Age as a Marker of Contentment and Security
Older women in academia expressed a sense of relief at having arrived at a point in their working lives where they no longer felt obligated to ‘fake’ questionable collegial relationships that were exploitative or unhealthy and were more likely to exhibit high levels of confidence and conviction in their beliefs and values. This seemed to correlate with the view that older women in academia were seen as more valuable in the organisation and enjoy more respect and opportunity in senior roles, as their careers progressed. However this was not always the case for older women in professional categories.
“I think I do, well with the sense of liberation it’s broader than just being free of periods. It’s a sense of ‘I can’t be fucked pleasing people so much anymore’. I’m too tired, I don’t have the energy and I really, I just want to focus on the important things and that feels liberating too.” (Diana, 51, Professional at Uni B, peri-menopausal).
The sense of security and contentment within one’s self was also connected to having more freedom in their personal lives due to children gaining independence, which allowed more time for them to shift their focus and clarify thoughts and aspirations of what they wanted to do in the final 10-20 years of their working lives. However, there were also negative aspects to the ageing process which required a certain level of aesthetic and bodily maintenance, in order to achieve a culturally acceptable image associated with the archetypical successful older woman.
“We want to work to 65, mostly because we need to and we don’t want to look any older than what we are and we, you know, we’re always trying to do the right thing.” (Beth, 40-50, Professional at Uni B, pre-menopausal).
Work Exacerbating Negative Health Behaviours
During the interviews, there were strong correlations between work exacerbating negative health behaviours, and increased stress and anxiety caused by increasing workloads and scheduled busy periods. In this sense the ‘cause and effect’ of menopause-related symptoms was difficult to discern.
“I guess what worries me, because I think it (my menopausal experience) suddenly got more severe or whatever the term is, is that with this job it is a very, very busy job. […] I’m so irritable and I’m worried […] because I have to interact with people all day long.” (Jennifer, 50, Professional at Uni A, peri-menopausal).
Job insecurity and uncertainties around the universities’ future directions were also contributing factors to stress, which created a lack of enthusiasm for the workplace in general. However, in attributing health behaviours to stress, there were other contributing factors, such as issues or conflicts with other colleagues, PhD candidates, children moving away from home (e.g. ‘empty nester syndrome’), and the changing nature of workloads.
“I’ve only been here for three years so in my first year I had to develop the office and then implement and get it operational, and then incorporate, you know, develop policy and procedure to sit in there. That was a really stressful year and I think if I wasn’t going through menopause that may not have been so stressful.” (Bella, 53, Professional at Uni A, post-menopausal).
Work as Positive for Well-being
In contrast to the workplace exacerbating negative health behaviours, the workplace was often seen as a space that acted as a conduit for positive energy, which brought relief from hormonal or depressive symptoms. Some women felt that if they stayed at home then their symptoms would have been worse, and coming to work meant that “you’ve got to put your work face on, and that’s really helpful too” (Bella, 53, Professional at Uni A, post-menopausal).
Other women noted their organisations’ open and inclusive community, which encourages all ages, gender and ethnicities – a space where they felt a sense of pride and belonging. Perhaps the strongest sense of identity affirmation and self-esteem came from career success and the continued emergence of opportunities for growth and promotion. In this sense, women seemed to express a greater sense of achievement and reward from the attainment of certain positions, which they contrasted with the male experience of entitlement and natural career progression during their working life.
“Personally it was ‘will I ever get a job?’ And then I did get one and it was like a new lease on life – this change of career had paid off. I got this job and I had to prove myself and it was all happening around the same time so whether adrenaline overcame whatever symptoms I might have had, I don’t know, but I was certainly running high.” (Fiona, 52, Academic at Uni A, post-menopausal).
Other women felt that ‘work’, in the more general sense of learning, became a feature of their later working years, in the form of gaining extra qualifications such as studying for doctorates. However, for some, it was felt that this was an avenue to pursue ambitions surrounding development that were not considered open to them, such as formal career progression, again an indication of gendered ageism where older women were not ‘looked over’ but rather ‘not even thought about’ in terms of promotion.
Changing and Increasing Workloads
Participants often referred to the changing nature of their work in terms of career change and the associated stress that can often arise from that, particularly when moving into Higher Education from other sectors.
“I think I’ve got myself on the road now, but yeah I think I had to. I guess I’ve had a few different careers and somehow didn’t choose between them and kept doing bits and pieces […] I sort of realised a couple of years ago ‘well if you’re going to be an academic, you know, you have to do this stuff and you just have to keep at it until something gives way’, and it’s happened finally.” (Nicky, 49, Academic at Uni B, peri-menopausal).
Importantly, there are a number of factors that can increase the intensification of labour, such as the particular field in which one works, e.g.. certain medical fields that are labour intensive, both physically and emotionally. The demands of such work can have significant impacts on a person’s sense of well-being inside and outside of the workplace.
“Well, I think that it has changed a bit, but I think at that time that’s how you got into this medical field, and that’s how you survived […] It was interesting when I had children, you know, the blokes understood a bit, but they didn’t really understand. […] When I was on call, if my husband was away, I had to go and stay at my parents’ place and take my children with me because if I got called out in the middle of the night I couldn’t leave my children in the house alone. It didn’t occur to me that I could talk to my colleagues and say ‘look my husband’s away, can someone else take my call?’ because, you know, that just wouldn’t cut it” (Madeline, 55, Academic at Uni B, peri-menopausal.)