of women—zero percent—in the CEO position in 1995, when many of these women were in their 30s. So they see an improvement over their careers in the possibility for advancement. Be transparent about your path and encourage others to share failures and triumphs in an honest way. According to Karen Quintos, chief customer officer at Dell, “The two main challenges facing women as they get older is a lack of role models and a lack of confidence. It’s definitely been challenging for me as a woman on mostly male boards,” she told The Guardian. Networking and creating a community of sharing information and experiences across age groups and experience levels can help.
Celebrate the future. Consider how you can innovate and problem solve in your organization and seek collaboration and input from all team members. Move forward with a mission, offering insights from your own experience and research and look to the goals you can set and achieve. According to The Ladders, “Helene Cruz, Director of Career Counseling at Pace University Career Services, said she is proud that her team is multi-generational.” Cruz tells Rachel Weingarten, “We have established a culture that cultivates learning from one another across seven generations.We appreciate our millennial colleagues and rely on the fact that they are technically-savvy and creative, ready to bring new ideas to the table and not afraid to embark on new initiatives.”
Keep learning. Sign up for workshops, classes, trainings, get a secondary degree at night. “Our research has found that older workers value learning, mentoring and career progression just as much as other ages, but all too often miss out on opportunities to pursue them,” Patrick Thomson, senior program manager at the Center for Aging Better told HR magazine. “The Embracing Experience report found that 74 percent of older workers feel that employers are not doing enough to recruit them. A third (32 percent) of the 1,002 older workers polled said they felt sidelined, and 17 percent said they had been passed over for promotion because of their age. Despite almost all (94 percent) of businesses surveyed stating they believe older workers could be the key to bridging the skills gap, only one in five (23 percent) reported that they are currently looking to the over-50s to grow their business,” writes Beckett Frith. For workers of every age, Take The Lead offers a full range of ready-to-use leadership training solutions, proven to make the breakthrough difference in any career trajectory and create results, whether you’re an HR officer looking to develop more leaders in your organization, or looking for diversion and inclusion programs for your team, or an individual taking charge of your own personal growth. Learn more about Take The Lead training programs here.
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About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com