Why women in their 40s and 50s are exiting the workforce

This phenomenon raises crucial questions about gender equality, workplace support systems, and the effects of menopause on women's professional lives.

10th Apr 2024

According to S&P Global, the number of women in C-Suite roles has dropped for the first time since 2006. This concerning development isn’t as against the trend as you’d think, though. There has been an increasing number of women in their 40s and 50s leaving their roles in the workforce over the past decade.

This phenomenon, often unnoticed and undiscussed, raises significant questions about gender equality, workplace support structures, and the impact of menopause on women’s careers. Behind the seemingly silent exodus lies a complex interplay of factors, ranging from the biological to the socio-economic, and addressing these issues demands a multifaceted approach from both companies and society at large.

This is also happening at a time when men are at the peaks of their careers; reaching maximum earning potential, taking early retirement, and leading teams and companies. These women have decades of experience, have often built their careers back up after having children, and have just as much to give to a company as men. 

Sadly, the biological differences between men and women have a lot to do with the discrepancy in experience, and we still don’t understand enough, or talk enough, about how this impacts our gendered experiences.

Understanding menopause in the workplace

Menopause, often considered a taboo topic in the workplace, plays a central role in understanding this trend. As women enter their 40s and 50s, they often experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms associated with menopause, including hot flushes, fatigue, mood swings, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can significantly impact their ability to perform effectively in their roles, leading to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, and in some cases, forcing women to leave their jobs altogether. These symptoms aren’t experienced every day, and clear just as fast as they arrive, leaving a  frustratingly unpredictable experience. 

Despite the prevalence of menopause and its profound effects on women’s lives, many workplaces lack the necessary support structures to accommodate women going through this transition. According to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), only 27% of organisations have a menopause policy in place, leaving the majority of women to navigate this challenging period on their own. You can learn more about menopause policies here

Flexified companies like Elvie, FlashPack, Ki, and TUI offer menopause support to their employees. 

However, companies can take concrete steps to support women experiencing menopause and prevent the exodus of valuable talent from their workforce. Implementing menopause-friendly policies, such as flexible working hours, remote work options, and access to counselling and support groups, can help alleviate the symptoms of menopause and enable women to continue thriving in their careers. The ability to start later after a terrible night’s sleep because of hot flushes is invaluable, as is being able to work from home when the brain-fog and anxiety hits. 

Moreover, creating a culture of openness and inclusivity around menopause is crucial for a supportive work environment. By normalising discussions about menopause and providing education and training to managers and colleagues, companies can break down the stigma associated with this natural phase of life and ensure that women feel valued and supported in the workplace. We spoke to one individual who shared her story with us:

“So many women are peri menopausal and get firstly diagnosed with burnout (that was me!) Or depression. Or don't even speak to a gp because they just think they've gone bonkers and try to muddle through or just leave. That was almost me, but my boss realised, because his wife was on HRT and helped me with the right practical support.

Even though we women know it's coming, it's not until we're "in it" ourselves that we really realise how it actually impacts. Don't lose patience with the forgetful, seemingly ditzy older woman. Or the one who's often away doing hospital appointments with parents or kids. She'll get her HRT, get her work done while you're at the pub or gym, and she'll be back with 100% engagement, her years of experience and wisdom tomorrow.”

Addressing gender inequality in the workplace

Addressing the challenges faced by women in their 40s and 50s goes beyond menopause and extends to broader issues of gender inequality in the workplace. Despite significant progress in recent decades, women continue to face systemic barriers that limit their advancement and opportunities for career growth. This starts from the first moment women are born, all the way through their lives. 

According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, women are underrepresented at every level of corporate leadership, with the disparity becoming more pronounced as they climb the corporate ladder. This lack of representation not only deprives organisations of diverse perspectives and talent but also perpetuates a cycle of gender inequality that undermines women’s confidence and aspirations.

To combat gender inequality in the workplace and retain women in their 40s and 50s, companies must prioritise diversity and inclusion initiatives that address the root causes of gender disparities. This includes implementing transparent hiring and promotion practices, offering equal pay for equal work, and providing opportunities for mentorship and career development for women at all stages of their careers. Representation is also key for women to be able to imagine themselves in those roles, and to build policies based on experience. 

Furthermore, companies must recognise the unique challenges faced by women in midlife, including caregiving responsibilities, ageing parents, and health issues, and tailor their policies and programs accordingly. By offering benefits such as paid family leave, eldercare support, and access to affordable healthcare, companies can alleviate the burden on women and enable them to balance their personal and professional lives more effectively. 

Companies like 10x banking, MoneySupermarket Group, and Centrica have added carer’s leave to their inclusive policies in order to try to level the playing field.  We have so much work to do, but it all starts with raising awareness of this issue.