On the last day of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, I sat on stage with four developers watching incredulously as 150 stadium seats filled to capacity. Named for the computer programming pioneer and Navy Admiral Grace Hopper, this conference is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, and our workshop, #TechAtAnyAge, was the very last session of the 3-day event. GHC is notorious for wearing attendees out, so in the final hours of the conference we had expected only a small group; instead there were attendees queuing out the door.
Our topic was Challenges and Success Strategies for Every Age and Stage of Your Tech Career. The workshop was facilitated by four ThoughtWorks consultants and Alaina Percival, the CEO of Women Who Code. This was a reprise of a panel some of us had done earlier that year at Lesbians Who Tech; this time, however, we were shedding our powerpoints to facilitate Lean In-type circles for a more interactive discussion. We compiled provocative prompts like “How can I support other women technologists without sidelining my career?” to spur conversation on both obstacles and solutions.
We started the workshop the same way we began the panel: introducing ourselves by name, role, and importantly, age. I didn’t realize until the words came out of my mouth, but there is something revolutionary about standing up on stage and sharing your age with a room of colleagues. There’s a resonance in the unspoken; a recognition of expectations set around age and the silent pressure we place on each other—and ourselves—based on (real or perceived) age.
Young People are Just Smarter
In the past five years, nearly every business and tech publication has spelled it out - ageism in tech is as severe a diversity issue as race and gender homogeneity. But bias against older hires is unique in that it is still socially acceptable - as clarified by countless job descriptions looking for “recent grads” or Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous comment “...young people are just smarter”. Add the fact that women suffer even more bias in jobs as they age and you get a sense of the magnitude.
I first recognized this complexity last spring while driving to the airport. I was several months into a project requiring full weeks of travel to a client site, and I called my colleague Carol, also on the road, to commiserate on the difficulties of our lifestyle. In chatting, we quickly realized that (in our mid-30s and 40s, respectively) we were the oldest women on our teams by far. Was it just a coincidence or could age be part of our distress in keeping up?
Our health needs and social interests contrasted to those around us. Our coworkers, most of whom were in their 20s, would go out for barbeque and plan account meetings over beers at 9pm on a Monday night. Meanwhile, Carol and I were balancing physical therapy, early morning FaceTime calls with family, and hauling around bags of snacks to avoid low blood sugar between meetings. We "came out" to each other about our nagging sense of isolation, and the feelings of embarrassment and inferiority that often followed. Having faced gender bias, homophobia, and classism at earlier points in our career, we were surprised to find that age was rapidly becoming our biggest vulnerability.
We decided to formulate a presentation on ageism and tech. We hoped that spotlighting the issue would inspire connections with women facing similar struggles. But upon sharing our drafts with colleagues, we got some pretty poor reviews. One said that the topic was too narrow and could alienate younger people; another that it was depressing and we should focus on something more positive.
And so for a few days, we hesitated. As I considered the feedback, I worried that the issue would seem obvious, unimportant, or pale in comparison to more "substantial" biases. Carol wondered if we were representing ourselves or ThoughtWorks in a negative light.
Looking back, it was plainly ironic. Carol and I were raised as women and thus taught to put the well-being of others ahead of ourselves. So like many women, confidence in our abilities waned as we started to consider our audience. In an industry that often minimizes our experiences, sexism (and our internalization of it) threatened to overshadow our plot to highlight ageism against technical women.
But fortunately for Carol and I, this was not our first rodeo. So even as the feelings of self-doubt crept in, we knew how to manage.
Here is what we did:
- We acknowledged it by confiding in each other that we were feeling unsure.
- We took a step back, and interrogated that feeling of insecurity to see if there was something beneath it.
- We turned to our wider support systems, people that we trusted, for guidance.
When Carol and I interrogated our insecurities about how we would be perceived, we uncovered something. Behind our concerns of being personally criticized was a productive and legitimate critique of our own methods. We noticed that our preoccupation over the presentation’s reception was distracting us and obscuring our focus. We also saw how our viewpoint on ageism was limited, and that while our identities represented various types of intersecting oppressions (sexual and gender identity, to name a few), there would still be many voices unrepresented.
Leveraging our networks helped us get another perspective. As we discussed our topic with coworkers, many of whom were from other age groups, we realized that ageism was affecting nearly all the women in tech that we knew, just in different ways. We found that even women at the top of their career were still being tokenized (“How do you continue to keep up with the tech industry?”) and also heard stories from younger women, repeatedly sent on coffee runs or asked to take notes, receiving the message that their time was less important.
Bigger than the Both of Us
Talking to other women helped us to realize the power of community. Hearing each other’s real experiences was validating, and galvanized the universality of the issue. Newly inspired, we decided to deepen the conversation. We created the hashtag #techatanyage and recruited more voices to join us in a panel and share stories.
Four months later we were at the Grace Hopper conference, about to broaden the conversation even further. Big sticky pads with sample “challenges" seeded themed discussions like The Hidden Costs of Emotional Labor and Micro-Aggressions. One hour later, women of all different ages and places had filled our poster boards covered with stories from their own lives.
So how do you combat ageism against women in tech? The responses ranged from ambitious to pragmatic.
Combating Ageism in Tech
For those starting a career, the advice was very pointed. They suggested tackling micro-aggressions head on, calling out someone who constantly interrupts or suggesting that everyone rotates as note-taker. Younger women are often pressured to perform emotional labor, and encouraged each other to sidestep becoming "the team therapist".
Mid-career technologists struggled to remain technical as their companies pushed them into management roles. These women felt that a firm "No" was the best policy here, and resolved to avoid "being pushed onto committees" and other softer skilled activities.
For these women, balancing personal life and work often involved using the 80/20 rule, and having the courage to get things "done, not perfect".
Women further along in their careers spoke about selectivity. In order to keep their core focus technical, they had to turn down numerous requests to mentor younger or less experienced developers. Instead, they looked to their network of more junior women in tech to recommend for these roles.
These seasoned technologists had differing proposals for fighting the bias against older women in technology. Some favored dressing younger and avoided discussing their age. Others felt that they could escape this stereotype through their own hard work, and in the meantime advised “Ignoring the haters”.
Other strategies echoed the lessons Carol and I had learned in preparation for #techatanyage. “Recognize that you’re not alone”, “Articulate your viewpoint”, and “Get support from your community” came up in every group. Another theme was that of setting boundaries; being firm about your limits when you are criticized, pushed, or questioned.
So the journey is iterative. It doesn’t get solved, but it does get better, simply by standing with other empowered technologists in calling attention to these issues. It seems that part of the work of being a woman in #techatanyage is recognizing that you can’t be afraid of upsetting people, and not everyone has to like you (or your workshop). Focus on yourself first. You don’t have to apologize.