When you think of a typical tech worker, what mental image comes into your head? If the image was of a man in his late 20s, wearing designer clothes, trainers, and maybe goofing about playing ping-pong or snooker on his lunch break — then you might have just experienced a subconscious nod to ageism.
At the same time, you can be forgiven. Because this mental picture is also largely correct. Most tech workers really are that young. In fact, they are even younger. Apart from Google’s average working force at the ripe old age of 30. Other tech giants have demographics with median ages as young as 27, 28 and 29 years of age (that is AOL, Facebook and LinkedIn respectively).
So, why do tech companies only seem to favour the very young?
The tech companies have long been suspected of ageism. But the truth is this discrimination isn’t so much of a suspicion as it is an overt mentality. As the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg put it so succinctly back in 2007: “young people are just smarter”.
The overarching philosophy among tech companies appears to be that millennials are the cultural epicentre for Big Tech. Ageist discrimination is, according to Gareth Jones, the CEO of the UK-based tech company Headstart, even worse when it comes to the computer coding side of things. For some reason, ageism flies under the discrimination radar. The reason the sort of ageing culture described here is allowed to persist is, is because it just doesn’t seem as sensitive of an issue next to other discriminations — such as those to do with gender and race.
The apparent ubiquitous nature of ageism in our tech culture — and our wider working culture at large — has even prompted the director of operations at Age Diversity Forum, Paul Owen, to refer to it as “the biggest area of bias [today] receiving the lowest level of attention”.
Ageism might be pervasive, but it cannot last forever. It is an unsustainable discrimination. The reason being is that our society is ageing. In order to remain functional, Big Tech will not only have to open its doors to older employees, it will also have to fight to retain them.
The UK government’s own figures predict that by 2025 a third of the workforce will be 50 years or older. By the end of the decade, they will actually be the largest demographic. In some areas, we can already see the ageing demographic creeping up. For example, the average age for workers in mining and quarrying is a few decimal points shy of 45 years old. While the median age for a UK engineer, in general, is 42.
Fortunately, some businesses are starting to get wise of the impending tsunami of older workers. They are reconsidering age-old preconceptions about what it means to be young and old in a place of work. In a sobering series of surveys, the company Aviva discovered that about half of its 60-years-and-older employees did not want to retire. They only considered retiring because they felt pressured to do so, due to their age. On top of that, nearly 40 per cent reported ageism to be a real barrier to progress.
But there was some good news. In fact, the most interesting statistic the Aviva surveys picked up was this one: that people in their 60s generally appear more motivated at work than their 40 and 50-year-old counterparts.
New studies, like the Aviva surveys with their surprising conclusions, are helping to open new doors on how we look at the bigger picture. Of how society, age, and work all interact with one another. An important cultural shift occurred in 2017 with the government’s “Fuller Working Lives” report from the Department for Work and Pensions.
In the report, it was recognised that nearly a million unemployed over-50-year-olds would be keen on returning to work if the right support mechanisms were in place. That is, a standing army of a million people ready to fill skills shortages and bring invaluable corporate memory with them back into the economy. “Corporate Memory” being a buzzword for the lifetime of knowledge that older workers no doubt have.
This “missing million” might even be a necessary lifeline for some sectors. For example, the UK engineering sector has been haemorrhaging employees for over four years and is facing a steep recruitment crisis.
The recruitment crisis might explain why some engineering companies are already one step ahead of the game. They have actively changed their working hours and recruitment policies to attract veteran employees.
One example is Tideway, the company currently building a ‘Super Sewer’ under the Thames River in London. Tideway established a so-called ‘Returner’ programme back in 2015, that allows over-55s to transition slowly back into work. Another example can be found with the company Landmarc, which sources a quarter of all its labour from over-55s. It mostly recruits former military workers who already have a good knowledge of engineering. Both Landmarc and Tideway utilise flexible hours and transition phases to draw in the older crowds.
