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Leading from the Middle

How today's mid-career women can continue to make inroads for their own careers while paving the way for future generations

 
May 6, 2019
 
 

Gen-Xers, that is those of us born between the years of 1961 and 1981 (Strauss, 2009), are now by many considered to be "mid-career." Spanning in age from approximately 38 - 58, the majority of us have changed jobs at least three times since completing our formal education. Most of us have had at least some leadership experience at this point in our lives. Some of us have gone through or are considering a career change. For women in particular, this sometimes comes with additional challenges of having to prove ourselves all over again, more so than our male counterparts, especially when those job changes involve new fields.

When we came of age, the hippy-esque feminism of the 1970s (Candice Bergen, Mary Tyler Moore, Gilda Radner) had given way to an edgier, angrier feminism of the 1990s (Alanis Morissette, Veruca Salt). We graduated from college, ditched our combat boots and babydoll dresses, and entered the workforce - many of us naively assuming that our time had come and gender inequality was firmly in the rearview mirror.

“This mind, this body, and this voice cannot be stifled” - Fiona Apple

In the 20-30 years we have been in the workforce, we have learned some tough lessons to the contrary. We have experienced first-hand what happens when we don't speak up for ourselves. We have endured the silent shame we felt when we didn’t speak up for others. We have slowly learned, through trial and error as well as through rising public voices, how to support other women in the workplace. We have learned when a woman is interrupted in a meeting how to circle back to give her an opportunity to speak. We have learned to “volley” or prompt a fellow female co-worker who might be reticent to speak but has great ideas.

In the fall of 2016, Academic Impressions hosted its first Women’s Leadership Success in Higher Ed conference. Our research on higher ed leadership showed a stark gap between 70% vs 30% male/female presidents in spite of women representing the majority of those pursuing post-graduate degrees. We wanted to be a part of changing that landscape and, as a result, have hosted hundreds of women over the past two and a half years as they joined forces to learn key leadership skills.

This project has had an unexpected impact in our day-to-day work here at AI. Our female staff who attend the conference learn key insights that help them to become better leaders and more vocal contributors to our ethos. We learned that there were labels for those feelings and inhibitions that we all experience (e.g. imposter syndrome). We learned about the power of negotiation and that each of us has the freedom to define our own brand of leadership. Our male staff who attend have gained new perspectives on challenges their female colleagues face even at the most subtle levels. To our delight, our internal communications and interactions have begun to shift with these new insights.

Three Recommendations

We are now seeing our Millennial and Gen-Z colleagues entering the workforce and wrestling with some of these same challenges, yet we have so many more tools now to guide younger generations. If you are mid-career, we offer these three recommendations:

  1. If you work with and mentor new professionals

Offer the lessons you learned and skills you have acquired to make yourself heard in your workplace, but also welcome their fresh insights and perspectives. Their path to this place and time hasn’t been the same as yours. You each have much to learn from one another!

  1. If you work with mid-career women, especially if they are new to the company

Make a point to reach out, say a friendly “hello” or offer to have lunch or take a midday walk. They likely don’t want to appear needy, yet a new environment mid-career, especially surrounded by younger peers, can feel incredibly lonely.

  1. If you are considering a mid-career move

Have an honest talk with yourself: are you prepared for the temporary loss of credibility and influence that you currently enjoy? What attracts you to this new endeavor? Talk with other women who made similar moves at similar times in their careers. What lessons were learned? What was critical to their success?

As you continue to grow, don’t forget to celebrate the many accomplishments you have achieved and to enjoy this stage in your life when you are likely the most powerful you have ever been. Learn from your mentors; offer your time to mentees.


Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is an educator, author, and speaker with 20+ years’ experience across many levels of education. She serves as Senior Program Manager at Academic Impressions and can be reached at [email protected].

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