The value of older women to the workforce

Many returners believe
that being older makes them less appealing to 
employers.  Geraldine Bedell, former editor of Gransnet,
co-founder of The Family Innovation zone and author of Mothers of Innovation outlines
government data and other research which firmly rebuts this view and provides
encouragement and insight for returners.

Lives are getting longer: we all know that. What is less
often acknowledged is that the extra years haven’t all been tacked on at the end.
They’ve gone into the middle. Many of us are contemplating lives that look
vastly different from those of our mothers, let alone our grandmothers;
anticipating a phase of life after child rearing that is healthy, mentally
competent, energetic and prolonged.
Women returners understand this from the inside: we know we
have skills, energy, judgement and competence that make us useful to the world
of employment. It’s fair to say, though, that employers have taken a long time
to realise this. Even as changing demographics open up possibilities for different
life stages, we still assume that key career progress has to be made at the
very time we are most preoccupied with small children.
Things are changing. Clever businesses have long understood
that diversity is the key to successful teams. It may have taken them a while
to realise that diversity includes age but they are doing so now, and for good business
reasons: it has been estimated that there will be 13.5m job vacancies in the UK
in the next 10 years but only 7m young people will be leaving school and
Beyond the need to fill desks, many of the myths about older
workers are now known to be unfounded. A recent guide from the Department of
Work and Pensions* insists that older workers:

  • are just as productive as younger workers
  • are just as successful in training and learning
    new skills
  • take less short-term time off sick
  • offset any loss of speed – with technology, for
    example – with better judgement
  • are just as likely to commit to an employer
It’s understandable that women who have been on a career
break assume that technology and ways of doing things have moved on. That may
be true – but management of technology and of colleagues is a skill, and the
point about skills is that they can be learnt, often remarkably quickly. There
is no reason to suppose a woman returner is going to be much slower picking up ways
of doing things than someone transferring from another company.
What older women do bring – as enlightened employers are
increasingly acknowledging – is a lifetime of skills, experience and wisdom.
Increasingly, brain research is showing that what we have traditionally called
wisdom is a demonstrable function of the older brain. As Barbara Strauch observes
in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, we have ‘an increased
capacity, as we age, to recognise patterns and anticipate situations, to
predict a likely future, and to act appropriately.’
The DWP* also reports that organisations with an
intergenerational workforce find that there are benefits for both older and
younger staff, including opportunities for mentoring and an exchange of skills.
The recent appointment of Ros Altmann as the government’s champion for older
workers should help; and the demographics are in our favour. But the most
important thing is that older women returners bring masses of experience,
skill, discernment and sophistication. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘A mature person
is one who doesn’t

think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even
when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and
bad in all people and all things.’ Lots of reasons to be confident, then,
because that’s a pretty valuable set of attributes.

Guest blog by Geraldine Bedell co-founder of The Family Innovation Zone

The Confidence Gap – and how too address it

The book The Confidence Code, by two US journalists, highlights a phenomenon that many of us know from our own experience – in general, women tend to be less confident than men.  Although the book is written from the perspective of working women, it has useful insights and ideas for women returning to work after a break, when our confidence is often at a low point.

Research data

The authors have gathered together and reviewed the research into this topic. Highlights include:

  • A 2003 study by two university psychologists which showed that women consistently under-rated their performance in a variety of maths and science tests while men over-rated theirs.  In reality, the performance of both sexes was on a par
  • A 7 year experiment by a Manchester Business School professor on her students which found that men expected to earn much more than their female colleagues – and believed they deserved to earn more than the women believed
  • A Hewlett Packard study which found that women don’t go for promotion unless they feel they have close to 100% of the required qualifications while men go for it with only 60% of what’s required

There are many explanations for the disparity in confidence levels – the confidence ‘gap’.  As you would expect, they include genetic makeup (brain differences as well as hormones), upbringing (for example, what is termed ‘bossiness’ in a young girl will be described as ‘leadership’ in a young boy) and cultural factors in societies and organisations.

