Here’s How to Start Closing Silicon Valley’s Age Gap
Tech companies must stop discriminating against people because of birthdate. Can this blueprint for change work?
Of the many mordant responses I’ve gotten from my initial post on age diversity in tech, one of the most disturbing was one the author did not share on Medium. A woman in her mid-40s, with an excellent resume and recent coding expertise, described to me how a 35-year-old with hiring responsibility told her outright, “I’m an ageist.” He opined that “older” people usually have dire flaws that will lead to remorse on the part of companies that took them on. To her credit, this woman felt not anger but pity on the man’s behalf. After, all by his standards, his own shelf life was reaching an end.
To her further credit, she remains upbeat. “I’ll land in a company that does value the experience, trial and error, failure and success,” she wrote to me.
I hope she does. But, as many of you have indicated, it will take more than high hopes to address the problem. In my last post, I asked for ideas. Your suggestions informed me as I drew up some of my own.
Include age data in diversity reports. Let’s see the numbers. Since the government actually requires companies to keep such statistics, it won’t be hard. But — as it has been when documenting women and people of color in a company — it may be embarrassing. That’s the point! Transparency is a first step towards solving the problem. The fact that companies don’t do this now emphasizes that we aren’t even at the stage of recognizing the problem.
Don’t fill a position without interviewing people of all ages. Many companies in the Valley now take pains to make sure that their hiring process includes women and people of color. That’s great. But they should also make sure that the hiring pool isn’t limited to under-30s. If a company has a Rooney Rule to make sure some groups are considered, that rule should be applied to older people as well. (A Rooney Rule dictates that posts should not be filled without minority candidates being interviewed.)
Stamp out the stereotypes. Because ageism is so seldom acknowledged, people say things about older people that they would never utter about other groups. (Red flag: the use of the term “young” as a superlative.) Here’s a newsflash — just because someone is a “digital native” does not mean he or she is automatically imbued with skills superior to those who have successfully shifted mastery from old technology to new. As Brodie Keast, a tech veteran (which, to my chagrin, has become a code word for “old’), wrote, the bogus stereotypes of older workers — lapsed skills, old ideas, toned-down work ethic, poor health, and unwillingness to “fit in” — are particularly insidious, because few bother to question them.
Keep culture inclusive. Yes, startups have the energy of puppies. That’s certainly the case at Medium, and I like it. It’s fresh and fun. But a corporate culture should make sure that its activities, as well as its general vibe, do not send a signal to workers over 40 or 50 that they are outsiders in the company. And companies should certainly be careful that they don’t implicitly believe that people of a certain age aren’t “culture fits.” Joelle Emerson, who runs “unconscious bias” sessions at tech companies, has a great suggestion — instead of that term, use the phrase culture add, “which moves away from the notion of who “fits in” with what you already have.
Recognize standouts. Though tech has a long way to go before achieving gender diversity, it’s starting to do a good job of calling out role models: women who dispel any myths that females can’t excel at science or coding, and who are also just amazeballs. Why not something similar for people over 40 — not only the accomplished people whose names you know, but the steady workers who are often the backbone of a company’s efforts in product development, communications or biz-dev. And here’s an ask for older workers: instead of keeping your head down — or shooting it up with Botox — show pride in your experience, skills, and just plain awesomeness. Don’t hide your age, own it.
Some responders to my posts call for unholstering the legal gunnery and filing age-discrimination suits. While I don’t want to deny anyone a day in court — and can easily imagine individual cases where that may be justified — I think that it’s more constructive, and ultimately will be more effective, to get the idea across to tech leaders that an age-diverse workforce is an advantage. And then to see if they’re following principles like the ones suggested above.
Whiz kids need geezers. To put it more gently, a company is weaker, less moral, and possibly in violation of law when it doesn’t hire or treat older workers equitably. I hope this series has at least raised consciousness about the subject. It’s got some of you talking, and it would be great if you kept it up, circulated and discussed these suggestions, and made sure that all tech leaders got the message.
And I look forward to a day when talking about age diversity is no longer necessary.
If I live that long.
Do you think these suggestions are a good start? What else can we do? Or do you believe in a different approach, or none at all? Please keep our conversation going by responding below.