The Future of Work
6 min read • Feb 03, 2021
Aishwarya Jagani is a freelance tech and finance writer from Mumbai, India. She writes on cybersecurity, science, and the human impact of technology.
One might think there is no room for discrimination and bias in the workplace in 2021, but that isn’t strictly true. Despite the world embracing a more inclusive and diverse work culture over the years, bias does creep in to workplace interactions.
Diversity, inclusivity and fairness in the workplace are crucial to the success of organizations but unfortunately, discrimination based on age, sex, color, and sexual orientation among many other factors remain a major barrier for diversity, particularly in tech companies.
A recent AARP study revealed that over 64% of companies had a strategy for diversity and inclusion, but only 8% of those strategies included age.
Age discrimination or ageism is commonly experienced by employees who are over fifty. In some cases older employees are passed over for learning or promotion opportunities; in other cases jokes and comments about age, and unfair presumptions are made about their capabilities or assumed lack thereof. According to an HR Dive article, tech firms, in particular, tend to perpetuate the ageism bias.
Samriti Makar Midha, psychotherapist and co-founder of POSH at Work, an organization that works to prevent workplace sexual harassment, says, “Ageism is a very subtle form of discrimination often masked under the garb of business needs, requiring fresh & newer ideas, lack of affordability of senior resource or not fitting in with the team.”
Midha shares how a client of hers, a 45-year-old worker in the banking industry constantly worried about being laid off from his company and felt his banking career would end at 40 or 45. “Even though it has never been expressed to him explicitly and there are no policies, he has been victim to casual remarks like, ‘we need more fire in the belly’, ‘need more drive’, ‘we need people who can charm the clients’, ‘why pay more if we can get younger resources for half the salary’, ‘with experience, comes rigidity and more rules – we need people who can adapt to changing environments,” says Midha.
However, as organizations embrace remote work, perhaps this ‘last acceptable bias’ could be on its way out. The very nature of remote work limits face to face interaction, in favor of email, phone calls and instant messaging. When coworkers don’t see one another often, the potential for discrimination based on age, race, sexual orientation and sometimes even gender, is greatly reduced.
Working remotely offers fewer opportunities for social and face-to-face interactions with co-workers, often taking factors like age, sexual orientation and race out of the equation.
2020 has also necessitated the need to fill new roles remotely, conducting the entire recruiting process from interviews to background checks to onboarding, virtually. This often eliminates factors like age, appearance and color from recruiting decisions, removing any unconscious bias that may have crept in earlier.
Many tech companies are even using tools that mask personally identifiable information (PII) such as name, birth date, gender, and racial and ethnic identity. This allows the interviewer to focus on information pertinent to the job at hand such as skills, expertise, and experience.
This could be taken a step further with audio-only interviews, where an absence of cameras lets the interviewer make a hiring decision based only on skills, background and performance in tests like coding challenges.
Sachin Gupta, CEO and co-founder of HackerEarth, a startup that employs diversity-first recruitment practices, told Dice in an interview, “Thankfully, the pandemic has forced tech hiring to fundamentally reassess how it assesses talent, putting skills at the center. Online skill-based assessments, which have become essential during the pandemic, minimize educational and other biases from creeping into the process, as resumes [and] educational pedigrees play a smaller role in finding the right talent.”
The ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) was established in 1967, and put in place to protect workers over 40 years old from workplace discrimination. It prohibits the use of an employee’s or job applicant’s age as a factor in "hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment." But over fifty years after it was enacted, ageism related claims still make up 1 in 5 of all discrimination complaints.
‘The year of the pandemic’ has seen many businesses, small and large, downsize and even shut down for good. Older workers have been the first in line when it comes to layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours.
This could be because older workers tend to have higher salaries, and be employed in leadership roles, making them more expensive to keep on.
More recently, older workers also might land on the chopping block because they are perceived to be more susceptible to Covid-19. In some cases, this could make it difficult (and even unethical) for organizations to ask them to come into the office which can also lead to preferential firing.
Older employees are often judged as less capable of handling the technology commonly used in remote work. In addition, they are viewed as being less adaptable to newer ways of working, and are seen as hesitant to favor digital communication over face-to-face interaction. This bias commonly causes workers of a certain age to be overlooked for leadership roles. While the average age of non-tech managers is 47 years, the average age of tech-industry managers is 42. HR Drive goes on to highlight that the average age for tech workers is 38, while the average age for non-tech workers is 43.
Middha says, “With regards to age based discrimination, remote working hasn’t had much impact especially if people have worked together from physical spaces in the past and perceptions have been formed. However, if it’s a first time interaction, one is likely to face less bias and discrimination. It’s a function of not knowing the person’s age, conversations have become more task focused and less space for casual comments to be made and more so if it’s a newer professional relationship.”
Despite the new emergence of work-from-home policies, studies show that ageism continues to be prevalent. A report by Senior Living, shows that 1 in 5 employees over forty reported age discrimination last year--a number that seems to be maintainted since 2006.
In the 1950s, symphony orchestras in the US started conducting ‘blind’ auditions, concealing the identity and gender of the musician from the jury, in a bid to hire more women. Consequently, the percentage of women musicians tripled by 1993. Remote work alone won’t solve ageism, but it’s a start. Employers need to work towards maintaining a diverse workforce which includes talent of all ages. Being transparent about diversity and inclusion statistics on age distribution by making this information public, is a good start in addition to more “age-blind” hiring practices.
Remote work and mindful remote hiring practices could do for ageism, what blind auditions once did for sexism, by masking age markers, and creating more age-diverse workplaces.