In ongoing discussion over the progress women have made—and still need to make—in the work place, one key group is often overlooked. Meet the “queenagers”, women in midlife who began their careers in the 1980’s, the decade when the “glass ceiling” was first identified and when breaking through it became a possible if incredibly difficult-to-achieve goal for ambitious, corporate women.
Now, many of those senior female executives are leaving the workforce. In rejecting unsatisfactory jobs they also debunk the working assumption that one size fits all for every phase of a working woman's life.
To understand the challenges ahead for women today it’s crucial to consider what queenagers have accomplished and how the playing field has shifted since they first made inroads into a male-dominated business world. Queenagers range in age from about 65 all the way down to 45. These women typically have relatively high incomes and a high degree of freedom in the choices they’re now making, either because they have moved beyond their child rearing years or because they chose not to have children in the first place.
Noon, a website dedicated to serving this group, coined the term queenagers and describes the group as being in “the age of opportunity.” Unlike their younger colleagues having babies and bringing up families, with every spare penny eaten up by childcare, queenagers enjoy a high degree of autonomy and spending. But above all they prize freedom. “The important thing to understand about this cohort of women is that they are pioneers, the first generation of women to work all the way through,” says Eleanor Mills, Noon’s founder.
The question now is will a new generation of rising corporate women do as well? And what can the successful queenager do to show solidarity with younger women and guide them on the path to their own successes?
For women it often gets back to a critical phase: how to successfully navigate the years of juggling careers with having kids—and the often huge financial costs required to do so in a society where men, on average, still significantly out earn women. The International Labor Organization shows that women still earn on average about 80% of what men do.
The rising numbers of women in the workforce has been stagnating since the turn of the century, even allowing for the latest return to pre-pandemic participation levels. And at the heart of this stagnation is pay.
Let’s zero in on mothers and caregivers. It seems remarkable that it’s only this year that The Pregnancy Workers’ Fairness Act has become federal law in the US, updating rights ranging from breaks or remote work for employees that are expecting. In the UK, the aptly named Pregnant Then Screwed campaign took the government to the Court of Appeal in 2021 for discrimination against the way income for pregnant women was taxed—and won.
Child-care costs eat up livable income. In the UK they are the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even while there is a clear correlation between the positive impact of early years provision and labor force participation: Iceland always tops the list.
Both the logistics and the cost of child care hinder working women and their families. Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University and author of Career and Family: Women’s Century-long Journey to Equity, writes of a study she conducted of careers of male and female MBA graduates at the University of Chicago Booth University between 1990 and 2006. As she explains in her book “we know from an in-depth analysis of these MBA histories that the growing gap in earnings doesn’t appear randomly. Rather, it emerges with the arrival of children. Children and the ensuing caregiving responsibilities are the main contribution to lesser job experience.”
For women, Noon found that flexibility is 16 times more important to women aged 45 to 60 than status—and way above the value they place on reaching the corner office or receiving a swanky title as rewards of seniority. For many, particularly those who had worked in corporations for a couple of decades and had the financial resources to go it alone, starting their own company or consultancy was seen as a way to get the flexibility and autonomy they craved, according to Mills.
So how can a queenager lend a hand to younger workers who are right now in the thick of potentially raising families and fighting to compete and rise up in the workplace? It may be nothing more than reassuring them that they, too, can get there. Or it may be throwing energy into the more gritty and hard-fought campaigns, such as Pregnant Then Screwed and joining corporate boards and organisations to promote policy changes.
There are also green shoots of optimism. And one of them is that at the end of the day men and women in 2023 are not all that far apart in what they want from a career and work experience. When it comes to how people feel at work, a recent survey of 4,500 workers across five countries on Belonging in the Workplace conducted by research firm Opinium found that men and women are neck and neck at around 70% feeling a sense of belonging, with the caveat that more than half of both men and women said they can’t always express themselves freely.
Women and men are equal in one way, then: They both want to talk about how they feel about work. Let's all of us—queenagers and beyond—make sure that discussion includes continuing to change the workplace so that it’s fair and equitable for everyone.