Why are so many senior females retiring early?

 June 21, 2022

Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, is one of an increasing number of women at the top of their game choosing to quit work.

Senior female executives aren’t just choosing to leave their employer, they’re choosing to leave the workforce altogether. Sheryl Sandberg, who previously urged working mothers to ‘lean in’ and forge careers, is the latest to leave a top role.

Here in the UK, the trend isn’t so much driving a ‘great resignation’ as a ‘great early retirement’. Figures from the ONS show record numbers of women, aged over 50, are retiring earlier than expected. It is reported that challenges such as post-Covid burnout and the pressure of caring for teenagers and older parents, while potentially also going through the menopause, are key factors.

So how should employers respond, if they don’t want to lose valued talent and leadership skills, developed over decades? Our blog this month looks at five things you can do to retain senior females, ranging from reviewing diversity and inclusion policies to creating support groups and offering practical support.

Five ways to stop senior females retiring early

1. Acknowledge the pressure

It’s easy to assume that once parents no longer have young children keeping them awake or the school run to contend with, their lives become easier. The reality is rather the reverse. Parenting teenagers, many of whom are themselves increasingly struggling with mental health issues, can be challenging and exhausting. Women in their 50s are also much more likely to be caring for elderly parents, who need help with everything from preparing meals to attending hospital appointments and emergency care.

Add to that the loss of confidence, increased anxiety and memory loss that can affect some women going through the menopause, and it’s no surprise that so many women over 50 feel they have no choice other than to quit work to alleviate the pressure. One in ten women are quitting work due to the menopause alone, when what they really need during these challenging times is for their employer to acknowledge and help them manage this pressure.

2. Offer practical support

One of the reasons that women in their 50s are under so much pressure is because of their tendency to take on too much responsibility, both at home and at work. Once they start to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, they enter the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. This can inhibit their ability to solve problems and think creatively, making them feel like they have no choice but to take ‘flight’ and give up work, even if they could come to regret this in future.

Instead, support, such as work and family balance coaching, can help them to take a step back and gain a helicopter view of their situation, creating a safe space for them to identify the issue that’s most getting them down, before working through options for tacking that problem. Solutions might include getting a sibling to play a more proactive role in elder care, asking their partner to do more at home, making more time for their own wellbeing, or talking to their manager about working four, instead of five, days a week for a period of time.

3. Create support groups

Another reason many older women want to give up work is due to the ongoing stigma associated with talking about the menopause. Women often feel like they have to struggle in silence and isolation, when getting together can allow them to provide valuable support to each other, helping them to see that they’re not alone and creating an opportunity to share coping strategies.

Offering webinars or regular ‘coffee and chat’ meetings on topics such as going through the menopause, parenting teenagers and supporting elderly parents, can make it easier for employees to initially come together. They can gain insights from each other’s experiences and from an experienced facilitator, who has also been through a similar life experience, before going onto create their own support groups to carry on the conversation.

4. Update diversity and inclusion policies

If your efforts to attract and retain women only look at supporting new parents, it’s time to update your policies to look at also retaining older women. Review everything from your eldercare and menopause support policies to extending flexible working and family balance initiatives to the parents of teenagers.

A key part of creating an inclusive workforce, and reducing stigma, is promoting these policies and practical support to everyone. That way, not only will those in need of support now know where to turn, younger women will also be reassured that they too will be supported in the future, encouraging greater loyalty to the organisation.

5. Educate managers

Leading by example is critical to success. Women don’t just want to be told they’ll be supported – they want to see others being supported in practice. So if managers say it’s okay to leave work on time, but everyone else is working late or at the weekend, the message received will still be ‘this is what it takes to get on here.’

Instead, educate managers about what it means to be a fully inclusive employer and the risks to the business of losing experienced older female employees. Encourage them to create working practices that allow everyone to thrive. Not least by judging people on results generated and problems solved, instead of just hours worked.

This week’s blog is written by co-founder of Parent & Professional, Helen Letchfield.

Free Consultation

We are currently offering senior HR professionals a free 30-minute consultation to review their approach to supporting and retaining women aged 50 and over. If you would like to take part, please contact us to set up a time that works for you.

How Parent & Professional can help

Work-family coaching: Four one-hour coaching sessions for women who are struggling with demands outside of work to take stock of their situation and identify ways to lighten the load, instead of feeling like they have to give up work.

Menopause webinars: One-hour webinars to bring together women approaching, or going through menopause, to discuss its impact, as well as coping strategies for managing physical, practical and emotional symptoms.

Toolkits: Online resources to help employees at every stage of their journey, on topics ranging from personal wellbeing to coping with teenagers, with access to expert resources and online coaching.

Manager training: Workshops and coaching to help managers understand the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce. Including how to talk to employees about flexible working options, managing parental leave and supporting menopause.

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