Inspiring inclusion in the workplace: Narratives of constraint and flexibility among middle and older-age employed women

Posted on: 4 March 2024 by Dr Lucy Ryan and Professor Caroline Gatrell in Research

Inspiring inclusion in the workplace: Narratives of constraint and flexibility among middle and older-age employed women

Management School alumni, Dr Lucy Ryan, and Professor Caroline Gatrell’s research looks into how are middle- and older-age women employees perceived and treated at work.

In this blog, former Management School PhD student, Dr Lucy Ryan, and Professor Caroline Gatrell explore this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, ‘Inspiring Inclusion’.

‘Inspiring Inclusion’ is a motivational theme that should surely encompass every woman – yet there is one sector that seems often excluded from discussions around diversity: the middle-aged and older woman employee.

Lucy and Caroline, who have just published the paper ‘How are middle- and older-age women employees perceived and treated at work? A review and analysis’, explain here why this matters.

Middle- and older-age women leaving the workplace

Take a moment to consider this: At an age when women at all levels are experienced and skilled in their jobs – reaching the top of their game and perhaps at the point of taking on leadership roles where they can make a difference at work – they are being sidelined. Some step down – others quit.

According to McKinsey’s 2023 Women in the Workplace report, when it comes to female talent at the highest levels there exists an exodus of senior-level women from organisations.

McKinsey suggests that for every female director promoted, two might leave the world of paid employment.

This is extraordinary. Here are women who have spent a lifetime facing hurdles that so many working women will recognise.

These include: overcoming societal expectations that women should be primarily home-oriented and grateful to have a job at all; challenging the myth that ‘nice girls’ should not seek increased pay and promotion; in some cases having children and finding that ‘having it all’ is a myth (doing it all feels more familiar); looking after ageing parents; finding their voice and fighting to be heard… and, at a range of levels, perhaps finally starting to see the career futures they wanted.

Yet as women workers reach middle and older-age it seems that many give up the fight and exit the workplace.

It might be imagined that the loss of experienced and committed women employees would be greeted by organisational concerns, with employers rushing to retain these valuable workers; yet that is often not what happens.

Instead, the departure of loyal and experienced middle and older-age women from the workplace – at all job-levels – is greeted with silence.

Silence from employers, who may turn a convenient blind eye to the drift of middle and older-aged women leaving their business; and silence from women’s workplace communities (see for example academia where, in the UK at least, only 30% of professors are women, suggesting that universities are losing the valuable insights of this experienced group of women scholars).

And perhaps most tellingly: silence from women themselves as they may – perhaps exhausted by the pressure of combining paid work with the challenges of midlife and older age – quietly exit their organisations.

Experiences of ‘constraint’ and ‘flexibility’

In so doing, we have found that two narratives dominate women’s experience: namely the notions of ‘constraint’ and ‘flexibility’.

As part of our on-going research, we seek to understand what happens to middle and older-age women at work.

Why might women give up and leave?  And what happens to those who remain at work through middle and older-age, battling it out to keep the place they have earned in their field of work: why do these women stay?

We have begun to investigate this arena of concern through a scholarly review of the rich array of studies on middle and older-age women, seeking to answer the question: How are middle- and older-age women employees perceived and treated at work?

In so doing, we have found that two narratives dominate women’s experience: namely the notions of ‘constraint’ and ‘flexibility’.

The theme of ‘constraint’ shows how – across the board – including employers; biomedical approaches to (and social assumptions about) women’s health in middle and older-age – focus on women’s ageing bodies and minds.

While older men might be envisioned as wise and experienced, women of a similar age are characterised as apparently in decline.

For example, the symptoms of menopause are presumed by employers, often unfairly, to cloud women’s cognitive skills.

These (often unsubstantiated) judgements are conflated with suppositions that middle and older-age women are suffering universally with raging hormones; empty nest syndrome and declining health.

Some organisations offer support for women who are experiencing the challenging symptoms of menopause, but accessing such initiatives – even if such are available – is stigmatised to the point where women often decline these options, or remain silent – even when feeling unwell and uncomfortable.

Rarely do employers (or academic studies) explore what occurs when menopause ends (and most women will be still only in their 50s) and few employers consider how to support women in developing their jobs and careers through older-age.

In our exploration of the literatures on middle and older-age women and work, we observe how these stories have been echoed through history, retold in the media and repeated at every possible turn.

The alternate narrative that dominates storylines about the ageing of women employees centres on the notion of ‘flexibility’.

This characterises middle-aged women as supposedly enjoying a life of freedom, unencumbered by family responsibilities and able to continue at work (or to retire) at any time.

This theme of flexibility obfuscates the challenges facing older and middle-age women: little mention is made of later motherhood (with inaccurate assumptions made about ‘empty nests’); elder care responsibilities (that are most frequently managed by women) and women’s reduced, and often, inadequate pensions in a situation where the UK government has recently and substantially raised the age for women’s state pensions.

The effect of social and organisational assumptions that women’s cognitive and physical capacities are in decline is shown to negatively impact not only women’s job opportunities but also their self-confidence.

Research shows how middle and older-age women feel oppressed by social and organisational presumptions that they are no longer young enough, clever enough, or thin enough to be valued at work: women’s self-esteem is lowered in response to harmful narratives about their competence.

The ‘invisibility’ experienced by middle and older-age women becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with women feeling undervalued, and some leaving the workplace earlier than they might have chosen.

Embracing the ageing process

Of course, there is a third narrative here to be further explored and that is where our research is taking us next.

Our most recent research shows how, while some women indeed are oppressed by discriminatory organisational behaviours, some are seeking opportunities for change and looking to develop their paid work in ways that work for them. 

In these contexts, we are uncovering the possibility of a storyline that demonstrates how some middle and older-age women seek to embrace the ageing process, distancing themselves from social expectations to look and act younger.

In this year of ‘Inspiring Inclusion’ we suggest it is time to build on this narrative and explore further the experiences of middle and older-age women, requiring that organisations acknowledge and value their inspiring contribution – at home and at work.

It is time to open-up new conversations, to hear different voices offering more positive, inclusive and inspiring views about middle and older-age women workers, thereby shifting myths and challenging outdated assumptions.


Lucy Ryan

Dr Lucy Ryan

Leadership Coach and Managing Director at Mindspring

Professor Caroline Gatrell

Professor Caroline Gatrell

Professor of Organisation Studies, University of Liverpool Management School