Ageism in the tech industry

Benedetta Doro investigates why age inclusion matters in tech and what companies can do to promote more diversity. 

Ageism in tech - discrimination sign concept


Read about National Older Workers Week

In 2016, 18% of people were aged 65 and over, and by 2046, it is expected that 25% of the UK’s population will be 65 and over. For this reason, people are now investing more than ever before in innovative age tech start-ups.

However, the number of older people working in the tech industry does not reflect this interest and the situation seems to be worsening year by year.

In the UK in 2020 there were 13,000 unemployed IT specialists aged 50 and over compared to 8,000 in 2019, recent research from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, found. Also, despite 31% of the UK’s workforce being over 50 years old, only 22% of people working in IT roles are in that age group.

Ageism in tech starts early, with people older than 35 often considered too old for the industry.

The additional challenge of being a woman

If being a man above the age of 30 working in tech is difficult, being a woman brings extra obstacles. Similarly to other industries, there is systematic gender bias, but, on top of this, ageing in an industry that values youthfulness makes it even harder to survive.

Dr Andrea Rosales, a researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, says: “It’s an additional layer to the discrimination. In addition to being older, if you are a woman, you have more stereotypes on your side that you have to break down, and then you have to demonstrate all the time that despite being older and a woman, you can still contribute to the community.”

This is Mary’s case. She is now 59 years-old, with a degree in electronic engineering. She says she has spent her career fighting to be considered an equal to her male peers.

It was during her first graduate job when she realised that her career progression was not going to be the same as her male colleagues. They were being sent out on additional training courses by the company she was working for. So, she decided to go back to university and did a postgraduate management course. But that did not cut it either, and, once she returned to the office, after having had her second child, she decided to do PhD. Although, Mary* never finished her PhD due to medical reasons, she still attends both in-person and online courses to keep up with changes in her industry.

Despite her extensive training and years of experience in working in the industry, she feels her skills are still being questioned due to stereotypes related to older women. Mary recalls an instance where a professional institution which she was a member of published an article with a headline stating that the new system was “so easy to use now even your mum can learn to code”.

“That was only 10 years ago, and even today, people presume that a middle-aged woman couldn’t possibly be a proper techie. According to them we’re only just learning about this stuff,” says Mary, who says she has personally encountered this bias despite having 20 years of experience of working with world-class chip designers and world-class automotive electronics designers.

Tackling societal stigma

One of the main reasons why there are only a few workers over 50 in tech is because of the social biases when it comes to older people and technology. It is often wrongly believed that the older you are there more difficulty you will find in learning new technologies.

“There is a presumption that older people don’t understand technology, whereas the world around us was designed by the older people,” says Mary.

Another assumption is that once workers get older they are not as passionate about their jobs as a 20 year old would be. Dr Rosales explains: “The problem is not that the job is not their priority, or that they are not committed to their job, but it’s the general thinking amongst programmers that if you’re over 35 you’re too old and this is a reflection of  company policies.”

That includes recruitment policies. Dr Rosales says the first step is to recognise the dangers of ‘groupthink’ due to most employees being from a similar demographic.  “Creating awareness is the first step to breaking the stigma associated with age,” she says.

Why age diversity in tech matters

There is a clear business reason for becoming more aware of age bias and taking action. One of the reasons is to do with the products being developed. Dr Rosales says: “Typically tech companies, specifically programmers, are young white men.” She adds that previous studies have shown that women or people from ethnic minorities are often not considered when designing a product, often due to a lack of diversity on the design team.

She states: “It’s the same for age. If you don’t have people of different ages on your team you will probably miss the nuances of the product experience for other audiences.”

In cases where that diversity is not met, it is likely companies are missing out on the opportunity to create a product that appeals to more people. Moreover, having employees coming from different backgrounds has been shown to lead to a more creative environment.

Studies have found that diverse teams are more likely to achieve better results than homogenous ones. Other research has found that diverse companies “make better business decisions 87% of the time and improve team results by 60%”. Inclusion and diversity means bringing different cultures and backgrounds together, which can result in creative and innovative ideas to solve problems or a better chance of bringing something new to the market.

Another problem mentioned by Dr Rosales is a narrow focus on certain consumers. “In general, most technologies are used by people of all different age groups. If you think about bank accounts, games, social networks, news, content platforms, the most common technologies are used by people of different ages so taking into account their different perspectives is important to reflect and support all the needs of different users,” she says.

Not addressing this represents a missed opportunity to attract different audiences. “Society considers that older people are not into digital technologies, but they are and there is a big part of the population who is over 65, so if you don’t take into account older people, you are missing around 20% of the population,” explains Dr Rosales.

How employers can tackle ageism in tech

 As the population grows older and stays in work for longer due to the rising retirement age and other factors, it is important that industries reflect this change.

The BCS study found that if people over 50 were reskilled to work in technology, the UK workforce would have an additional 119,000 IT specialists and the digital skills gap would be narrowed.

One concrete step employers could take, according to Dr Rosales, is to re-evaluate the benefits they offer new recruits. Typically, tech companies offer benefits which suits younger employees with no family responsibilities, such as social events in the evenings. Also, having to travel a lot or working late at night might not be ideal for older workers so regulating working hours to suit more employees and offering more flexibility where possible could help attract a wider pool of workers.

According to Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review, another way to overcome age discrimination is giving older people titles and roles that reflect their expertise. This can be done without having to increase their pay exponentially, which would then lead more companies to replace them with younger and “cheaper” employees. However, recognising their worth and experience is important.

The HBR article also suggests coaching recruiters in how not to discriminate by age, tackling implicit biases, bridging age diversity in Diversity and Inclusion programmes, and teaching younger leaders about reverse mentoring in cases when they are managing older workers.

Experts say all of these small steps can make a big difference to improve both the creativity of the workforce and understanding of the large and growing number of older consumers.

*Mary is not her real name.

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