An acceptable bias: Do startups have an ageism problem?

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Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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In his book, Disrupted, Dan Lyons details an event that captures the problem of ageism in startups. About nine months after the fifty-something Lyons joins HubSpot, the startup’s founder, Brian Halligan, brazenly admits to discriminatory hiring practices during a press interview.

“I think, at least in the tech world, grey hair and experience are really overrated,” Halligan tells a small, unknown publication called the New York Times. He drives the nail home later in the same interview, telling the Times that HubSpot engineers “a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers”.

Reflecting on the incident in The Observer, Lyons notes: “Nobody at HubSpot saw [Halligan’s comments] as a problem. Halligan didn’t apologise for his comments or try to walk them back.”

But in his book, Lyons counters this ambivalence with a cogent point: What if Halligan’s scorn had been directed at black people or Muslims or gay people? He’d have been fired, sued and potentially prosecuted. But much like class-based insults, discrimination based on age remains an infinitely more palatable bias.

“I think ageism is one of the the most discriminatory aspects of working environments,” says Luke Hughes, co-founder of the fitness startup Origym. “But it gets little coverage or attention in contrast to, say, racism or sexism.”

Hughes hasn’t personally born the brunt of ageism, he is only 30, but, Hughes explains, he has seen it happen first hand. “I have witnessed managers from previous employers not employ an individual based on their age,” says Hughes. “I have literally sat in meetings during recruitment processes where the age of a potential employee is utilised against them in a pro versus con argument about who should get the job.”

What Hughes describes is, in fact, illegal. Age is one of The Equality Act 2010’s “protected characteristics”. Barring a few narrow instances, discriminating on the basis of age is expressly forbidden.

“I get the impression many employers don’t realise it's a big deal and constitutes discrimination,” says Hughes. “Some businesses think, wrongly, that an older member of staff would be stuck in their ways or lack adaptability to a new role.”

“I also believe that younger managers also feel intimidated hiring people to work on them that are older and that they can't omit an authority that they can over young employees. I have heard a manager say ‘he won't be able to grow and develop into the role’. The guy was mid-forties. It’s a ridiculous argument if you think about it.”

Age discrimination is often done in the name of ‘culture fit’, a term Lyons derides as “the practice of bros hiring bros”. And it’s not just mature employees in the firing line. The ageism is symptomatic, according to Lyons. The culture fit bias cascades down to females and non-white people, too.

Cindy Gallop, the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, agrees with Lyons’ uncharitable assessment. “Culture fit is doublespeak for ‘hire people like us’ or ‘people we feel comfortable with’,” she says. “As a phrase and a concept it should be struck from everyone’s vocabulary.”

Older women can particularly feel the sting, too. “Mostly it’s unconscious bias, I believe,” says Suzanne Noble, founder of Frugl, an events discovery app for people on a budget. “There are so few female VCs already and even the women that get funded are nearly always 35 and under. If you’re not used to seeing older people working in technology, it's hard to know what to make of them.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age of the UK is now 40. This number, says the ONS, would be much higher if it wasn’t for record levels of immigration. But with an immigration crackdown looming, it’s clear that the UK will need to make its peace with older, middle-aged workers and founders.

As a recent Parliamentary report noted: “As the population ages, so will the UK workforce. The productivity and economic success of the UK will be increasingly tied to that of older workers.”

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19th Feb 2017 17:00

Within my experience, the startup industry seems to be missing a trick with experienced talent. The other week we were sharing content about returnships after reading about programmes in both The Times and The Telegraph. We put a call out to startups who use returnships to write a blog post, to help those with more experience find relevant work experience - but couldn't find any! Equally, we see a lot of requests from media for people 40, 50 and 60+ who are launching a new startup but these seem to be rarities. I'm sure these things are out there but they are too hard to come by.

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to Lucy Werner
21st Feb 2017 09:47

And have you managed to track down any older entrepreneurs? Would be really interesting to speak to them!

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