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Plug into the real power: Women over 40 in the workplace.

Lorna McDowell, Organisation Culture Analyst with Xenergie Consulting says women over 40 should be listened to when looking to lead change.

As I trawled the aisles of my local Lidl the other day, I noticed a number of men doing the weekly family shop, including a good friend of mine, who has recently become the main carer for the children in his family, while his wife has resumed her career in law to support their household.

For twelve years, his wife had stayed at home to care for their disabled daughter, while he commuted to work in the city. The recession brought changes and now they have swapped roles. I notice this has become quite prevalent and, as people navigate their forties, they often find themselves looking for more meaning and fulfilment in what they do. It probably saves many marriages.

The women I’ve studied, often having left good careers to bring up children, found themselves in the typical mother’s ‘career back seat’, doing the ‘unrewarded work’ of family management. Back seat by common assumption, but front seat in terms of ingenuity and resourcefulness, leading and managing the day-to-day stresses of family relations.

Many women, keen to have another source of stimulation and self-worth, aside from being a full-time parent, start home-based businesses that go on to flourish, developing concrete entrepreneurial skills, problem solving techniques and great levels of efficiencies.

These businesses start with the first obstacle – how to find the time to run a business AND take care of the children? Unafraid to fail, they often find the answers by trial and error. Others take the opportunity of the ‘career break’ for a period of self-analysis and train in new skills, usually at their own expense, learning what it means to invest in oneself and trying to find even small ways to reap a return on the investment.

All things considered, this represents anything but a ‘break’, more a life renegotiation or re-engineering. As the children go through school, the home-based parent often decides to explore their worth and potential again, frequently after a number of years feeling devalued and bound by family routines. Dreams of what could have been proliferate.

Husbands, having been stuck in the same career since leaving college, are, by comparison, tired, complacent and facing the black hole of mid-life crisis. Recently, many have become redundant, particularly if not shaping up to the ‘emotionally intelligent’ leadership competencies expected of senior managers. However, if they learn from the women who took the career back seat, this is a time of opportunity, for reinvention for both of them, to swap roles and learn from each other.

What is value of all these women returning to work? I would argue that it is possibly one of the greatest resources to drive us out of recession and into growth, but also the most neglected and least recognised. Returning women are not only in their prime, in possession of a renewed determination, but they also have accumulated great wisdom. Life’s lessons have honed in them a set of golden leadership competencies, which include:

– identifying, leading and driving change

– running a complex communications centre

– thinking laterally and solving problems with limited resources

– teaching and mentoring others

– getting things done and working to unrelenting deadlines

– staying calm and focused in tough conditions

– releasing pride and ego to find the courage to start again, embracing the vulnerability of possibility, even if it means failing

These represent mindful, emotionally intelligent execution at its best. To look for the leaders of change, look to the women. They see it coming before anyone; ask any man who has been told by his wife their marriage is over. How can we reap the value of this natural untapped resource?

Research suggests that the more senior a female manager becomes, the more likely she is to think that there are barriers, such as the organizational structuring of career paths and workplace cultures dominated by male values, that prevent women’s progress. Real or imagined, these barriers are a major obstacle to getting returning women back into the workplace, particularly in senior positions.

What can be done?

Firstly, companies must examine their own unconscious bias, which goes way beyond logging statistics. It goes much deeper. Secondly, these savvy women must take ownership of their value and demonstrate to themselves and others how this value contributes to the world.

In short, it is time to surface and examine our assumptions about the habits, communications networks and comfort zones of women, their leadership and working roles and to name and value the importance of some of the competencies that they bring, as being hardcore necessities for surviving these turbulent times.

Many companies provide coaching to their female managers – I argue it is not just the women who need it, often male managers may need help reflecting on their assumptions and indeed, that perhaps it is time they took a back seat and the opportunity to learn from other life experiences.

Returning women, who are ready to go back to work, should be offered a coach and mentor, appropriate for their skill sets and motivations. One size does not fit all and most government back-to-work schemes sorely miss the point. This in itself is a study.

How many companies, for example, stay in touch with women who leave their companies for a significant time period (beyond maternity leave) to bring up their families? How many have offered them a programme which might help prepare them to return?

Instead of dismissing these women in favour of ‘young-blood’, with whom you may have to reinvent the wheel, think again about the wisdom of the returning forty-year-old, as your company transitions culturally to a wise, new socially-driven world.

What can your company do differently?

To hear more about mentoring and coaching for women to be leaders of change in organisation transition, sign up for our FREE webinar ‘Women’s LEAN Leadership: Leveraging the Wisdom of “Women Returners” in Business Excellence’, by visiting www.xenergie.co.uk. Or call Lorna McDowell for information about Xenergie Women’s Leadership Coaching on 0753 1163515.

Lorna McDowell is an organization analyst, culture transformation and leadership team coach with Xenergie Consulting. You can email questions to lorna.mcdowell@xenergie.com

Image: size-isnt-everything.co.uk

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