Employee experience: Why older women tech workers are still invisible

One of the last taboo topics in the workforce – menopause – is currently a hot topic on everything from breakfast television to mainstream newspapers in the UK. This is partly a matter of economic reality. There are 9 million women aged between 40 and 60 in the UK, with 3.5 million of these aged over 50 and still working. Shockingly, around 1 million of these women have left a job because of menopausal symptoms, according to research by Bupa. This, it is argued, is a big threat to productivity.
But how is the tech industry doing in this area?
Women are still under-represented in tech across the board, with only 14% of people working in STEM in the UK being women. The tech industry undoubtedly wants more women, and has encouraged female participation for many years, but still cannot attract women into what is rightly perceived as a male-dominated sector. The reasons for wanting more women is not just a box-ticking exercise, but rational, practical and reasonable (see, for example The Internet of Things needs more women, but do women need this IoST?)
Part of the tech industry’s reaction to this issue has been the growth in ‘women in tech’ organisations, initiatives and events. I recently attended one of these where the topic was to discuss why women don’t join women’s networks. Two answers were given. 1. Women are ignorant 2. Women don’t feel the network represents them.
Yes, women actually called other women ignorant for not wanting to be in their club. The speakers glossed over the issues of why such organisations are not engaging the vast majority of women in the tech industry. Nevertheless, many important topics were discussed at this event, such as how to get more women into the tech industry, how to ensure there were more female senior execs, how to tackle anti-female bias in the (tech) workplace, and issues that on balance are more likely to affect women such as maternity leave and juggling kids and jobs.
In front of all of those issues, however, you needed to place a key word – ‘young’. The conversation was about getting more YOUNG women into our workforce, how YOUNG women could get promoted and how to handle YOUNG women’s issues such as maternity leave and childcare.
Not once did anyone mention older women’s needs and issues. There was no focus on encouraging more OLDER women to enter the tech workforce by retraining them at 40+ for a tech career. Nor on how we handle OLDER women’s needs such as caring for elderly parents or partners, managing menopause or serious illness, or dealing with failing faculties such as back problems, deafness, going long sighted, or exhaustion from commuting or working extra long days.
Older men suffer from a similar bias in tech – which is seen and promoted as a ‘young person’s game’ – but women suffer disproportionately because not only do they have to combat the youth culture, but also wider society’s perception of older women.
In a culture where older women are expected to dress like they’re 35, clart themselves in make-up to appear younger and attractive, remain the same weight as they were when they were 28 and for goodness sake never wrinkle or show a grey hair, we have a serious problem. Women are expected to remain super fit and super turned out, in addition to all the other pressures in their lives. In fact, success in the tech industry for many women is increasingly not about what you can do, but what you look like. And heaven forbid you look old.
Unconscious bias comes from wider society, which makes older women invisible or sees them as mumsy rather than sharp. It is obvious in our working environments whereby more and more offices are catering for the ‘Google generation’ and providing bright colours, ping pong tables and slides (of all things). Open workspaces are promoted as essential for collaboration and attracting younger people, little thought is given to the fact that older workers have problems such as presbycusis – a type of gradual hearing loss that occurs as we age and which makes it difficult for people to recognize certain sounds or to hear speech clearly. Difficulty hearing in noisy places is one of the first noticeable signs.
I am not denigrating the needs and rights of young women, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with them in supporting them to get their voices heard. But women’s networks are often either dismissive or seemingly unconcerned with older women’s needs. Many senior women, we were told at the event I attended, don’t agree with the need for female networks because they are ignorant and unhelpful. Older people in general are prejudiced against Millennials, thinking them lazy, selfish and a whole host of other pejoratives. In one stroke, everyone over 45 is massed together within a single group-think view and dismissed.
This completely ignores the fact that we identify with Millennial issues for two main reasons. 1. we recently experienced similar things ourselves 2. we are the parents of their age group and want younger people to have a better experience than we had ourselves. Instead of seeing us as wise, experienced allies in the fight to get more women and more female voices heard in tech, we are redrawn as part of the problem. In other words, those women who battled to get to the top in tech in the last 30 years are not heroes, they’re just men in skirts.
I fear that by pursuing diversity we end up creating divisions. I want and expect equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. I do not support women quotas – or targets, as we’re legally obliged to call them – or quotas of anything else. I believe in a meritocracy, where the best person for the job gets it. I do not see men as my enemies but as my allies. Men have mentored, taught and supported me unflinchingly. Women it has to be said are not all saints and heroes – some are bigger barriers to female progression than many of the men I’ve encountered over the years.
