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Age discrimination: An overlooked diversity issue in tech

When people talk about a lack of diversity in technology, age discrimination is not the first issue to come to mind, but it’s one that is prolific across the UK’s tech sector

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Over recent times, the tech industry has been rocked with apparently endless high-profile age discrimination lawsuits.

IBM, for example, is in the process of being sued by a number of different parties for what was claimed in a report by ProPublica and Mother Jones as far back as 2018 to be systematic efforts to get rid of older employees and replace them with younger ones. Recent court documents contend that the company’s “highest executives created and attempted to conceal a multi-faceted ‘fire-and-hire’ scheme with the ultimate goal of making IBM’s workforce younger”.

A similar lawsuit against HP was given the green light in April, after five plaintiffs alleged they were part of a process of illegally selecting older workers for dismissal under the supplier’s multi-year Workforce Restructuring Initiative, which began in 2012.

But they are scarcely the only ones. So just what is going on here? Despite the tech industry’s persistent hand-wringing over talent shortages and the continual launch of one diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiative after another to try and resolve the skills crisis, why does the issue of age discrimination continue to rear its ugly head? Is it simply the unfortunate reflection of a sector that really is as notoriously ageist as the popular stereotype suggests?

The answer to the latter question appears to be a resounding “yes” – although more so in less mature subsectors, such as software and the digital startup world, and less so among established companies and more mature subsectors, such as telecoms or hardware.

While most of the available data seems to have been complied pre-pandemic, a report by CWJobs at the end of 2019 revealed that the average UK tech worker starts experiencing age discrimination at the tender age of 29, nearly a decade earlier than the national average. As a result, by the time they hit 38, they are considered by colleagues to be ‘over the hill’, with 35% saying they are classed as too old for their role and 32% afraid of losing their job as a result.

Unsurprisingly then, just over two out of five (41%) acknowledged having observed age discrimination in the workplace compared to an average of 27% across other UK industries. The most common form this bias takes consists of older workers not being offered a job (47%), being overlooked for promotion (31%) and excluded from social activities (28%).

Age discrimination in action

If statistics across the wider economy are anything to go by though, the situation has only got worse since the pandemic struck. The Office for National Statistics indicates that over 50s have been hit harder than any group other than the under-25s, who were disproportionately employed in distressed sectors, such as leisure and hospitality.

In the case of older staff though, not only were they more likely to have had their working hours reduced, but they also experienced higher levels of long-term furloughing, making them now the most likely group to lose their jobs and become unemployed long-term.

This unfortunate state of affairs is similarly reflected in research from Rest Less, an online community for the over-50s. It found that the number of age discrimination complaints made to employment tribunals from workers across all sectors has risen faster than any other category year-on-year. The figure hit 3,668 in 2020, up from 2,112 in 2019, and is expected to increase still further over the year ahead.

As Perrine Farque, founder of DEI consultancy Inspired Human and author of Inclusion: The ultimate secret for an organization’s success, succinctly puts it: “As always when there’s a crisis, the most vulnerable are the first to go. Covid’s been used as a cover by many organisations for age discrimination and as an excuse to get rid of older workers in order to cut costs as they were seen as too expensive in the face of a recession.”

The most at risk professionals in this context, she says, were those that had failed to move into senior leadership positions, staying too long in the same middle management or technical roles, which caused them in many instances to stagnate due to lack of training or promotion. On being made redundant, such individuals tend to set up their own businesses, become consultants or even leave the tech sector altogether.

What is the tech industry’s age problem?

As to why the industry is so ageist in the first place though is a complex question. One of the ongoing challenges is that the common stereotype of a tech worker, which despite lots of hard work to dispel it still consists of a young, white male, tends to be self-reinforcing.

The statement made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over a decade ago that “young people are just smarter” certainly did not help here, is still widely remembered and continues to resonate in the common perception that youthful professionals are more tech-savvy and able to learn new skills more easily.