So women are, once again, at fault for their lack of progress?

Commentators including Amanda Duberman at the Huffington Post have objected that the idea of the confidence gap is – once again – putting the blame on women for their apparent lack of progress in the workplace.  The objectors suggest that inequality is caused by workplace sexism, not women themselves.  This is a similar argument to that levelled at Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In project.  In my view, based squarely on my experience as a coach and former corporate professional, the reason women are held back in the workplace is a complex mixture of both workplace culture and certain female characteristics.  What The Confidence Code and Lean In offer to women is an opportunity to reflect on our own contribution, to identify where and when we are being our own worst enemy and to identify actions we can take to close the confidence gap. Returning from a break, it gives a push to apply for the job we want even if we’re not 100% qualified and to negotiate for a higher salary rather than feeling grateful and accepting the first offer!

Practical ways to build your confidence

Fortunately, discoveries in neuroscience and psychology show that it is possible to amend our thought patterns to build confidence and self-belief: with time and practice we can tune down self-critical and doubting thoughts and reinforce more supportive ones. See our previous posts on:

The common thread through all these posts is an emphasis on action.  In the book, Richard Perry, a psychology professor at Ohio State University describes confidence as ‘the stuff that turns thoughts into action’. By taking action we give ourselves the opportunity to discover what we are capable of which builds our confidence and this in turn encourages further action. A virtuous circle is created and confidence accumulates as the brain replaces old thinking with new.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners

Re-establishing your confidence

Loss of confidence is a key
factor inhibiting women from returning to work after a career break. Often, we express this loss of confidence in different ways such as ‘I’m too old’ or ‘My work can’t be done flexibly’ or ‘There aren’t any jobs in my field ‘: this blog will be addressing these specific potential barriers in other posts.
It is natural for confidence to disappear after a break from an activity which formed a large part of our identity previously and also provided status, goals, income and positive feedback from colleagues, customers and suppliers.  Without anything to replace these key aspects of a working life it is hard work to maintain confidence levels.  Moreover, in the absence of regular positive messages from those around us, it is easy to create a negative picture of ourselves and be overly self-critical.  This harsh internal voice has the most damaging effect on our confidence.  Despite all this, it is possible to regain our confidence: there is a list of suggestions later.
My Harvard Business School classmate, Claire Perry MP, a former investment banker and McKinsey consultant, expressed the experience of many in a Sunday Times interview (The Sunday Times, March 25 2012)
‘I was basically unemployed for seven years [at home with my children] and going back, even voluntarily, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Once you’re out of the workplace you lose your confidence’
Claire’s return to work began with offering to do work experience as a volunteer for a few months, on a Government economic committee.  And this route is a model that works well for many women.  Working as a volunteer whether for a charity, a school board or a community group gives us an opportunity to be reminded of our skills and value without the time commitment and pressures of employment.  We remember the things we used to do before and realise that all we need is some practice.
Other activities which also help us to regain confidence include:

  • Finding activities that express us as an individual, rather than as a carer or partner
  • Enhancing our knowledge and skills.  It is possible to find out about interesting and useful courses through the internet, a local library and adult education colleges.  Talking to previous work colleagues can be reassuring: they can suggest relevant literature to read
  • Becoming more familiar with new technology.  Computer shops, community centres and colleges all run courses or a young, tech-savvy neighbour might offer tutorials for a small fee
  • Asking for feedback, on our strengths and things we are good at, from the people who care about us.  It is easy for them to assume that we don’t need feedback because we appear to be managing everything very well
  • Acting confident.  Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings can follow from our actions, so by acting confident we start to feel it
  •  Spending time with people who support us and help us to feel good about ourselves
  • Ignoring that critical voice.  This can be easier to say than to do, but it is important to recognise how unkind this voice can be.  Would we allow a friend talk to us this way?  If they did, would they remain a friend?  Learn to be kinder.

However we go about rebuilding our confidence it is essential to remember that it can be a slow process, but every small step that we take will accumulate over time until we are ready – and eager – to return to work.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners.