The Female Leader and Midlife

In this compelling piece, Jane Porter MCC, Head of Education courageously raises awareness of the “elephant” that senior women leaders face as they near or deal with midlife.


I’m increasingly noticing an “elephant in the room” when coaching senior women leaders approaching (or in) midlife. It’s an interesting beast; it wanders around quietly and powerfully tramples on many years of achievements and successes. When engaging in three-way meeting conversations or stakeholder interviews it remains mysteriously absent. In truth, I wanted to call this blog ‘Leadership and Menopause’ whilst simultaneously asking myself if it’s even appropriate to say this out loud in public and in organisational life in 2018?

In recent years this elephant has been demanding my attention both as a senior leadership coach and in my own personal life, and I am increasingly stunned as I observe how the corporate world is handling this disruptive, and yet very natural, life transition. If I share more about my own personal experience will you say, “Hold it right there, that is too much information” or is that exactly the point? In the organisational world we don’t talk about the “M” word – it’s not named, and we pretend it’s not happening.

I am happy to go on record and say that the last couple of years have been up there with the most difficult of my career so far, and the reasons have nothing to do with the requirements of my role. I love what I do, I love our industry and nothing has changed there. However, my ability to bring my best every day has been seriously challenged.

Alongside my own experience I started to notice what was happening with some of the senior women I coach. You could say I had a sudden heightened awareness! During a recent three-way meeting with a new coaching counterpart and her leader, the reality hit home. The leader described the main goal of the coaching as enabling – we’ll call her Sally – to “get a grip on her emotions”. Now, up to this point Sally had worked for the organisation for many years, had reached the senior echelons of leadership on merit, and she now reported directly to the CEO. It was only after the CEO had left the room that Sally welled up, the tears came, and the statement burst out as if it had been locked in a pressure-cooker for some time. “I’m going through ‘the change’” she said, and after a brief pause she continued. “Some days it’s just not clear how I am supposed to ‘get a grip on my emotions’. I’m one of only two women reporting to the CEO and he just doesn’t get it. I’ve worked for him a number of times throughout my career and we’ve always had a great working relationship, but this has changed everything, and I don’t know what to do about it. Some days I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

In another coaching engagement my coaching counterpart cried at every session. Earlier in my career I spent some time in the field of counselling, so I am normally good at spotting a mental health consideration when it shows up in coaching and I’m well equipped to have a conversation about it when it does.  But this was different. Each time, in between many emotional releases, the coaching work was able to continue, progress was made and acknowledged by both the counterpart and the organisation. During the coaching my counterpart was able to identify and explore how the life transition she was experiencing (yes, the ‘big M’) was impacting her ability to function as a Director of the organisation and the fact that she felt very alone in dealing with this. There was fear that disclosure would impact her successful career and the ‘brand’ that she had spent many years establishing in her field. There was also an imperative that she was driving herself that she just had to cope, deal with it alone, and get on with things.

To understand what’s going on philosophically, let’s turn to a recent blog by Dr Brené Brown appropriately called ‘Midlife Unraveling’. Brené invites us to consider that:

“Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unraveling. By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.”

So, what does the science say?

Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay has recently published ‘The Women’s Brain Book’ in which she takes a close look at the topic.

Sarah shares that she has learnt that “about 20% of women will have symptoms so severe that they significantly interfere with daily life; another 20% will sail through with no symptoms at all”. She goes on to state that neuro-knowledge shows that at this time there is “increased vulnerability to neurological shifts” affecting social and stress responses, your body thermostat literally narrows due to changes in the hypothalamus impacting “wellbeing, energy, mood and temperament” and, critically, sleep is impacted in 40-60% of women.

The more I explore the topic the more I wonder how we function at all! But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dr McKay finishes her exploration on neuroscience and menopause with the following statement:

“Midlife is a unique window of opportunity in which to invest in future proofing your brain. It’s time to stop, take stock and invest in a healthy future.”

Coaching is a prime way in which to enable this, therefore the sole purpose of this blog is to raise awareness. If your coaching practice does include successful senior women ‘of a certain age’ perhaps explore how you can safely bring this topic into the field of your conversations if it seems to be needed. Embrace the elephant in the room and work with it as part of your systemic coaching agendas. If we look at what the science tells us is happening, then we can deal with a natural life transition with compassion for the individual whilst holding an awareness of the organisational needs.  An approach that will lead to a more effective outcome for all and sure beats senior women being given a directive to ‘get a grip on your emotions’.

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