Now I have to declare that I am fortunate in that I love my job. Which is just as well because I’m going to have to do it for at least 7 years longer than was planned when I entered the workforce – thanks to successive UK governments continually delaying the age at which I’m entitled to retire. Of course I’m not alone. UK politics is now talking about the so-called WASPI women who were born in the 50s and have seen their state pension age rise sharply. But as the UK Labour Party rushed to state it would fork out £58 billion+ of taxpayer money to compensate them if it comes to power, no-one discussed how we can enable women to work their way out of any disadvantage.
Most women in their 60s are able to continue working a few more years; but many retain a notion of early retirement at 60, feeling badly done by that they are no longer entitled to it, rather than seeing work as positive for their health and wellbeing, in addition to being income generating.
As a 60s born woman who faces the same issues, I feel somewhat peeved about the way ‘women who have lost out’ is being so narrowly defined. As a taxpayer I can think of better ways to spend the money, and I’m not sure spending it on women who as a generation are not actually that badly off is the right way forward. Targeted spending might be wiser; but would no doubt be deemed just as unfair.
Enabling women to stay in work – and expanding our notion of work to include things such as nanobusinesses that are part-time gigs or commercialised hobbies – is, I would argue, a better way forward.
And while getting more (young) women into tech is an issue we hear a lot, it’s far from a straightforward issue. There are few if any barriers to a woman entering tech – they are welcomed with open arms and there are a myriad of schemes to support them. At this stage of female recruitment, the problem is more about women not wanting to join because of their perceptions about the industry. This article in Computer Weekly summarises many of the issues that are preventing more women from entering our workforce. But did you notice the Achilles Heel in the piece? The illustration is of diverse YOUNG women, again there’s not a wrinkle in sight.
While encouraging more women to join the tech industry remains a challenge, an even more pressing issue is retaining the women we do attract. But, here again, many tech firms have long had schemes to do just this. BT, for example, was an early pioneer in flexible working – driven by the desire to retain valuable female workers in its workforce – and that has been going on since I was a young woman.
And again, this is where there is a lack of balance. Companies may be aware of the need to help younger female workers manage maternity and childcare – because they have a legal duty to do so – but there is no overt legal requirement to support the needs of older female workers and so the very real issues they face are often overlooked. Menopause may have recently become a hot topic in the UK, but it is seen as so taboo that even talking about it is quite revolutionary and daring. This is despite the fact that millions of women are experiencing it at any given time. The fear of admitting to being menopausal is palpable, because no-one wants to be seen as old in the tech workforce – it’s (old) age that’s actually the last prejudice and taboo we need to overcome.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Outside the diversity forums you can find many examples of different generations working together and benefitting from it. Older people appreciate the vigour, fresh thinking and enthusiasm of younger workers, along with their perspectives on new tech and new ways of doing things. Younger people appreciate the experience, perseverance and deep skills of older workers. Research by AARP found that 7 out of 10 adults said they like working with people from other generations. Seventy-seven per cent of younger workers said that having older colleagues creates an opportunity to learn new skills and 69% said that older employees make the work environment more productive.
There’s no escaping any of this. Older and younger people are going to have to work together and for longer. The workplace is going to have to support more generations. So as we seek to create fairer workplaces we must not forget the needs of older workers in general, and those of older women in particular.
But what can companies do about any of this to increase diversity in their workplace? Here’s just a few suggestions:

  • ensure that your promotional and internal literature features pictures of older workers, and older women workers in particular
  • put older workers issues on your agenda and don’t simply focus on the needs of those under 45. Ask whether older women’s issues are being adequately addressed and whether older women are represented on policy-driving forums
  • look at your recruitment policies – what is being done to target and bring into the industry new over-40s talent? Is your policy exhibiting bias by insisting on years of experience in a narrowly-defined part of tech? (which will discriminate against older women because there will be far fewer women with this type of CV, because of far lower numbers of women in the industry in the past)
  • look at your retention policies – what are you doing to address the needs of older women in your workforce? What are you doing to encourage older women to come back into the workforce? What are you doing to enable older women to progress if their priorities have changed (for example, when their children have left home)?

Teresa Cottam is the Chief Analyst at Omnisperience, an older female in the tech industry, and a frequent speaker at industry and private events.

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