Ageism is just as toxic and divisive as sexism, and digital businesses are potentially missing out, writes John Kennedy.
Throughout most of my career, I have sat with people who don’t necessarily conform to your clichéd male, twentysomething tech entrepreneur in a branded T-shirt and a penchant for expensive coffee.
Only in recent days, I have met men and women in their 50s, for example, who have shown as much potency and passion to rip apart the worlds of fintech and IoT as people decades younger who occupy the same stage at tech events. And no one bats an eyelid – they listen carefully, even respectfully.
‘If we think of Ireland competing internationally and having a wide workforce that is digitally and entrepreneurially capable, stepping out of the cosy job situation and trying something different is a good thing to do’
– BEN HURLEY
But yet, when we talk about diversity, it is 90pc of the time portrayed purely as a battle of the sexes that leaves out the other areas where blindsides occur, most notably the treatment of minorities and ageism, which no one seems especially keen to talk about – at least, not yet.
To truly champion diversity, you must champion diversity in all its forms, not just one or two aspects.
Silicon Valley and now Hollywood are being rightly called out for abuses of power as victims say enough is enough.
Across the US, an understanding of what ‘white male privilege’ has meant for so long is gaining slow but painful acceptance.
But we all know this will be a long and difficult road with possibly no end.
The tech world’s many blindsides, hidden for so long by industry dogma and hubris, can be easily summed up by white male privilege, but it actually runs a lot deeper than that.
Cruelty of the times
Before the industry took the shape of an industry, what passed for tech occurred in backyard sheds or in secure military vaults or quaint country houses such as Bletchley Park, where men and women codebreakers helped to win wars but went mostly unacknowledged. The cruelty of those times could also be summed up by what happened to another unacknowledged hero, Alan Turing, for being homosexual.
To me, an image that sums up how tech’s sexist and ageist blindside has run deep for decades would be the poignant 1961 Valentine’s Day cover image from The New Yorker by Charles Addams – creator of The Addams Family – which showed an image of a lone, middle-aged woman working at a computer workstation. It conjured up an age where computing was seen as women’s work. In fact, women were the computers.
I made a nod to this in a previous article where I also referred to the work of Kathy Kleiman, co-producer of The Computers and founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project, who recounted how the role of women in the history of technology has been shamefully overlooked; from Ada Lovelace to major breakthroughs during the World Wars.
Somewhere along the way, however, tech went from being seen as purely women’s work to taking on clichéd forms that were increasingly male dominated. And younger, too.
For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, the industry wore a business mantle typified by slick IBM salesmen in blue suits. That was disrupted by the arrival of the Zen-like, young, hippy Steve Jobs at the West Coast Computer Faire in 1977 where he demonstrated the Apple II for the first time.
During Microsoft’s ascent throughout the PC era of the 1980s and 1990s, khaki chinos and polo shirts were the uniform of the affluent, male tech business lead, while the programmers (mostly portrayed as socially awkward men in death-metal T-shirts) hid in murky server rooms playing Doom.
Today, the image of success in tech is the cliché of a bro: a twentysomething Mark Zuckerberg wannabe. You’ll see loads of these at any one of countless tech conferences anywhere in the world.
The notion of tech as being a young man’s game is not only a blindside as vile as sexism, but it is doing a disservice to countless numbers of men and women who still have plenty to offer.
Missing out on this experience economy because of ageism is as heinous as the tech world missing out on 50pc of its potential by not properly including women.
The experience economy
In most cultures, elders are respected and regarded as a source of wisdom. However, in tech, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
A survey of 1,011 US employees by Indeed found that half of workers at tech firms were millennials while 26pc were over the age of 40. Not only do employees witness an imbalance in age representation, it is also causing anxiety, with close to half (43pc) worrying about losing their job because of their age. Nearly one-fifth (18pc) worry about it all the time.
It is a strange anomaly when you consider that one of the most hotly anticipated tech events of the year – the unveiling of the latest iOS devices by Apple – is generally presided over by a leadership team mostly in their 50s.
LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman is in his 50s while the CEO of Slack, one of the fastest-growing software companies in the world, is 43-year-old Stewart Butterfield. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – considered the ultimate bro that the bros aspire to – is no spring chicken at 33, while his COO and c0-leader Sheryl Sandberg is 48. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is 53.
During the week, I spoke with Ben Hurley, CEO of NDRC in Dublin – one of Europe’s most successful accelerators – who revealed that the average age of a founder at NDRC was 36. At the accelerator’s most recent Investor Day, the judges all remarked on the age and gender diversity of the 11 companies that took part.
What was remarkable was that all of the founders – ranging from young people in their early 20s to those in their 30s, 40s and 50s – had all applied real-world experience and insight to deliver real solutions to actual problems with actual markets identified. None of these were ideas in search of a market.
“I think what is happening here is that digital entrepreneurship is much wider than a cool twentysomething,” Hurley said. “This [NDRC] is not a place for cool twentysomethings to hang out; the diversity we have in our cohorts and age is a big part of that. The average age is 36 or so. It is really important and it shows the kind of experiences being brought in by these enterprises, and the depth of that experience is really useful.”
Hurley hit on another reality that often stymies would-be entrepreneurs as they get older: in their 20s, people have less risk but, as mortgages and babies come along, people in their 30s and 40s become more risk averse, and with good reason.
While Ireland still has some work to do on the tax front – the removal of income tax from the reward of share options is a right step – initiatives such as the 2015 SURE scheme, which lets founders claim 41pc of their tax back on earnings over the last six years, could help entrepreneurs in their 40s and 50s to gain the confidence to get started.
“If we think of Ireland competing internationally and having a wide workforce that is digitally and entrepreneurially capable, stepping out of the cosy job situation and trying something different is a good thing to do.
“Working in diverse groups is going to be really attractive for not just forming start-up businesses, but tapping into that experience for other companies considering coming to Ireland.”
And that’s just it. The digital economy is becoming the economy. Every industry is being digitally transformed. Every company is in some way becoming a tech company.
But the fundamentals of doing business – the customer being always right, or the handling of sensitive situations – these all require wisdom and experience.
Do not be blind to tapping into that experience economy, and do not allow your age to hold back your potential.
Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.