There may never be a right time to be a woman in the workplace. Women in their 20s often find themselves condescended to, only to then have their dedication questioned if they start a family in their 30s. After they are done fighting for that elusive work-life balance, they may find they’re now “too old” to be taken seriously. If that cycle of events isn’t maddening, we don’t know what is.
What’s especially frustrating is that, for many older women, the very thing that makes them “undesirable” in the workplace is seen as well-earned authority in a man. While women face sexism at every stage in their career, it can be especially crushing to feel like you have to start over after years in the workforce. Refinery29 spoke with three women who had to find unexpected second acts after being pushed out of their previous jobs. Here’s what they learned — and how they found ways to flourish in spite of everything.
Name: Kimberly Cooley-Reyes
Current Job: Expedition Leader and Driver Supervisor at Extranomical Tours
Years In Current Job: 2.5
Last Job: Operations Manager for a financial services firm
Years In Last Job: 2.25
When did you realize you were getting pushed out? When the owner of the business decided to bring a friend of his in at a higher level position to replace me. It was a very small firm and I knew that there wasn’t room for us both. There was nothing I could do, I was soon laid off.
How did you decide on your next steps? After 30 years spent mostly in legal management, it seemed like the office world wasn’t interested in me anymore. Despite years of great experience and my willingness to be flexible in taking on different roles, I was not able to find another management job in the legal or financial industries.
I took a class called “Too Young To Retire” and realized I could make a living doing something different — something I loved. I had been working as a volunteer tour guide and decided that since I enjoyed it so much, I’d try it on a professional level.
What is the biggest lesson you learned? To go for what I wanted by continuing to reinvent myself. As a single mother, I had to go for the monied career while raising my daughter. I enjoyed my career in management, but the change has also been great. I make less money now, but I also don’t need as much. And I truly love what I do.
What do you love about your job currently? Being a tour guide keeps you sharp. It requires lots of memorization and it really keeps the noodle working. I always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian and that’s how I approach my tours. I tell my customers, “Welcome to the Kimberly Show!”
I love connecting with people. While I worked alongside people all day in an office job, spending my day with people from all over the world who are happily on vacation is thrilling. Serving as an ambassador to San Francisco and California is so much more fun and meaningful. I am part of people’s vacation photos and Instagram stories!
I’ve also learned new skills and driven a bit outside my comfort zone — never in my life did I think I would be driving a bus!
Name: Kathy Becker
Current Job: Senior Content Strategist, Priority Marketing
Years In Current Job: Started at the end of February
Last Job: Senior Copywriter at a fashion brand
Years In Last Job: 6.5 years
When did you realize you were getting pushed out? A co-worker and I were both called out of a team meeting to talk to the new marketing director. My co-worker went first, and when she didn’t return to the meeting after her touch base and I walked past her desk and she wasn’t there, either, I started to get a feeling. When I walked into the marketing director’s office and the human resources representative was sitting there, I knew my number was up.
How did you respond? I was working at publicly traded company, and I had survived two previous reductions in force. I felt like there was nothing I could do about it. My friend and co-worker, who is older than me and also was laid off, asked me if we should think about filing an age discrimination suit, but it was is a big corporation with a big legal department. At this point in my career, I didn’t feel like doing battle, nor did I want the stress or the negativity of what I was pretty sure was a losing battle.
How did you decide on your next steps? I knew I might have challenges finding a job at my age and at this point in my career in this market, but I was committed to staying in Fort Myers because my son was a senior in high school and my daughter is in college. Florida has a generous college scholarship program, and my fiancé has a business in the area. As soon as I left my old workplace, I started reaching out to people I knew. Within an hour I had a callback from a friend who is an editor telling me about a solid job possibility and offering me freelance opportunities at her magazine. By that night, I had another freelance assignment with a national magazine.
I also knew I would likely have to take a lower salary on any position I would find, because I was previously at a national company and wages were reflective of that. Local companies typically pay less. My plan was to line up as much freelance writing as possible for day to day expenses as I looked for a job. My intention was to use my severance to pay off debt, so I could live on less pay when I did get a job. I tried to look at my layoff as “the gift of time,” and had a goal of networking with five people and applying for five positions each day. I also gave myself the goal of cleaning out one drawer or area in my house daily, taking on a volunteer project at my church, and writing a personal letter to a friend every day.
What is the biggest lesson you learned? Setting daily goals kept me motivated and engaged and up early each day. I never allowed myself the luxury of feeling sorry for myself. I reconnected with a lot of people and really tried to look at being unemployed as a gift of time. I went to the gym, had lunch with friends, and finally got the t-shirts together for a quilt for my son for graduation. I don’t know if I was lucky to find a new job in a little over a month, or if my attitude was a factor in that happening.
What do you love about your job currently? This job is the perfect combination of everything I’ve done in my career. It combines my years of being a magazine editor and newspaper reporter with the digital marketing experience I received at my last job. The founder of the company is a woman the same age who tries to hire the best people for the needs of the company, instead of just filling an empty seat. She saw that my experience in the market working with the media, as well as my writing experience, would be a benefit to the public relations team, so she created a new title and job description that reflects my skills and experience. It is also wonderful to be respected for the experience and skills I bring to the table, and to have younger members of the team say so.
Name: Lisa Wells
Current Job: Publicist, Lisa Wells PR
Years In Current Job: 7
Last Job: Global PR Director
Years In last Job: 2
What happened at your last job? After approximately 6 months, I found out what a miserable place it was to work at and then I spent the remainder of my time there looking for a new position just as I was turning 50. But it still came as a shock when my employer told me they were letting me go.
What pushed you to start your own PR firm? I had what seemed like the hundredth interview for a job that I was 10 years overqualified for when I realized that this wasn’t working out. It seemed like everyone wanted to interview me but no one wanted to hire me. I was too old, too overqualified, and looking for too high a starting salary. I vowed to myself then that I would make my own future and with the two small clients I secured, I started LWPR in my apartment.
What is the biggest lesson you learned? You can always count on yourself. Jobs come and go, companies go bankrupt, the economy can fail, but you can always count on yourself to work hard and build a future for yourself.
What do you love about your job currently? I love the freedom I have. I love making my own schedule. At first, I was in shock after working for large companies for so many years. I missed the camaraderie of an office, the benefits of working with a team, but after these last few years, I would never go back. The freedom to make my own schedule is worth thousands to me now.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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