I didn’t think it would happen to me.
I’ve had a really interesting journey this past few months. I’m fortunate to be ‘in demand’ and to take my work to wherever it finds me. Interesting projects are not in short supply and my network brings me into collaboration with great teams. Yet I can’t help but notice some uncomfortable trends in the sector and a couple of recent experiences have also inspired me to write this. I’ve seen ageism for the first time and it’s truly shocked me.
Just to be clear, I’m not writing this as a way of venting my spleen, but to raise a very serious issue, particularly in the tech industry, which is my world. Inequality is alive and well and it’s not just about gender and diversity. It’s about age.The figures speak for themselves. Last year’s 2017 report from Indeed (based on the US, but highly relevant here), stated that 43% of tech workers worry about losing their job because of their age, and 46% of employees at tech firms are Millennials. Closer to home in the UK, and the Harvey Nash Technology Survey 2018 says ‘Once workers hit the big 4-0, their perceived future career success takes a nosedive. 33 per cent of tech professionals aged 40-44 worry their age will negatively impact their chances of future career success’.
That’s before we mention gender imbalance, especially on pay. So, it’s a double whammy for those of us women over 50 (just). In the UK, for example, 83 percent of people working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers are men. The average wage for a man in UK IT is £78,599. For a woman, it’s £59,209.
When experience counts against you
A Financial Times piece investigates the ageism that 62-year-old Bob Crum experienced when looking for a new job. He’d worked with many of the significant big technology firms Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems etc, but Crum started to find that his wealth of experience was actually a hindrance instead of a help.
“I was told ‘we decided to give this job to someone earlier in their career, your experience was a long time ago’,” he explained to the FT. “Those were hurtful things to say to someone who was eminently qualified.”
That’s exactly what happened to me last week. I was rejected for a job for which I am not only eminently qualified, but which needed someone with a very unique and broad range of experience and contacts. The feedback was ‘you didn’t have enough recent digital leadership experience’. A quick look at my profile and you’ll see that simply isn’t the case.
My observation as an older job hunter (and according to my small straw poll) is that getting a job is now much like going on Tinder for those of us who were schooled in job hunting in the 1990s or before. It’s terrifying. Decisions are made on a completely superficial level and even when great headhunters have been involved, the interview panel often lack the interviewing skills or the experience to know what they need.
The tech industry desperately needs the experience and the diversity.
According to the latest official figures, there are almost 2m people working in technology in the UK. Job creation in IT is running at double the rate of the wider economy. But by 2020, it’s forecast there will be 800,000 unfilled tech jobs in the UK– and that’s without considering the potential impact of Brexit. Some 18% of UK IT professionals were born overseas – lose many of them and the expected skills shortage becomes even more acute.
The many initiatives to teach girls to code early – that’s great. Very important. But there’s much more to technology that coding. What about the business skills of understanding your customers, creating communities, being able to sell your product into large, rather more old-fashioned organisations like governments and multinationals? What about the important skills of leadership drawing on experience?
If you all think the same way and you create a cult of non-dissent, then no one will tell you when they think something’s going wrong. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that you embrace people with diverse experience in your teams. We’ve known this for a very long time.
Susan Bowen, chair of the Women in Tech Council at TechUK wrote this in an open letter:
“Tech companies that fail to embrace diversity are doomed to fail. Businesses that are diverse in terms of gender, age and race are more likely to have access to problem-solvers who can empathise with a diverse customer base. To bolster the breadth of perspectives they have access to, tech companies need to get ahead of the skills gap and look to those returning to work or looking for a second career.”
I have worked alongside some incredibly exciting startups and projects involved in emerging technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Smart tech, blockchain and cryptocurrencies and Artificial Intelligence.
We need women and people with experience working with these emerging technologies. We need technologies that solve really big world problems, not more swipy things. AI and machine learning are already used to make and support decisions or processes that affect people’s lives: in hiring, education, finance and the way our public services run. So, it’s critical to ensure that the algorithms are not biased toward or against individuals from particular demographic groups and generations.
A waste of talent
I feel very lucky to have spent so many years around the technology world. I’ve learned how to manage through chaos (in fact I love it1), pivot with adroitness and oh yes, I’ve learned to fail fast and move on. I’m continually learning, shaping, collaborating and generally staying excited about stuff. These are skills I’ll be needing for the rest of my life.
Right now, I want you to hire me.
Use up some of that energy and enthusiasm for what technology can do for you and for your company. I’m scared too by the pace of change, but I’m rolling with it and I’m happy to buddy up if you want a critical friend on the journey.
Hire me for a small or a big challenge – just throw it at me. The benefit of experience is that I’m pretty sure that if I haven’t done it before, my wonderful, diverse network will show me how to do it.
Alex Butler has a broad range of board level experience in marketing and digital technology, and is a specialist in digital innovation and transformation, working across a number of industries.
Until 2010 she led the transformation of the UK Government’s approach to and use of digital technologies establishing a programme of activity to improve the UK government’s online services. Responsible for the original service proposition for Directgov, the UK Government’s citizen website, she also established and ran a new digital delivery division, the forerunner of the UK’s Government Digital Service.
Since then, as an independent consultant, Alex has worked with the BBC, Argos, the Guardian and the RIBA leading significant digital transformation and organisational change programmes.