As a Working Mother, could Your 50’s Be Your Career Prime?

Maternity bump at work Many working women want to take off time in their thirties to being families,- but it is traditionally thought of as the time for career development meaning a break could make it hard to catch up with male colleagues. Camilla Cavendish writes in the Times ‘Our lives are so finely balanced that any change — another child, a sick relative, a promotion — can spell sudden career death.’ Whilst we can expect some drop in earnings if we decide to take a break, in Britain women’s earnings fall behind men’s from their mid thirties, and may never catch up again. Many women returning to work find it difficult to go back into a career at the same level as when they took the break and many more mark time in jobs far below their potential. It is a myth and a real problem to women taking a baby break that your career prime is considered to be between 35 and 45. This can be the time when they are not only looking after small children but can also be managing aged parents and taking time out for either of these roles could see them fail or be left behind. Once these responsibilities are lifted many women want to return to the work place with a new vigour, but may be overlooked purely because of their age. The workforce is missing out on talented and motivated employees with this short sighted view. What is interesting is the vitriol the Times article has inspired from men who feel ‘hard done by’.  An argument that will rage on I am sure.

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  • Esther Haines

    Since employees first gained the statutory right to request flexible working in April 2003, much attention has been paid to various ways of introducing flexibility into the working week: the directgov website ( lists seven possibilities and notes that their list is not exhaustive. Rather less attention has been paid to what Hewlett and Luce (Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, call ‘flexibility in the arc of a career’. It is this that is far more important to women in professional or business life. Women who have opted to take a break, work reduced hours or have moved from client-facing to back-office roles need clear routes to getting back on track, see Sylvia Ann Hewlett, ‘Off-ramps and On-ramps’, Harvard Business School Press, 2007. In STEM in the UK, there is good external support for returners, for example, the Daphne Jackson Fellowship scheme and the support offered by the UKRC for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, but little recognition of the issue within institutions. As Hewlett and Luce note, much of he problem lies with the ‘white male competitive’ career model: those who do not reach particular career points at the ‘right’ age are regarded as also-rans. The stories of Professor Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at the University of Surrey, and Professor Julia Slingo, Chief Scientist at the Met Office, show what can be achieved by women whose careers have been disrupted by family circumstances. Both women and employers need to learn from their experiences.
    On the subject of vitriolic responses, there are some people who have staked out their ground and will defend it no matter how strong the arguments or evidence showing their position to be untenable. There are also men who feel threatened by change. It can be difficult for them to be heard. Most men are not in positions of power or influence either. Arguments for change tend to be framed as ‘we need to change this for women’. There are men would like to be able to spend more time with their families. There are both men and women who are, I suspect often unconsciously, committed to the competitive career model and believe it is ‘not fair’ that anyone should be able to choose to take time off and then achieve at a similar level to those who have not taken time off. Likewise, special programmes for women may be interpreted as giving women an unfair advantage. Obviously there is little anyone can do to engage those who are not going to listen anyway but where people have genuine fears, however irrational they may appear, we should take the time to understand what they are saying. Also, instead of saying ‘this is unfair to women’ perhaps we should say ‘maybe women are the canaries in the mine here and making a change would improve things for everybody’. Nobody, male or female, should feel that they have to choose between career and family, though different people will find a different balance.

  • Suzanne Doyle-Morris

    All astute comments Esther, and I do think your point about “women being the canary in the coal mine” is an apt one. It is not sustainable for any working model to rely on people to work 60 plus hours per week. It contributes to burnout and breakdown of relationships, but it is the rare organisation to ensure it’s employees work a sustainable amount of hours and not covertly reward those who work more.