News, Culture & Society

Femail investigates the hidden sexism forcing high flyers out of their jobs

Last week, we launched our series on women in the workplace by examining how crippling childcare costs are forcing many to choose between dreams of motherhood and a career. Now, in the final part of our investigation, we reveal the insidious ways hidden sexism is killing the careers of women over 50.

Jeanette Forder had enjoyed a successful and lucrative career, spanning the City and the Civil Service. As she didn’t have children, she was unhindered by the work/childcare juggle and was adamant she simply didn’t encounter a workplace glass ceiling. 

That was until she reached her 50s. Then, she says, out of the blue her bosses began overlooking her for certain projects and ignoring her contributions in meetings. 

Jeanette, 57, from Chatham, Kent, says this negativity was compounded by menopausal anxiety and sleeplessness. 

Challenges: From left, Jeanette Forder, Angela Christie and Kim Moor. Femail has investigated women at work to discover what happens at 50

‘I started to feel that nobody was listening to me at work,’ she explains. ‘I would give a suggestion in a meeting, and it was like they weren’t paying attention. 

‘When there were projects that fell into my remit, my bosses would give them to somebody else, usually one of the young graduates. I felt they were bypassing me and thought I was past it.’ Jeanette, who was earning £64,000 a year at a senior level in Human Resources in the Civil Service, seemed to have come up against a brick wall. Like so many women of her age, instead of powering on with her career, she felt undermined and consigned to the office scrapheap. 

As a result, even though the next stage on the career ladder would have been a six-figure deputy director role, Jeanette says she didn’t feel able to apply. 

‘While a 50-year-old man may well be favoured for a role over a 20 or 30-something, I was acutely aware the same does not seem to apply to women in their 50s,’ says Jeanette. ‘So women like me end up feeling we just don’t fit into the workplace any more — no wonder many of us are desperate to get out.’ 

Her experience is borne out by that of former Superdry knitwear designer Rachel Sunderland, who last week won a £96,000 payout from the fashion label for unfair dismissal and age discrimination. 

There are real prejudices against women at this age 

Sunderland, 56, who had more than 30 years’ experience, was deemed a ‘low flight risk’ by bosses because of her age, a tribunal heard. It was felt that she’d stay ‘no matter how she was treated’, and she was repeatedly overlooked for promotion.

Even Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the 52-year-old poster girl for highflying career women everywhere, announced in May that she is stepping down as chief operating officer of parent company Meta. 

‘Look, it’s a hard job. I’m not going to claim any differently,’ said Sandberg in an interview with the Washington Post in June that sent shockwaves through the ranks of women in business. ‘But it really was about finding some space and time in my life to do more for women and do more with my foundation [which supports women in the workplace].’ 

The employment rate among women aged 50 to 64 has risen substantially since 2000, from 53 per cent to 68 per cent

The employment rate among women aged 50 to 64 has risen substantially since 2000, from 53 per cent to 68 per cent

Commentators have pointed out that this decision directly contraverts the doctrine of Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In, which sold more than four million copies and became a vital workplace guide for a generation of women. Its overriding message was that women who assert themselves in the workplace can become fearless, unstoppable ‘girl bosses’. 

But perhaps even Sandberg, a selfmade billionaire, is not immune to the problems of a generation of women who have given their all to their careers — only to find themselves blindsided by ageism at the height of their powers. She admitted in Femail last year that a Facebook colleague had called her ‘middleaged’ when she was just 35. 

I was the only woman in her 50s in the whole department

For those in less elevated roles, any chance of success can be skewered by the problems of managing ageing parents and growing children — at the same time as bosses may begin to view them differently. The employment rate among women aged 50 to 64 has risen substantially since 2000, from 53 per cent to 68 per cent. 

And yet this is when the gender pay gap is widest. In 2021, based on median full-time salaries, women in their 50s earned 19.9 per cent less than their male counterparts, while the gap was 19.7 per cent for women in their 60s, 17.3 per cent for those in their 40s, 10.6 per cent in their 30s, and 6.6 per cent in their 20s. 

Meanwhile, there are 157,000 women over-50 seeking work and claiming unemployment benefits — many of whom report, anecdotally, feeling that their age counts against them in job interviews — an increase of 31 per cent on three years ago. 

Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, a digital community with more than a million members in their 50s and above, says: ‘There are real prejudices at play. Age and gender work together, against women, at this stage of life. 

‘It’s particularly acute for those in middle management. The assumption is that they have reached the pinnacle of their careers by that age — not taking into account the fact many will have taken career breaks or worked part-time to raise children — so they will be overlooked for promotions, or when applying for jobs be told they’re “over-qualified”. 

In 2021, based on median full-time salaries, women in their 50s earned 19.9 per cent less than their male counterparts

In 2021, based on median full-time salaries, women in their 50s earned 19.9 per cent less than their male counterparts

‘One of our members, in her 50s, told us she’d applied for a semisenior role and the boss interviewing her said she reminded him of his mother, adding that he didn’t want to work with his mum.’ 

Most employers, of course, are not so overtly biased, given that The Equality Act 2010 outlaws direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of age. And society is, at last, waking up to the struggles that some women encounter with menopause. 

