Coding While Old: Race And Sex Aren’t The Only ‘Isms In Tech

Written by Dana Sanchez

Race, gender and sexuality have had a high profile in the diversity and inclusion discussion, but a marked increase in the number of age discrimination lawsuits shows that age is the tech industry’s “elephant in the room.”

The median age of Google’s staff is 26; Facebook’s is 28, according to Payscale.

That’s why it’s news when a woman in her 50s loses a high-paying job as a research physicist, decides to learn to code and lands a job doing so.

Gillian Reynolds-Titko had to find a new line of work when her 20-year career ended as a research physicist for DuPont. She decided to become a programmer. Thanks to a boot camp program, she was hired five months later as an IT business analyst at JPMorgan Chase, Business Insider reported.

After being laid off in 2016, Reynolds-Titko enrolled in a programming boot camp near her home called “Zip Code Wilmington. She’s a woman and was the oldest person in her coding boot camp but said didn’t experience ageism or sexism there. She was too busy, she said, studying 100 hours a week in the 12-week program.

She admits it was a risk becoming a programmer at her age. “I didn’t know if anyone would want to hire me,” she said, “but it was a risk worth taking”:

She was shocked at how hard it was to learn programming. “It was, on average, 100 hours a week, for 12 weeks,” she said. And while her background in math and science was helpful, it wasn’t mandatory, Reynolds-Titko said.

“In our cohort we had everybody — restaurant managers, retail backgrounds, people like me who did science,” Reynolds-Titko said. “If you could think logically, you could learn this. It was more about, do you have the grit to stick to something and figure it out?”

The most desirable age group for U.S. tech workers is 25 to 30 — they receive the highest average number of job offers, according to research by online marketplace in its 2017 State of Salaries report. 

Salaries for tech workers peak between ages 45 to 50. Older workers see a significant drop in their ability to be paid commensurate with experience.

Even though it’s illegal to make recruitment decisions based on age, “age discrimination appears to be rampant in the tech industry,” said Kelli Dragovich, senior vice president of people operations at Hired, according to a Diginomica report:

After a certain age, experience becomes less important and a candidate’s likelihood of being hired may be impacted by less tangible factors such as culture fit or experience with new technologies. Dragovich attributes much of the problem to “unfair and inaccurate stereotypes”, which manifest themselves in everything from middle managers feeling threatened by more experienced candidates to hiring managers who demonstrate unconscious bias against older candidates.

“Organisations are often myopically focused on culture fit, which consequently leads to biases in their interview processes,” she said. “Given that most startups, for example, skew on the young side, this means that many interviewers automatically reject people who are older than them as they don’t believe they’ll be suitable for the organisational culture.”

The digital revolution has led to changing demand for skill sets, leaving some marginalized and others highly sought after, Diginomica reported.

Since 2012, 90 age-related complaints have been filed against a dozen top tech companies in Silicon Valley, USAToday reported in November.

Four former HP employees claimed age discrimination in a lawsuit filed in August 2016 alleging they were purged unfairly as part of a major restructuring. The proposed class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., claimed the tech giant “made it a priority to transform itself from an ‘old’ company into a ‘younger’ operation.”

Google was sued for alleged age bias in hiring with a trial scheduled for 2017, USA Today reported. The lawsuit begins like this: “How does age factor into one’s Googleyness? Plaintiffs Cheryl Fillekes and Robert Heath allege that it plays a significant role.” The suit was filed in federal court in San Jose in October, citing the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

HP and Google said they planned to defend themselves in court.

It’s a stereotype that older workers take longer to get to grips with new skills, said Patrick Voss, managing director at Jeito, a consultancy specializing in organizational culture and employee engagement. He cites a study by Boston College that explores negative perceptions around older employees. The study questioned people of different ages. The younger the people questioned, the less likely they were to think of workers age 55 or older as reliable, productive, adaptable, eager for training and flexible.

In an industry that always feels it needs to innovate and advocate new technology to keep things moving, it’s possibly unsurprising that a younger, more connected workforce is seen as a way to drive that, Voss said. … Younger people often seem more interested in the ‘next big thing’ and constantly wanting to tinker than more experienced workers do.

When Software maker Atlassian released data on the age breakdown of its employees in an effort to shine a light on age discrimination in the tech industry, Huff Post wrote about it.

Tech companies have been resistant to hire older workers or go public with how few of them they have on staff. Atlassian provided perspective on the value of an age-diverse staff. Of Atlassian’s 1,500 employees, 13 percent are in their 40s and 2 percent are in their 50s. Almost every team at least one person 40 or older.

“A large part of our diversity strategy is focused on understanding, recognizing and celebrating the unique viewpoints and perspectives each person brings to our company,” said Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s 27-year-old global head of diversity and inclusion, in a HuffPost interview:

“Age is an important category because it plays a large role in shaping our identities and perspectives. It’s also important to highlight given the obvious patterns, but lack of transparency about ageism in the tech industry. It’s the elephant in the room.”