Sheree Atcheson, global director of diversity and inclusion at digital agency for business transformation Valtech, explains the problem: “It’s the widespread idea that young people have more tech fluency and are able to pivot more quickly. In a start-up situation, another issue is about them being able to take a lower wage and higher levels of equity which pays off later, an approach that doesn’t work for a lot of older people with family responsibilities.”

But the sector faces other age-related challenges too. One that is often not discussed relates to recruitment. A recent study by health and wellness consultancy ProAge and the 55/Redefined online platform, for instance, discovered young recruiters were much more likely than older ones to hire people of their own age – a finding that would seem particularly pertinent in the tech industry given its young age profile.

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As Deirdre Golden, a consultant at DEI consultancy Included, points out: “When organisations talk about older workers, they’re usually referring to someone who’s stayed with them until later life. It’s much less about new recruits, but to create an age-inclusive workforce, you have to look at all strata.”

Another consideration, meanwhile, relates to “cultural resistance” and the assumptions made about the potential decline in the physical and mental health and abilities of the over 50s. Other concerns relate to possible tensions with younger staff, particularly if older workers are required to report into them, and the fact that their experience inevitably makes them more expensive in terms of renumeration.

The resulting “conscious and unconscious bias” generated by these situations can lead to “subtle acts of discrimination and micro-aggressions that are difficult to prove”, says Farque. These include the use of ageist comments disguised as “banter”, the most common, according to the CWJobs survey, being “old fart” (heard by 61%) and “dinosaur” (56%). Another popular statement is that “old people don’t understand technology” (60%).

The benefits of older workers

Despite all of this though, there are advantages to employing older people, believes Josh Bersin, founder and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy for HR professional development. For example, most are used to “managing complex, difficult and disruptive work environments”, not least as “they’ve been through ‘this’ before, probably a few times”.

They are also “generally more experienced as managers and teammates and are generally great mentors to other people”, says Bersin.

“Young people who are not sure what to do with their career can get useful direction from somebody older.”

Atcheson agrees. “The key is creating a balanced workforce, but if the focus is on youth, it’s not balanced,” she says. “Older people have much more experience and insights, which when taken together with the fresh ideas and ways of doing things provided by younger people, is very impactful.”

A further consideration, says Vicky Sleight, director of diversity and inclusion at telecoms industry association TM Forum, is the danger of missing out on potential revenue streams.

The idea here is that because technology products tend to be “designed by younger people for younger people” without taking older age groups into consideration, they often decline to buy or use them, which can lead to missed sales opportunities among a rapidly growing and affluent demographic.

Why is age bias still a problem?

So with all of this in mind, why has the tech industry so far done so little to tackle the age discrimination challenge, and what can realistically be done about it anyway?

An important point to consider in this context, says Atcheson, is that until last year – when ethnicity rose up the agenda due to the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd in the US – most DEI-related issues outside of the gender debate were routinely “ignored”.

“Due to the widespread focus on gender in tech, diversity and inclusion discussions were in the main about one kind of woman as if she was a monolith, which meant that other things like age, disability and ethnicity weren’t considered,” she says. “In general over the past decade, but in tech specifically, most organisations have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to this when what you really need is an intersectional approach.”

To address this challenge, Atcheson recommends undertaking three key activities. The first consists of collecting age-related employee data to understand the age profile and makeup of the workforce.

The second involves gaining some insight into what the employee experience is like for people across all age groups and ensuring that benefits packages are not overly geared to a single demographic.

The final action entails addressing bias in recruitment and promotion processes by using the data collected to understand current dynamics. This includes getting a handle on which age groups are being hired and which are being bypassed, which are progressing and which are not, and which are receiving training or being overlooked.

On the upside though, there does appear to be some hope on the horizon that things may improve, says Farque. “When it comes to DEI, the focus has to date been first on gender, followed by ethnicity. But as the definition of DEI is changing and becoming broader, other criteria, such as age, are gaining in importance – it’s a slow shift but it is happening,” she concludes.

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