Aging in IT

Ignoring the jobs and the places where a lot of older women IT workers are employed helps to keep us invisible.

by Catherine Lundoff on September 14th, 2015

In IT, it sometimes feels like everyone under the manager level is 35 or younger. In some shops, even being older than 30 is ancient. It’s a culture that doesn’t value older workers or older tech: anything old is obsolete, no longer new and shiny. Old machines, old software and old people are things to be replaced, not repurposed or reevaluated to see if they can continue to contribute.

Nearly every middle-aged woman I know in IT has run into negative assumptions about her skill level and competence and/or general intelligence. Interviewing and working as an older woman in IT means it can be much more difficult to get considered for technical roles and technical training. I was once denied training on a new system because I was “too much of a people person;” coding would be “too dull and isolating”. It would also, not coincidentally, have brought me more money and somewhat more job security. I have also run into opposition to bringing me on in higher paying lead roles, not because I don’t have the necessary experience, but because my combination of people skills and technical skills would make me “better suited” to roles that don’t involve lead responsibilities.

One of the most egregiously ageist tech events that I’ve run across was, ironically, a women in computing conference. I walked the length of a conference center grand ballroom to discover that out of the numerous tech company and college program booths, only Microsoft was willing to talk to women who were over standard college age. A 28-year-old programmer I spoke to mentioned that she too had “aged out” of the recruiter tables. Every discussion I attended that involved older women (and there weren’t many) emphasized that we were there to mentor, preferably from managerial roles that we had achieved by “leaning in.” The very strong subtext was that if we were still around over the age of 30, we’d better be managers or developers (preferably managers of developers).

But here’s the thing: I know a lot of women who are managers, project and otherwise, analysts, QA, system administrators, security analysts and related roles, but I know far fewer older women who are still hands on-developers. And it’s generally a combination of working conditions and perceptions about our skill level that pushes us out. Most of the older women I know work for established corporations with IT departments, at nonprofits, universities or government entities, not startups or tech companies. That said, we are here and we are part of IT as a whole, something that gets lost in the current emphasis on all coding, all start ups, all tech companies, all the time; I’d like to see a much broader perspective on what it means to be a woman in IT.

My IT: A Personal Perspective

Cross-section of a cut tree, with many rings radiating towards the bark.

Photo CC-BY Kathleen Tyler Conklin, filtered.

Ignoring the jobs and the places where a lot of older women IT workers are employed helps to keep us invisible. But it’s certainly not the only thing. A quick search brings back a host of articles with titles like “Tech Industry Ads: Older Workers Need Not Apply,” “Age Bias in IT: The Reality Behind the Rumors” and the ever-popular “Are You Too Old for IT?” These articles all take older male workers as the norm. I haven’t seen much information about how different it is for women in tech that isn’t anecdotal. The conversations about getting placed into more “motherly” people-person roles, the stress and strain of maintaining long work days and juggling family responsibilities, the venting about sexism are conversations we have with our friends and colleagues, not on tech sites.

I started working in IT when I was in my early thirties, and am now entering my seventeenth year in the field. Prior to that, I had a checkered career that ranged from being an archeologist on construction projects to warehouse and retail work. In fact, I was working as a clerical temp when I was brought in to work on the manual cleanup for some highly injudicious Y2K-related decisions at one of the splinter telephone companies in the late 90s. I bonded with the (all male) development team through shared Xena fandom and they helped me learn to read and write SQL. I hired on as a systems analyst, then switched to QA and most recently, to data warehouse work as a Data Engineer. I have since learned SAS and other sundry database programming, Unix, COBOL, Visual Basic and a host of other programs, languages and skills.

On the less cheerful side, I also started out at a clerical temp’s pay scale, even after I hired on as an analyst. It was more money than I’d ever made before so it took me some time to figure out I was being massively underpaid. Then came the great IT Job Market crash of 2001-2002: there were massive layoffs, and I spent a couple of months out of work until I managed to get hired on as a contractor at the same hourly pay I got before the market tanked.

