Why Women are Finding a New Career Gear

Could the best time for women’s careers be in their 50’s?

Fiona, an NHS psychologist of 30 years professional experience and mother of three, was surprised to apply for her first management role at the age of 50 – and get it.  She had worked part-time while her children were growing up, so she was gleeful at the prospect of being able to wield influence at last.

Mary, a freelance book editor and self-confessed introvert, applied successfully for a job as a lecturer for a new creative-writing course at her local university.  Having worked silently at home for so many years, it was in her fifties that she discovered the joy of interacting with a class of eager students.

As an Executive and Career coach with Harmonics, I work with women trying to navigate their career paths in organisational structures and systems that themselves are adapting to change. Could it be that in their 50s the best choices emerge for women?

Different career paths

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox describes how the decades treat men and women’s careers differently. The traditional career path is characterised as linear and unbroken.  Between 20 and 50, the trajectory is upward and then has a sharp drop off.  But for traditional – read male she suggests.  It does not represent the experiences of many women that I know.

Female career stages can be summarised as follows:

20’s All ambition, experience and fun
30’s Culture shock – for many, conflict between competing family needs and big job opportunity tests. Some choose to leave the company they’ve been with, or move into the sidings for a period
40’s Possibility for re-acceleration but in some sectors and certain roles, it’s hard to catch-up for lost/slowed down years away from the fast-track. However, women who have forged their own businesses do well!
50’s Suddenly more time to think; kids have flown, financial pressure beginning to lift – a new beginning?


“Highly educated and highly skilled women are re-emerging the other side of the family crunch” writes Wittenberg-Cox. “Are late bloomers”, she then asks, “a potent new force in global business?”

A fourth stage

In  The 100 year Life , Gratton and Scott’s research forces us to push out the horizon of our older years.  It is extraordinary to realise that, as of 2016, “children born in the West have a 50% chance of living to age 105”.  So as 50 is now the start point for the second half, should women (who tend to live longer than men), follow the tradition for winding down then? Should they consider changing up a gear instead?

50’s women offer more

After 30 years in a variety of senior roles, Maria decided it was time to leave. Financially secure, she could now stop, but in her heart of hearts she knew she was not yet ready to be at home full-time.  Initially she thought of consultancy, but that did not provide the rhythm of organisational life that she needed to choreograph her day.  Undeterred, she sent out smoke signals to her network, and was flattered to find that her skills and experience were in demand on a project basis.  She realised that at this stage of her working life she values priorities differently.  “Project work is great,” she says now, “because it has a clear beginning, middle and end. I love that”

In addition to her core skills and experience, here’s what else she describes herself as bringing to all new work:

A crucial customer ‘Voice’: In financial services where she is now, her insights as a customer are sought after. So she can help to shape products and services that are increasingly aimed at her own ‘greying pound’.

Self-knowledge: “I’m there by choice.  I’m not afraid to speak up and I’m beyond being interested in politics and posturing.  Let’s say I know how to steady the ship when that is necessary.”

Flexibility: “Probably the greatest asset that I offer is that my time is my own. I’m free to travel, work different hours, and I can flex around the needs of others. This is an ace-card for all organisations trying to accommodate less-flexible younger talent.”

Want to find that new gear?

To expand your options, start by assessing your own assets by looking more broadly than you might first think.  Gratton and Scott suggest examining three asset areas:

  1. Productive assets: Knowledge, skills, professional, social capital, reputation
  2. Vitality assets: Health, relationships, regenerative friendships, balance
  3. Transformational assets: Self-knowledge, diverse networks, openness to experience

Consider talking to one of Harmonic’s career planning specialists.  “You are always searching for the sweet-spot”, says Harmonics Founder John Fitzgerald. “This is where what you know, what you are best at, and what you are passionate about, overlap.”

And if you are not yet 50, is this relevant?

Well, yes, it is. That’s because you have an even longer multi-staged career to plan ahead for.

  1. Longer careers require even more adaptability and continued targeted investment. So carefully consider the three asset areas above. Rate yourself to see where you are putting your attention now.  Where else might you need to focus to ensure you build a rewarding multi-staged career?
  1. If you are in a relationship, discuss career planning with your partner as a team goal – instead of two competing sprints. Wittenberg-Cox asks “Who is to say that one of you shouldn’t run the 30-50 sprint, the other the marathon?”

Finally, if you know someone who is feeling pensive about turning 50 – a wife, colleague, sister, mother, or friend, please share this information. It might well turn out to be their best career decade yet.

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