A committee of MPs is now calling for a ‘menopause leave’ pilot scheme to help support women in the workplace. 

A report from the Women and Equalities Committee said last week that symptoms — including difficulty sleeping, anxiety and memory problems — can have a ‘significant and sometimes debilitating impact’ on some women, and offering leave could stop them feeling forced out of their jobs. 

If only such schemes had been in place for Jeanette, who quit her job in December 2020 and has retrained as a wellness coach. 

Although happy in her new role, she feels angry there isn’t more support for her and other women, who have worked hard throughout their careers, once they hit midlife. 

‘Given that menopause is something half the workforce will experience, managers need training in supporting staff so that women feel able to ask for what they need, without feeling stigmatised. 

‘That might involve a later start, if they haven’t slept the night before, or to work from home on days when brain fog or anxiety is particularly heightened. 

‘The most important thing is that women at this stage of life are recognised for their life experience, wisdom, knowledge and huge talent — not viewed as has-beens who can be thrown to one side.’ 

When Angela Christie, 58, began working in the pharmaceuticals industry in her 20s, she quickly became conscious of a lack of female role models. But she was eager and bright, with a PhD in pharmacology from Oxford University, and for many years her sex didn’t seem to matter. 

In her 50s, however, everything changed. ‘I was physically exhausted because of the menopause and beginning to feel out of place,’ says Angela. 

‘I was the only woman in her 50s in the whole department — there were a couple in their 40s, including my boss — and the new recruits were all around 23. 

‘There were no older women above me to look up to, though there were lots of older men in higher-level positions.’ 

She came to feel that she had ‘reached her best-before date’ and, aged just 54, Angela resigned from her highly paid global clinical operations director role. 

I said to my colleague: “What I need is a stay-at-home wife” 

It’s an especially unjust ending given the sacrifices Angela, who lives near Bath, had made for her career. She returned to work full-time just six weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Georgia, now 27, and son Alex, 25, as the family relied on her wages. The babies were looked after by a childminder and, as Angela’s partner Paul, 53, who works in IT in the nuclear industry, often travelled for work, she would collect them and be in sole charge all night at home. 

‘My male colleagues would come into the office looking groomed and fresh-faced and I wouldn’t even have had time to brush my hair,’ says Angela. ‘I remember saying to one of them: “You know what I need? A stay-at-home wife, like the rest of you!” 

‘Much of the domestic load fell to me so I would be sitting in meetings thinking: “Oh, my God, I haven’t renewed the house insurance,” or: “The boiler hasn’t been serviced…” 

‘I reached my 50s and after so many years on this treadmill, felt too exhausted to push on any more. My children were grown-up, so I no longer had the same motivation as when I was working to help keep a roof over our head. 

‘By this stage, I wasn’t enjoying my job either so, in May 2018, aged 54, I handed in my notice.’ 

Like Jeanette, Angela has since retrained as a professional coach — and now helps women leaving the corporate world to find renewed purpose. 

She says: ‘I’m glad I’m no longer on that hamster wheel.’ 

Angela is one of a large number of women opting to sidestep the barriers erected in their path in the corporate world by working for themselves. Women comprised 35 per cent of all self-employed workers at the end of 2021, up from 27 per cent in 2007. 

This shift is often celebrated as offering women more freedom and control. Yet it also means exposure to financial risk and the loss of sick pay and other benefits at a time when they may be most needed. 

Even for female business owners, this time of life can bring dramatic upheaval that causes them to reassess their careers. 

A family tragedy was the catalyst for Kim Moore, 51, stepping back from her marketing business. In 2017 her ex-husband died suddenly from chronic alcoholism and cardiomyopathy, leaving Kim, from Colchester, Essex, reeling and struggling to juggle the demands of work with supporting their two children, then 15 and 11, through their grief. 

‘For the first time ever, one morning shortly after he died, I woke with such a crippling migraine I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d never been unable to work, or look after my kids, but it was as if my body was telling me: “Enough is enough.”’ 

Fortunately, Kim had income protection insurance so was able to take nine months away from her business, which employed two staff, and still cover her outgoings. While such tragedies are mercifully rare, there are currently 1.8 million lone parents, with an average age of 39, who have dependent children in the UK, 90 per cent of whom are women. 

Feeling burnt out by the juggle, Kim gave up the lease on her office and let her staff go at the start of the pandemic. After working as a freelance consultant since, she plans to wind the operation down entirely by the end of this year. 

Like Sheryl Sandberg with her foundation, Kim has been inspired by her experience to set up a community interest company called Blossome, to support those impacted by a loved one’s alcoholism or addiction. 

‘We women can be our own worst enemies — very good at helping other people but not very good at asking for help, convinced we need to prove we can cope alone,’ she says. ‘I think single mums, like me, are even more reluctant as we know that some in society still look down upon us and we don’t want to feel like a burden. It’s taken me 51 years to realise this.’ 

An ever-increasing number of women are reaching midlife at the peak of successful careers, with a wealth of talent and experience. Yet too many are made to feel the only way to go is down — or out of the workforce altogether.