When Lucy Ryan’s research revealed that midlife women were walking out of corporates in droves at the same age that the men around them were stepping into senior leadership positions, she knew it would make a great PhD topic. There was a massive data gap, and a clear benefit to organizations in understanding why one of their most valuable talent pools was quietly disappearing. Yet as she searched for a supervisor, time and time again she was told the research was ‘unpublishable’.
Luckily Lucy refused to give up, and her research has given us not only a new understanding of why midlife women are revolting against the constraints and biases of corporate life [hint: it’s not because they ‘lack ambition’], but what changes leaders can make to retain their invaluable talent and experience.
In this conversation we talk through her findings, and also the tricky process of translating a PhD dissertation into Revolting Women, a practical, inspiring book for every leader. Be prepared to be enraged, but also hugely entertained.
Lucy’s site: https://www.lucyryan.co.uk/
Lucy on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drlucyryan/
Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/
‘Kickstart Your Writing’ Workshop January 2024: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/666359076937
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: This is good. I’m here today with Dr. Lucy Ryan, who is a leadership coach, consultant, an author, and a passionate advocate for women’s professional development. Her doctoral research project explored the phenomenon of midlife for professional women, a longstanding data gap – lots of those, aren’t there? – and she works with companies internationally to unlock the potential of this key talent pool.
She’s the author of Lunchtime Learning for Leaders, published in 2021 by Kogan Page and most recently Revolting Women: Why midlife women are walking out and what to do about it published by Practical Inspiration, which I’m thrilled about.
So first of all, welcome, Lucy. It’s great to have you here.
Lucy Ryan: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the title, shall we first, you and I talked a lot about this title, Revolting Women.
Tell us about it. What is it about, first of all.
Lucy Ryan: Yes. Well, it’s about midlife women aged approximately 45 to 60 in business. And why, just at that moment where they are about to move into the peak of their career, step up, get into a position of influence, they are either stepping down or walking away from business. And when I had noticed this phenomenon, I couldn’t find anything written really about it.
And that then became the topic of my doctoral research.
Alison Jones: Well, you say that, but it wasn’t quite that straightforward, was it?
Lucy Ryan: I wish it was.
Alison Jones: Yes, tell us a little bit about the struggle that you faced, even to just get the research underway.
Lucy Ryan: You know, when you do a PhD, you’ve got to find a supervisor and you kind of tout your proposal around. It’s no different from a book. You tout your proposal around to supervisors across the world who might be interested and I just got a lot of nos, with the kind of main word that it was ‘unpublishable’.
So any supervisor has to feel they can get kind of about four papers out of it or academic interest. And people just said it’s not of interest. And I was coaching at the time, Dorothy Byrne, who was Head of News of Channel Four, and you know, she’s pretty fierce and she picked up the phone immediately, rang round people going, this is terrible.
And eventually, two or three people came back going, okay, I’ll take a look at this. And that’s how I found my supervisor at Lancaster, then Liverpool, Professor Caroline Gatrell.
Alison Jones: It’s a really sobering look under the hood, isn’t it? As to how this silence on the data about women, as you say, particularly midlife women, is perpetuated because it’s the status quo. Nobody wants to shake it.
Lucy Ryan: I was genuinely both shocked and naive about it, Alison, I thought, here’s a real cool topic for a piece of doctoral research, because there’s a data gap in it. It’s always worrying when there’s a data gap because it means that no one’s that interested but I had this kind of naive optimism that people would be, and they really weren’t.
And that’s echoed across academia. It’s echoed across business, media, that there is quite a silence around this generation. Apart from in the last two years about the menopause.
Alison Jones: Yes, which has become a really hot topic, hasn’t it? So let’s dig into it. Revolting Women is such a great title on so many levels, and one of the reasons it works so well is that actually there is starting to be a revolution around this and women are saying, actually, we’re not going to put up with this anymore.
So tell us what is happening, why are midlife women walking out? What did you discover in the research?
Lucy Ryan: I discovered that they were walking out for three reasons. The first is this power dynamic that is quite hard for women to penetrate. You know, we’ve called it the glass ceiling for ages. I found that once women were really about to step up, that glass ceiling became, I phrased it recently as welded steel and they couldn’t penetrate it.
And when they have done some other research about it, the government commissioned a report to find out why, there were all these reasons given as to why women couldn’t step up onto the board or executive committees.
Alison Jones: It’s a well-worn narrative, isn’t it? What sort of things were the men saying?
Lucy Ryan: Well-worn narrative, there were things like, they’re not available, they don’t want it, they can’t cope. My all time favorite was, we’ve got one, thanks.