Another, more universal option, might be to bring in what’s known as a “Midlife MOT”. This phrase has its origins as a seemingly unremarkable comment — with barely a paragraph of its own — in the government’s Independent Review Of The State Pension Age report of 2017. A Midlife MOT basically gives over-45s a mixture of face-to-face consultations, lectures, access to e-learning tools, and even financial advice to prepare them for the next career-phase of life.
When Aviva introduced the Midlife MOT to its own staff, it was an enormous success with a 94 per cent enrolment rate. The enthusiasm here speaks volumes. It suggests that ageing workers really are looking for support to help orientate themselves for better working prospects.
Other strategies involve further challenging our preconceptions. At the beginning of this article, you were asked to think of a typical tech worker. Now think of a typical apprentice. The chances are, you thought of someone barely out of school. But actually, most apprentices tend to be a fair bit older. Over 40 per cent of them are 25 years or older, for example. It is now becoming more common for apprentices to be in their 50s or 60s. In fact, learning as an apprentice can be a great opportunity for an older worker as they start to ease their transition out of full-time work. Allowing them to learn new skills in other or similar job roles.
Finally, we should learn to avoid certain buzzwords that are ageist in nature. Sometimes without us even realising it. Terms such as “recent graduate” or “digital native” in job descriptions, for example. They are essentially a way of saying if you are old don’t bother, we haven’t even thought about you.
Like all societal struggles for change, confining ageism to the history books will not be easy. It also won’t disappear overnight. But by educating ourselves to the challenge, spreading the message to others, and showing our support and encouraging strategies like those listed above, ageism will be undone quicker than we might realise.
This article was written by Neil Wright, a writer and researcher for RJ Lifts, an lift engineering and maintenance company located in Stoke-on-Trent, UK.
Are you looking to recruit a ‘dynamic leader’ or a ‘committed people person’? Chances are you’re just looking for the best person for the job. But the choice of language used in the job description could be alienating and dissuading the best – and most diverse – candidates from even applying.
Recent research from Adzuna revealed that 60% of businesses showed significant male bias in the wording of their job adverts. This research was based on a study by academics Gaucher, Friesen and Kay, which found that job descriptions with more masculine wording were less likely to appeal to female applicants. It wasn’t for the most part that female candidates assumed they weren’t up to the job, the research found. Rather they – consciously or unconsciously – were less likely to feel they’d belong at such an employer and didn’t want to work for a company whose first impression was one of being biased in favour of men.
And so the debate on the issue is hotting up. The UK government recently announced a trial of gender-neutral language to define science, technology, engineering and maths apprenticeships to encourage more women to apply. A pilot will apply gender-neutral language to 12 apprenticeship standards.
But while most HR leaders are aware that biased language exists in job descriptions, many don’t know how to fix this. Part of the problem is an inability to identify biased language because of its subtlety. Words that seem innocuous are often rooted in societal conditioning.
A 2017 analysis of 77,000 UK job adverts by Totaljobs revealed ‘lead’ to be the most common male-gendered word used in job specs, while ‘support’ was the most used female-gendered word. According to Gaucher, Friesen and Kay, popular recruiting adjectives such as ‘ambitious, assertive, decisive, determined and self-reliant’ are male-gendered. While words like ‘committed, connect, interpersonal, responsible and yield’ are considered female-gendered. For instance, in a male-gendered job description, a company might be described as ‘a dominant engineering firm that boasts many clients’. Whereas the female-gendered version could read ‘we are a community of engineers who have effective relationships with many satisfied clients’.
So how can HR de-bias a job description to make the language gender neutral? According to Andrea Singh, HR director of BAM, the first step is to focus on gender-coded words. Job titles should be neutral and descriptive language should give equal weighting to male- and female-coded descriptors, she explains. However, Singh also points out that de-biasing a job description goes beyond replacing adjectives. Employers need to make sure that the requirements listed are actually necessary, because “women will typically only put themselves forward for a job when they meet 100% of the criteria”.
But with unconscious bias ever present there are questions around whether it’s possible for humans to conduct this de-biasing. Singh believes that with the right training it is. But she admits the best results come when software and learning are combined. “Technology brings information and suggestions to the fingertips but job specs need to feel authentic. The people writing and editing specs need to be trained to spot the bias too,” she says.
