Out of sync at 40

Celia de Anca. Professor. IE Business School

6 July 2010

The midlife crisis affects both men and women, but while men tend to seek an emotional answer, women often need a more rational approach. It would be to business corporations’ advantage to provide women with just that.

According to Jewish mysticism, a man can only start his learning of the cabbala after his 40th birthday, when life starts to fall apart and needs to be rebuilt, not so much from the outside, but rather from within, from a connection with his true nature. In our more prosaic civilisation, we speak of the midlife crisis, which, as Tony Judt pointed out not long ago, is that crucial moment when many men either get a new wife or buy a motorbike.

A woman could not study the cabbala so there was apparently no reason for speaking about when her life starts to fall apart in mystic terms, and women have not traditionally changed their husband for one who was 20 years younger when reaching the age of 40. Her crisis, at least in our society, used to be the empty nest syndrome, which left a woman waiting to refill it with grandchildren.
Our society has changed, even if the midlife crisis is still with us. A woman no longer cries when her chicks fly the nest. Indeed, many of them are happy to see them go and become hungry for a professional career with some kind of meaning. A male friend once told me that after 20 years in the same profession, the time had come to change his life. At the same time, his wife, after 5 years at home looking after the children, had reached a point where she really needed to go back to work. Hence pure logic led them to change their roles, whereby he stayed at home for a few years enjoying his time with his children, who were still small, while she went back to work to enjoy the pleasures (yes, there are some) of a full professional life.

Perhaps we are not so different, at least in this type of thing; we simply walk the same road, but out of sync. A man tends to respond to the midlife crisis emotionally and women tend to be more rational. But we all grow as individuals with the need for emotional and rational harmony.

However it can be hard to understand the differences in personal rhythms. We see how the professional world has been flooded with courses on emotional intelligence or action learning, or with workshops aimed at stirring up liberating emotional reactions(!), which seem to respond well to the male midlife crisis, but not so well to a woman´s needs. At 40, what many women need (and this explains the idea of walking down the same road but out of sync) is a good dose of rationality (and a lot of it). Freeing up some of the weight, as my friend Soledad used to say, of the emotional baggage inherited from centuries of specialization. A good soaking in rationality that lets them distance themselves from themselves and their emotions, that helps them focus and rationalise their possibilities and how to make them come good. In short, something that helps them plan their career after their 40th birthday.

There is an endless array of tools designed to help professional women: social networks, professional networks, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, specialized webpages, chats, events, networking sessions, coaches, mentors and one-day events, etc. I have no doubt that they all have a use, but they cannot all be used for everything. Mobility for example, if well focused and used instead of other tools, can be key to providing a professional woman with the guidance she needs at a fundamental moment of change.

The corporate world needs women in executive positions and women need to take up places that quench their professional thirst. Accordingly, management education programs need to address both issues, offering the most appropriate tools for providing women with the guidance they need to realize their full professional potential, even after their 40th birthday…

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