Alison Jones: I don’t know why I’m laughing. I should be weeping.
Lucy Ryan: I know, and they both made me laugh and gasp that this was in a government report and you had all these women sitting there going, yes, but I’m here, I’m here. So there was, that was the first thing. There was this power dynamic. You know, men are not going to give up their roles on the board, on the executive committee, on the senior leadership team without a fight. And when women leave silently, there’s no kind of fight.
Alison Jones: And in fact, it almost proves the point, doesn’t it? They’re not available. There you go, there goes another one.
Lucy Ryan: Yes, and it was, these women are not young, they’re not male, and they also haven’t followed linear careers, so their CVs look different. So they’re stepping up and their CVs don’t look nicely linear. And there were plenty of examples of people, women that I interviewed saying I just was either told that my time was up at 50 or I felt that projects were going, I was being sidelined with projects or I was simply told that I was too old, and then they brought in a man above me who was older than me. So there was this power dynamic that just became exhausting for women to try and break. The second reason that women are leaving is what I call ‘collision’ in the book, and that is that at midlife, women in general face this kind of collision of circumstances…
Alison Jones: I’m nodding with deep empathy.
Lucy Ryan: … of menopause, of elder care, of often older children or older teenagers with mental health challenges or just with their own normal day-to-day challenges and those collisions, plus they’ve often got a divorce, own health issues, health issues of family members around them. That collision means they often want or have to take a pause and step out.
And then the third reason is because they want to, they are, they want to step out. That’s the revolt, which is I’m not playing this full-time foolishness game anymore. I have wisdom, I have energy, I have brains. I have ambition, and I am not working six days a week for you to do it, there’s better ways to live my life.
So that’s what I found.
Alison Jones: And for that one in particular, the last one, the response has got to be, you know, yay and hooray, and good for you. And…
…why does it matter for the businesses?
Lucy Ryan: Well, that’s the point, which is I feel on the one hand, yay, hooray for the women. Go do it. And I think, ah, how are we ever going to reach gender parity in an organization if all these women step out. So for the organizations, it really matters. There’s practical issues first which is by 2030 they say we’ll have a 2.5 million skills gap in the workforce. Plus you have got an aging population, so by 2050, the age of the working population between 50 and pension age, so 67 for me, will by 34%. So you’ve got some practical reasons to take notice. You’ve got legal reasons, so companies have to pay attention to their diversity agenda and take it seriously.
And there’s an 11% flat line that hasn’t shifted for nine years of employed female executives. And then for me, you’ve actually got what I might call the common sense idea, which is when we lose these women, you lose their wisdom, their energy, their role modeling.
You know, we have a vicious circle. If they leave, you’ve got younger women going, well, who do I learn from? Who do I look up to? Who’s my role model?
Alison Jones: Yes, so it perpetuates through the next generation. Yes, and your point in the book is, do you know what, it isn’t that hard to solve this?
Lucy Ryan: No.
Alison Jones: So give us just maybe one strategy that CEOs should be just thinking of immediately to improve this.
Lucy Ryan: Midlife Health check conversation. I don’t know if you’ve been watching that slightly car crash bit of tv, And Just Like That, the Sex and the City for the 50 year old. And in it, Gloria Steinem has a brief cameo role and she says that every revolution starts with a conversation.
Alison Jones: That’s a great line.
Lucy Ryan: That’s all for me, if you want one, that it takes, which is have a conversation. Know that your midlife women are likely to be going through some degree of either power struggle or collision. Don’t let them leave silently.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Lucy Ryan: Talk to them, and it might just be a pause. I mean, an extraordinary 70% of the women I interviewed Alison, wanted to step up. They didn’t want to step out, they didn’t want to retire. They didn’t want to go on the golf course. They didn’t want to do vocational work. They were ambitious and they wanted to step up. They just couldn’t step back in again.
Alison Jones: And that actually is one of the reasons that the men say, oh, they’re not ambitious. They don’t want to. It’s complete nonsense and your evidence proves it. So interesting.
Part of me just wants to talk to you and rant with you about this for so long because it is so just, it’s enraging and I want to take you onto the writing bit as well because that’s so fascinating.
And one thing that’s particularly interesting to me always, when people have done empirical, academic research like this, and then they turn it into a really readable, practical, engaging book.
How are you doing that? So they’re very, very different skill sets. Tell us about that journey.
Lucy Ryan: In a word, bumpy.
You know, as you might remember, I did the proposal book challenge three times. So it was not straightforward for me. I had a hundred thousand words of a PhD and I couldn’t work out the audience. I couldn’t work out the angle. And I kind of had to start again to make it a completely different language, third person to first person.
