Protocol | Workplace

‘You remind me of my mom’: How older workers get sidelined in tech

How can companies help everyone feel included?

woman with laptop

Younger workers dominate the tech industry.

Photo: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One day after work, Karen Wickre's colleagues at Google headed out for a night of karaoke. But that was the last thing she wanted to do.

It wasn't because she didn't think it sounded like fun — it would give her a chance to get to know her co-workers, and socializing after work is still technically work. But Wickre was one of the oldest on her team, and her idea of fun just wasn't the same as theirs.

"I did go along and was a good sport about it — and looked forward to it being over," she said jokingly. But Wickre added that management should be careful about sanctioned post-work "fun," since a lot of it isn't very inclusive. "There might be single moms who can't stay after work, or somebody with a disability who can't do whatever the fun physical game is."

Younger workers dominate the tech industry, with over half of the IT workforce aged 22 to 44 years old, and, according to Recruiting Innovation, the average developer is 29 years old. It may seem like older tech employees eventually leave the industry as their engineering or coding skills wane, but the departures are not all technical; for older employees like Wickre, working in a predominantly young field comes with its own set of challenges, ranging from exclusion in social settings to downright ageism.

Wickre, who worked at the time as a senior media liaison for Google's global communications and left in 2011, said when it came time to discuss performance evaluations, managers often assumed she wanted a promotion. But at that point in Wickre's career, she didn't want to move up the ranks — she was happy in her position and would rather be measured by the work she was doing in her current role.

"A number of people in this discussion were saying, 'I'm not here to get promotions, I'm happy to be an individual contributor and I can be measured on the things I'm doing and accomplishing and dreaming up,'" she said. "There is a role of individual contributor at a lot of companies, but if you really want to pay attention to older workers, I think that kind of role needs to be much more enhanced."

For women, being an older tech worker is harder. One 51-year-old employee at a large tech company, who requested anonymity so she could talk freely about her work, said she's worked with mostly male colleagues throughout her career, and on one occasion, a manager told her, "You remind me of my mom."

Another time, her co-workers wanted to go to Hooters after a work conference, an outing that could have allowed her to get to know her colleagues but one she wasn't comfortable attending.

"We know that all those discussions and talks and that stuff happens in that social environment, and if we're not included for whatever reason — because we're too old or the wrong sex, whatever — that we're missing out on opportunities," the employee told Protocol.

Sexism is already a problem in the industry, but it's worse with age. By their mid-30s, about half of women in the tech industry call it quits, according to research by Accenture and Girls Who Code. The employee said she's ready to leave tech because of the "meanness" and exclusivity in the field.

"I am so ready to get out. It's a mean place … I'm technical, the whole team is technical, and some of these guys think they can just boss me around and tell me what to do," she said. "They talk over me — that's common, I get that quite often."

One way to feel included in the younger crowd is to play the part, said a 46-year-old female employee, who works as a product manager at a large enterprise tech company. She said around 40 years old, as her hair started to gray, she dyed it so she wouldn't look like the oldest person in the room.

The employee added that being part of the "sandwich generation," which refers to people who are caring for both their children and aging parents at once, has also distanced her from her younger colleagues. Last year, she needed to care for her dad, who went through knee replacement surgery, during her children's first week of school.

She said companies usually have programs that help employees parent while they work, but they overlook those who have two familial issues to care for — an issue compounded in a largely young tech industry. "Because people think of the tech industry as skewing younger, or overall it does skew younger, people forget we have this going on that maybe they don't have to think about because maybe their parents are practically our age," she said.

The baseline question is how tech employers can get its older employees to stick around, and leaders and scholars in the industry say that means ensuring they feel part of the team. They said companies can help these employees connect better with their colleagues by offering more flexibility like remote work, establishing ways for them to mentor younger colleagues and incorporating discussions about ageism in a DEI strategy.

Roz Ho, VP and global head of software at HP, said the tech industry as a whole tends to favor younger employees because they're perceived as more creative and energetic than their older colleagues. But she said her company isn't overtaken by younger workers, partially because HP is an older company that has expanded and retained much of its staff.

She said diversifying companies in age can help address the exclusivity that some employees experience, which requires the expansion HP has taken years to do. "If you're a parent and you've got kids that are in school, you're going to be more likely to relate to other parents with kids who are in school."

Wickre, the former Google employee, said companies need to realize that older employees might not want a promotion; instead, their evaluation could put them on track to be an individual contributor or a mentor. She added that employees should ensure their after-hours gatherings fit everyone's schedules and interests, not just those who just stepped out of college.

"Are you making a clique, or are you including your teammates?" she said. "Social functions at work are work. You have to do them as part of your job, or you're going to get points off."

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