Supporting Midlife Women, Examiner 5ht April 2024

Uncategorized Apr 05, 2024

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Women feeling the pressure in middle age can grow careers with support at work

Sandwiched between the needs of their children, ageing parents and employers, women in midlife face unique pressures. But if offered flexibility and support at work,  their careers can continue to grow 

Middle-aged women can feel pressure from all sides. Years of developing skills and experience may culminate in taking on more responsibility at work. They may have children to look after at home, and their ageing parents might require more care and attention.

That’s before perimenopause hits, with its hot flushes, disrupted sleep and other physiological, psychological and cognitive symptoms.

“I had no idea how challenging midlife would be,” says 56-year-old Siobhán Gaffney from County Louth. “I’m a single mother of a 21-year-old student and I’m still her on-call taxi. My mother has dementia and I try to visit her as often as I can. I’m a self-employed legal PA, researcher and bookkeeper, so I’m busy with that. I’m still grieving the sudden loss of a friend a few years ago. And to top it all off, I have type 1 diabetes and found that really difficult to manage as I went through perimenopause.”

Gaffney’s experience doesn’t surprise Dr Christine Cross, a professor of organisational behaviour with an interest in gender equality in the workplace.

She calls women in their 30s, 40s and 50s the 'sandwich generation'. “They are taking care of children while also having to meet the needs of parents and employers,” she says.

This wraparound pressure can affect women’s career progression. “We hear so many stories of the toll that the double burden of childcare and elder care has on working women,” says Cross. She cites the 2023 Women in the Workplace report, which said the number of women leaders quitting corporate America is at an all-time high. Furthermore, a 2021 study by the University of Pittsburgh found middle-aged women were more likely to experience poor mental and physical health.

“Depression and anxiety are more common in this cohort as are high levels of stress and exhaustion,” says Cross.

According to 'midlife coach' and author Alana Kirk, it doesn’t have to be this way. On April 11 and 12, she will appear at the National Menopause Summit in Dublin to address the challenges facing women in middle age and point out the opportunities available to them at this phase of their lives.

Her sandwich years were extreme. “My mother had a catastrophic stroke soon after the birth of my third child, and I ended up spoon-feeding them both and changing their nappies, too,” she says.

That experience led her to make a dramatic change in her career. “I’d had senior positions with UNICEF Ireland and Barnardos, but I couldn’t devote time to that anymore,” she says. “I pivoted to doing what I’m doing now: writing about women’s lives and helping them to grow in midlife.”

Menopause happens at the busiest time of most women's lives


Siobhán GaffneySiobhán Gaffney

Kirk has no illusions about how difficult life can be for middle-aged women today. “Menopause happens at the busiest time of most women’s lives,” she says. “They’re in the throes of childrearing when their body starts changing and suddenly, they’re not sleeping, feeling anxious and their confidence drops. Working women have the added complication of menopause happening in a workplace that wasn’t designed for or by them.”

However, she also sees positives. “We have possibilities other generations didn’t have,” she says. “When my mother was born in 1937, her life expectancy was 59. I can expect to live into my 80s. That’s an extra 20 to 30 years we didn’t have before.”

It’s up to women themselves to decide what they want out of those years. “In my work with women, I find that they often arrive at midlife feeling either over or underwhelmed,” says Kirk. Overwhelmed because they are constantly reacting to external demands and expectations or underwhelmed because they arrive at this point asking: Is this all there is? In both cases, I help them reconnect with themselves and redefine what they want in life.”


This can take work as many women lose sight of themselves by the time they reach middle age. “As a parent, a partner, a carer, and an employee, they have been so many things to so many people for so long that they have no idea who they are anymore,” says Kirk.

Midlife affects women at a deeply personal level but there's a political context to consider.  "For too long, women were sold the line that we could have it all and as a result, we exhausted ourselves doing it all,” says Kirk. “The way to rewrite that narrative is to figure out what we want and ask for the help we need to do it. This means proper childcare, partners who help at home, and a society-wide understanding that women’s needs change throughout their lives, and these should be considered. From periods and childbirth through menopause and beyond, we have to be able to discuss it all.”

We should also expect reasonable accommodations at work. “Middle-aged women are valuable employees with years of experience behind them,” says Kirk. “They should be able to ask for things like a fan for their desk in the office.”

 Flexible working hours


'Midlife coach' and author Alana Kirk'Midlife coach' and author Alana Kirk

Cross thinks that women would also benefit from being offered more flexibility. “The 2023 Deloitte Women @ Work report found that a lack of flexibility in working hours ranked among the top three reasons why women left their jobs,” she says. “This was particularly important for the sandwich generation.”

An overhaul of the model for progression in the workplace would also make a huge difference, according to Kirk. “The career ladder model was created when men went to work and were supported by a wife who stayed at home,” she says.


She believes a climbing wall model would better suit everyone, especially women. “Imagine a climbing wall and its footholds as an analogy for your career,” she says.

“There will be times when you’re holding on for dear life and other times when you might move to the right to retrain or go down a step or two in order to climb higher. Not all of us can progress in a linear way. Women are generally the carers in society, the ones who take time out to care for babies and other family members. A climbing wall model allows for this to be taken into account and not punished.”

Women can also help other women, says Kirk. “There are so many networking groups where women support each other professionally and otherwise. Some women have reached senior positions in their organisations and can shape policies and practices to support other women. Things like ensuring meetings only take place within office hours can make a huge difference to people’s lives.”

Gaffney’s midlife experience improved when she joined a network. “Connecting with @MenopauseMither, a peer support group of women worldwide who live with diabetes and are going through perimenopause and menopause, made all the difference,” she says. “So did starting HRT and getting proper support in managing my diabetes.”

Thanks to these supports, Gaffney can now see the potential in midlife. “I’ve realised I’m still the strong, outspoken, never-taking-no-for-an-answer person I always was,” she says. “But now I know that I can cope with whatever life throws at me.”

Once women have the supports they need at work and in life, Kirk believes they can reshape our understanding of middle age. “This generation can show the coming generations the way,” she says. “We can demonstrate how exciting midlife can be as we redefine who we are and what we want from our careers, relationships and lives.”

  • Midlife Redefined: Better, Bolder, Brighter by Alana Kirk, €16




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