So yes, bumpy.
Alison Jones: Stories rather than case studies, I think that was a big thing as well.
Lucy Ryan: Okay. Yes, you are absolutely right. And most of all, was the audience. Am I writing for business or am I writing for women?
Alison Jones: I remember you flipping between those two because your instinct was the women, wasn’t it? But actually, yes, so take us through that.
Lucy Ryan: Well, my instinct was to do it for women and it became a kind of self-help book and it just didn’t work for me. I felt there were really good things out there already. And this wasn’t different enough or better. And I couldn’t find the style to write in. I sound agonized as I’m talking about it.
Alison Jones: Sorry to take you back by there, but there will be people, there’ll be somebody listening who’ll go, oh man, that’s where I’m at. So…
Lucy Ryan: Yes and you know, at some point you have to stop banging your head against the wall and go, this is not working for me. So I kind of retreated and went back to the origins of it, which was I was doing an organizational study PhD. This was about women in business. This was about professional women. Let’s take the business angle and have the women as my second audience, but take the business angle. My hope was always to speak to women. And so it’s proved to be with the feedback I’ve got already. But the organization, once I started it, it was like, yes, that’s it.
So getting that audience really firm was really important.
And then I had to take the angle of that, which is it couldn’t just be how do women feel? How do midlife women feel? I took the angle of, well, why are they walking out?
Alison Jones: Yes.
Lucy Ryan: So that also was a bit agonizing for me because I also was going, well, what about the ones who stay? So getting the angle, getting the audience, it took me time.
That probably took me a year alone. And three book challenges.
Alison Jones: But we got there.
Lucy Ryan: Nothing if not persistent.
Alison Jones: And then just really down and dirty and tactical. What does writing look like for you? What tools do you use? What works well?
Lucy Ryan: I’m a manual girl. I don’t use any IT tools. I always take it chapter by chapter and at the heart of the chapter is, what’s the problem? What is the problem of this chapter? And that problem sits in the middle of a mind map. And then I draw and I draw and I draw that mind map until the flow’s right. And that’s the agony of it and the delight of it for me. Because until the flow, I can’t just write. I always admire people who just can write and dump stuff on a page. I can’t do it. I write and write and write. Once I have a circular flow of the chapter with the problem in the center, I’m okay.
Alison Jones: It’s funny, we have all these fabulous tools. I don’t know if any of them actually beat a mind map. There’s something very kinesthetic and visual and generative about it.
Lucy Ryan: I can cross things out. I can look at it and get angry. I can highlight it, I can move it around. I can leave it lying on my desk and come back to it the next morning. I have tried so many, same with my PhD, I’ve tried so many online tools and you have to prove that you’ve shown some online tools like Envivo.
But I still had it on flip charts all the way around my office, like a slightly mad woman.
Alison Jones: No, I hear you. And I think actually, it’s what works, isn’t it? It’s what works for you. But I think don’t discount old school pen and paper. And there is something incredibly powerful and frictionless about that process
Lucy Ryan: I mean there’s something brilliant with the IT tools and it speaks to them. For me, it’s all about pen, paper, mindmap, and flow, and when the flow’s there, with the problem at the heart of it, and once that’s there, I’m okay.
Alison Jones: Well, tell me about that moment. So what is, for you, the most fulfilling, exciting, joyful thing about your writing?
Lucy Ryan: Oh, once that flow is there, it is so delightful. It’s proper flow for me. And I lecture in flow at UEL on the Master’s in Positive Psychology. And it’s always the example I give, which is that moment when you think, I know what this is, I know the shape and form of this chapter, and you start going and you start writing and you switch everything else off, all the distractions and I set myself 90 minutes and just go and for me it’s sheer delight and I’m better at then not deleting it at the end.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Lucy Ryan: I used to reread it and go, no, and now I don’t. Now I leave it and I go onto the next section, and then I’ll come back to it because often it’s fine. Often it’s good enough.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting, isn’t it? So that reaction of no is that fear or self doubt?
Lucy Ryan: Yes, I think it’s a mixture of both. It’s a bit like seeing yourself on video. You kind of go, ‘oof, not sure’. And I think it’s the same in writing, for me.
Alison Jones: You have to just slightly get over yourself.
Lucy Ryan: Exactly right. And also I think, you know, I am so much better at being good enough now. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s good enough.
Alison Jones: And you then you can move on to the next thing rather than sticking in that endless loop for perfection.
Lucy Ryan: You get an editor who’s better than me, fine tune it. It’s good enough as it is.