However, Richard Marr, co-founder and chief technology officer of Applied, doubts whether training a person to remove biased language can be as effective as relying on dedicated software. “The evidence is pretty weak that training is effective,” states Marr. “Processes trump training and tools trump processes. With training, you’re just expecting people to do the right thing.”
That said, the trouble with using software is that neither Applied nor its competitors AdPro and Textio currently extend their job description analysis beyond gender to include other demographics such as ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disabled or economically-disadvantaged candidates. Applied is working with Google to expand its analysis tool to incorporate ethnicity (and other dimensions). But until such tech is available removing gendered language from job descriptions can still have a positive impact on other diverse groups, Singh believes.
“I think language can be looked at in the same way. Masculine phrasing might also be off-putting for candidates from particular ethnic backgrounds where their culture doesn’t typically fit with this type of approach,” she says.
It’s a view shared by Marr. He explains that a job analysis tool will also assess the readability and density of a job description, scoring it for how many syllables, words and sentences it contains. His thinking is that the more readable the job spec, the more inclusive it is likely to be.
“There are heavy socio-economic correlations,” notes Marr. “If you look at people who have low incomes they will have less access to desktop computers and are more likely to rely on their phones and to live in a distracting environment. Each of those things adds a cumulative layer that results in something quite substantial.”
So there are certainly steps that can be taken. But, in an age in which many urge the need to move away from binary definitions of men and women, is so-called male and female language really meaningful anymore? Or is it just another theory to get bogged down by?
Adrian Love, recruitment director for the UK and Ireland at Accenture, certainly feels male and female language is still a ‘thing’. He points to Accenture figures showing an increase in female job applicants from 34% to 50% since 2014, thanks in part to the de-biasing of job specs.
“The impact has been very positive. But there are no silver bullets here. It has to be part of a wider inclusion and diversity programme,” he says.
It’s a similar story from Applied, with Marr reporting that the tool has helped trigger an estimated 10% to 15% swing towards female candidates. Singh also reports a significant increase in female applicants since implementing de-biasing.
“This shows that [using] gender-neutral language is affecting the talent we can attract,” she says, adding that de-biasing could now be taken further. “We now need to delve into the data in more detail… and analyse the next stages in the process to see if we have more women being shortlisted, interviewed and ultimately selected.”
After all, a gender-neutral job description can only go so far if, when a candidate is successful or unsuccessful in their application, the language in the feedback or job offer sees a return to bias.
Both Singh and Love concede that their job description writing tools are unable to analyse interview feedback. But this is where training comes into play, they say.
“Software raises awareness and can point out bias that people may miss,” says Singh, but it’s also important teams are trained to spot it elsewhere in recruitment materials.
Love agrees: “[It’s] not just about one action, it’s about looking at every element throughout the recruitment process. There are opportunities to drive inclusivity end to end, but job descriptions are important because they’re a gateway for candidates.”
Later this year Bank of England governor Mark Carney will stand down. He’s the 120th white man out of 120 individuals to have ever filled the role, and so the institution has been heavily criticised for embodying a ‘stale, male and pale’ image of finance. By its own admission, it will fail to meet any of its diversity targets this year. So with calls to appoint a female to the position for the first time is the language in the role’s job description gender-biased?
Not according to Applied’s job description analysis tool. Following the appointment of diversity specialists to head up the search for Carney’s replacement, HR magazine analysed the job description to see if the bank’s commitment to diversity extends to its recruitment materials. It scored a respectable 84% for inclusivity and contained an equal amount of male-gendered and female-gendered words.
Marr says that language falls into two categories: agentic and communal. Agentic language is considered male coded. In this advert, agentic traits found were words like ‘confidence, decision, lead and determination’. The communal traits were female-coded words such as ‘responsibility, commit, communicate, and understanding’.
Marr argues that performance evaluation and leadership development should also be defined in a way that balances both sets of traits. “Companies often define success for leaders along agentic lines and measure performance and promotion that way, even though communal traits are just as valuable in leaders,” he says.
Written by Sarah Ronan for HR Magazine.
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