Two years later, I had more experience and the market had improved. I traded up for a different contract, then another until I worked my way up to market rate for my then-position. This took another three to four years. I was now in my early forties, and things looked a bit different. I was better at salary negotiation, for one thing, and more inclined to explore other options. Fortunately, I didn’t run into a lot of open homophobia on the job (I’m out as much as possible, but am also cis and femme-presenting). Sexism went with the territory, but was generally less overt than I’d experienced in previous jobs.

I was also getting put into more supervisory roles, though not necessarily getting the commisurate titles or pay. That took a few more years. One observable upside of “people-person” roles (interfacing with business clients, teams, conducting trainings, etc.) in IT is that they fit well into social stereotypes about older women. If you are indeed a “people person,” these are jobs that you can talk your way into and do reasonably well in. Sometimes, they are even jobs that survive layoffs and downsizing, though that also has to do with how much you are getting paid. I have more than once had entire teams laid off around me and been the last one standing, though that is often its own kind of problematic.

Surviving in any IT culture means coping with the risks of technological obsolescence, job instability, stress and long hours in addition to the social obstacles placed in front of anyone who doesn’t fit the mainstream ideals of a patriarchal culture. Realistically, if you work in IT long enough, there will be layoffs, “right-sizing” and other job instability. Someone has always got a better idea, a magic approach that will work better than everything before it. Regardless of how grounded in reality this notion is, the kind of people who make it into upper level leadership in IT Land tend to view themselves as the smartest people in the room. But that often doesn’t translate well to planned change or gradual improvements. From the standpoint of working for a significant time in IT, the constant churn will greatly increase the risk of burnout.

In addition, there are very real physical consequences for working long weeks, not sleeping enough and hunching over a computer in what can be a lousy ergonomic environment. Combine those with stress and the general macho atmosphere and it’s easy to understand why a lot of women move out of the field. The fact that most of the women I know who’ve been in the field more than ten years either don’t have children or got into the work after their kids started school is probably not coincidental, unfortunately. All of this doesn’t mean it can’t be done, mind you… just that the odds are not in favor of that outcome.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

A crossroads in the woods.

Photo CC-BY Carsten Tolkmit, filtered.

So why stick around? It’s a valid question and one that I can only answer for myself: some of that reason for me is financial (I need to support a family as well as myself) and some is that, sexist crap and all, I’ve never been valued so highly on any level for being a smart capable woman. I am consistently challenged to learn and to push myself and I can honestly say that I learn something new regularly. I’ve shed a lot of self-doubt along the way. I’ve learned to assess the skills and competencies of the people I work with, and to manage teams. I’ve met some amazing people and made lifelong friendships along the way.

Will I stay in the field until I keel over at my desk? Probably not, but that doesn’t take away what I’ve gained so far.

I’m also really excited to see the growth in organized support for women, queer folks and people of color to get into and stay in the field. These organizations didn’t exist when I first got into tech and I really like the skill-sharing, the increased visibility of intersectional feminist analysis and the range of possibilities in the new efforts. That said, I think the discussions need to go further. One of the advantages of working with experienced older people is that we’ve been there and done some form of it, whatever “it” may be: few things are so incredibly new, even in tech, that no one’s ever seen anything like them in the past.

There’s also a lot to be said about uniting across generations to confront the tech industry’s ongoing issues. But in order to do that, we have to get through the door. Ask questions if you see job postings that specifically request “new or recent graduates.” Include age range where feasible when you hold events that you want to reflect diversity. Host a panel or discussion in which older women and femme folk working in tech exchange ideas and talk about what they’re working on and what they need. If you’re running interviews, don’t make assumptions about applicants based on age before they’ve had a chance to answer your questions and talk about their relevant experience (this goes to both ends of the age scale). And if you hire an older person and they need some accommodations to do their job effectively, try to help them get what they need. Above all, consider what this field will be like when you’re working in it in your forties and beyond; making it better for older workers now benefits all of us in the longer term.