Alison Jones: And I’d love to probe a little bit more into that positive psychology link, actually because that’s really interesting. You talk about flow…
Lucy Ryan: Yes.
Alison Jones: …from a positive psychology perspective, is there anything else about writing that’s interesting to you?
Lucy Ryan: I think that it depends what writing does for you. Yes, there’s lots in terms of positive psychology. If it’s one of the things that gives you flow, for some people it really doesn’t. But if it’s one of the things that gives you flow, then that’s an uplift of positivity, of happiness at work and at your work.
And I think it’s a really good thing to learn to focus, in our distracted world, where we’re always comparing ourselves to other people and we’re on social media a lot. I think writing is a very interesting task for focus and for calming the mind and for certainly this, and I’m, I’m speaking very personally here because I’ve noticed since the pandemic, my focus levels have got much worse.
And writing forces me into a position of attention, mindful attention.
Alison Jones: Yes, I recognize that, at the very least it makes you finish a thought, which is quite rare these days, isn’t it?
Lucy Ryan: Yes. Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes. It allows you to hold the thread. Love that. Thank you.
So if somebody’s listening and resonating with what you’re saying, and I’m sure that many people are, I guess, what’s the one tip you would give somebody who finds themselves flailing at the early stages of a business book?
Lucy Ryan: For me it’s know your why. So I think every time I’m flailing with writing, I’ve lost sight of why I’m doing it. And I always have that ‘why does this matter?’ on a post-it that’s entirely personal to me and above my computer. So that when I lose track, I lose heart. I know why I’m doing it.
Alison Jones: That’s actually quite moving.
Lucy Ryan: Oh, I’m glad.
Alison Jones: Love that.
No, but there’s a level of we are quite tactical sometimes when we’re writing, when we think about structure and think about flow and just keeping that North Star of actually, why the hell is it worth all of this time and energy and what difference is it going to make in the world?
And keeping that centrally, I’d love to know what was on that post-it, but it’s a bit cheeky to ask.
Lucy Ryan: I was thinking about this podcast this morning. I tried to find mine because I had it on a star Post-It smacked on the wall. And one of my ones was slightly… not very galvanizing, but one of them said, ‘If you don’t do it, Lucy, someone else will’.
Alison Jones: You know what, that’s very galvanizing.
Lucy Ryan: That was one of the ones I had on the wall. I remember that one really well.
Alison Jones: It’s a test, isn’t it? If you really care about a book, you know, well, I’m not sure should I do it? How will you feel if in a year’s time somebody publishes this book? And if you’ll be absolutely raging, then that’s a really good sign that you should probably get on and do it.
Lucy Ryan: So I do remember that one. I had three and that was one.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Wonderful.
And I always ask my guests, as you know, to recommend a book that they think everybody listening should read, if they haven’t already. And I’m really interested to find out what yours is.
Lucy Ryan: Mine’s this one, which is Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. I love Herminia Ibarra and I really like that book. And for anyone in a transition, a lot of the executives that I coach are in a transition point. And it’s a really good practical book about what to do when you’re in a transition point. And I like it because it’s not ‘retrain as a pilot’.
It’s a kind of big test, you know, just test and try, test some things out. Try it out. It’s practical and inspiring. I love it. I gift it a lot.
Alison Jones: We are very big on practical and inspiring on this podcast. Brilliant.
Thank you so much, Lucy. If people want to find out more about you, more about Revolting Women, more about the work you do generally, where should they go?
Lucy Ryan: About the work that I do, they should go to my website, MindSpring, so that’s mindspring.uk.com.
I’ve got an author site, which is lucyryan.co.uk. I do a lot on LinkedIn, so that’s Dr. Lucy Ryan on LinkedIn. I have an Instagram account, which I wish I did more on, but I don’t, but that’s Dr. Lucy Ryan, and then I’ve got to wave the book, haven’t I?
Alison Jones: Oh, look at it. Isn’t it gorgeous? It actually, it is you, isn’t it? Take the glasses off and that could be you, stick up your hair a bit.
Lucy Ryan: What’s most worrying about that is either I’m life imitating art or art imitating life. I don’t know. But it’s soon to be on a t-shirt, so I will you know, I’ll sport that for you too.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I actually want a poster of it. I think it’s such a great cover. I love it. Love it to bits, if you’re not watching this on video, that will mean nothing to you, but go and have a look at the cover. It is ace.
Lucy it has been an absolute joy talking to you, and it was, I have to say, an absolute joy working with you to publish the book.
I’m super proud of it, and I hope it rocks the world.
Lucy Ryan: Oh, thank you so much and thank you for kind of staying this course. I literally couldn’t have done this without you.
Alison Jones: Thank you.