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Growing up in technology

My experiences with ageism in the tech industry.

Women in tech is a hot topic, as it well should be. I have been working within the tech industry for 18 years, and I have certainly seen positive change, albeit depressingly slow in many companies and educational institutes. However, as we keep marching forward, it is now a subject that frequently comes up in conversation with clients, colleagues and friends alike.

However, a topic which is still relatively taboo is that of ageism in tech. Add to this the concept of women AND age, and you have a whole new ‘hot’ topic that still makes people squirm.

Now in my forties, I can’t help but lean towards discussing being an ‘older’ woman within what is traditionally a very youthful industry. As I sit here surrounded by mainly twenty- and early thirty-somethings, it’s hard to ignore the question: “Where do women in tech go once they hit 35?” I am hoping this is only a generational question, one that my younger colleagues won’t have to answer. What should be clear to me as the sole female throughout much of my further education and career, is that there weren’t many other women around in tech when we were twenty-something; which means that I don’t now have many female peers to join me in the battle for age inclusion.

Being ‘old’ in a fashionably young industry certainly can feel alienating. It dawns on me that at different ages as a woman in the industry I have had to deal with different kinds of challenges. I think many of these issues are as prevalent today as they were when I began my career, so I feel it’s worth summarizing my perceptions of the stages of the ages:

The Twenties

In my twenties, it was certainly a harsher environment for a woman. It was a time of trying to work and learn within a yoyo environment of verbal bullying, sexual objectification, and general condescension.

Now I believe the environment has improved somewhat, although still within great limitations. I see with the rise of the Silicon Valley-style entrepreneur, people have become pretty accustomed to encountering very young men in the industry. I haven’t seen them being treated differently for being young. If anything, there can be an assumption they will be more prodigious and impressive than their older colleagues. Women of this age group, on the other hand, can often be treated like ‘little girls'. I have seen a general tendency to treat the twenty-something woman with kid gloves, plus give secretarial-style tasks to young female devs. A woman in tech in her twenties isn’t automatically given respect; she has to prove herself and earn it right off the bat.

The mid-thirties

If you find yourself looking for a job around this age range, then good luck! If we don’t already have children at this age, there is a glaring assumption by many that we are going to disappear into motherhood any second. This opens a whole other topic of how the workplace should help women to have families and continue in the fast-moving environment of tech, but that is a big subject for another day. In the context of ageism, the mid-thirties are a time where many women have to prove to those around them that they are sticking around and are worth their employer’s commitment and colleagues’ efforts.

The late thirties and onwards

As I have already mentioned, due to a lack of women in the industry back in my grad days, we are in short supply right now, and this causes a whole array of uncomfortable scenarios. Now as a user experience designer, I find myself facilitating many workshops and leading many strategic conversations. I come across clients who have never encountered a ‘senior’ experienced female before. Situations can be as blatant as clients finding it hard to talk directly to me, but rather talk to the man sitting next to me. Building my credibility can take somewhat longer than I see for my male colleagues of the same level of experience. I am perceived differently. If I am forthright with my opinion or at all stern on plans, then I can be seen as a bossy nag, whereas my male colleague is a powerful icon.

I might be suggesting a dark future, but there is hope for something brighter. As I sit here at Thoughtworks, surrounded by mainly youthful colleagues, I feel more optimistic. Thoughtworks has found a path that works to change things very much for the better, and I feel it is a path that many more workplaces can realistically follow. So what is the secret sauce? I believe the main factor is support. We don’t have to fight battles as individuals here; we are a team of people, not women, not men, not young, not old. We are people who all believe in respecting people’s talents, hard work and experience. We help our clients to achieve the same level of respect and understanding. This is about so much more than the comfort of inclusion: it leads to an environment where we are not held back. We can be as productive and creative as we have the potential to be.

How to get there; Practical aspects that can help combat ageism in your workspace:
  • The flatter the hierarchy of the company, the better. This allows people of all ages to interact with and understand each other. I have found that being IN a team, rather than being the manager of a team has a great impact on how I am treated as an individual. This works both ways too. Before Thoughtworks I may have balked at being paired with someone in their early twenties, assuming that ‘pairing’ would mean the majority of my time was spent coaching. But I have found I have as much to learn from someone of 25 as there is from someone of 55. Indeed, I too have been guilty of making ageist assumptions.
  • There is no doubt in my mind that my experiences of ageism are intricately bound up with the fact that I am a woman. For older women, ageism and sexism occur hand in hand. It may seem silly, but it is worth using role play to work through scenarios which could occur for older women in your workplace. Doing this kind of activity with your colleagues can build so much more awareness and understanding than just a theoretical conversation.
  • We must also be aware that older male colleagues do not come across the same challenges as their female peers. There is an assumption of expertise based purely on  ‘‘the grey hair effect'. To be frank, I haven’t got a solution for this one yet. For every new client engagement, I have to prove myself and my experience before being recognized as an expert in my field. I do not see my male colleagues having the same experiences.  This is something that I hope will improve through awareness and more open discussion around the topic of ageism and women in this industry.

There is no getting around the fact that women over forty in this industry represent a small and incredibly important fraction of the tech community. Our experience is indicative of the obstacles the next generation of tech women may face, but also the potential of what they can go on to achieve. There is definitely a responsibility on the ‘older’ woman to show confidence over meekness, to be open rather than guarded. There is no doubt we have fought hard to be here, hopefully in part to give the next generation of women in tech a smoother journey than our own.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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