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How Career Clocks Differ for Men and Women at Midlife

2 minute read

By leadership coach and consultant, Dr Lucy Ryan

What if men and women have different career clocks? That is, a clock that ticks at a different pace for each gender chiming when they are ‘ready and raring to go’ in their careers, or putting the brakes on?

This is an unexpected finding from my five-year doctoral study into the life experience of professional middle-aged women. Talking to multiple women aged 50+, I was expecting to have conversations about retirement, stepping down or sideways, but instead 70% of the women in my study were ready to step up in their careers, offering proactive tales of energy, creativity, and ambition – often thwarted by the organisation and channelled into self-employment.


Our supposed business career span is still surprisingly influenced by half-century old motivation assumptions, dictating that ‘life after midlife’ is one of stagnation, retirement, golf courses and general decline, or just one of vocation and giving back. Of course, it might be all of this, but the basis of all of these midlife motivation theories stem from male scientists, basing their theories on the male foundation stones of a linear full-time career. That is, after a ‘full time, full on’ career, once men hit their mid 50s they start to develop an ‘exiting consciousness’. Whilst at the same time, many women are still striving to make their mark.


I’m so intrigued by this notion and the provocation for change. What if achievement doesn't decline at middle age? What if it could be a peak period for competence, mastery, career satisfaction and empowerment? What if women, having spent their lives in so-called ‘squiggly’ careers and commonly taking pauses in their career to care for others, come into their own after midlife? What if men and women at midlife just have different career clocks – the male one shifting into a cosy 8pm late evening at midlife, the female one ticking into 3pm with so much to do by teatime!

Gaynor, 63, is clear that having fought to get where she has in the academic world is not stopping now, “Why would I give it up now when I’m just probably through the glass ceiling? I’ve got there, I’ve got skin in the game, so I’m not going to give it up at the moment”.

Or Dionne, 61, who previously held two UK based full-time CEO roles. Unfortunately, her mother became ill with ‘locked-in syndrome’ and the five years she spent caring for her prevented her from travelling. As a consequence, she moved into non-executive roles to manage the situation. After her mother died, she is looking to return full time to the workplace, describing herself as: “More energised and engaged about the exploration of this world than ever before. I think the future is open. There is a whole journey waiting for me. The future is definitely not ‘not working’. I just want more of it really!”

Dr Lucy Ryan is a leadership coach, consultant, and passionate advocate for women’s professional development. She is the author of Revolting Women: Why midlife women are walking out and what to do about it.  

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