Age Discrimination and Programming Jobs

As my personal odometer clicks over to 38 today, I’m thinking about the very real concern of age discrimination in the technology field where many would consider a person wizened at 40. The legal and political considerations associated with this issue make it a very touchy subject that encourages many to tread lightly or avoid discussing it entirely. This is unfortunate, because for both the job-seeker and hiring manager, passive acknowledgement that age-bias is a factor does little to remedy the situation. This Tauran is going to stampede through that china shop and confront the issue head on with in a frank discussion about older programmers and the recruiting process. Along the way I’ll provide advice to both managers and job hunters for overcoming bias that can result in unfair and illegal discrimination.

Let’s start with what I admit is an unabashedly controversial opinion. It is my belief that, for programmers, age discrimination is more pervasive than either racial or gender discrimination during the hiring process. The basis of this sentiment is rooted in the demographics of the software development community which is predominantly comprised of male employees that are on average younger than the labor force in general (McConnell).

I suspect that hiring decisions made and influenced by younger managers who were raised during a period of increased emphasis on achieving racial equality in the wake of the civil rights movement are less likely to reflect race based bias than those of their elders. Further, it is likely not uncommon for the typical young, socially awkward, male software engineer to sometimes give an edge to qualified female candidates if only for some respite from the homogeny of his peers. That said, I also think that older female candidates are victims of more discrimination than older male candidates.

Do you feel me on this? If so, we are both guilty of exposing a personal bias that younger workers are less likely to discriminate in their hiring practices and men as a group are generally prone to using their status as a hiring manager as a personal dating service. While it is certain that both of these preconceptions must be true for some element of the workforce, it is equally true that they are not universal, and it is ambiguous about whether these characterizations are even widespread. The important consideration here is that each of us harbors at least a few innate personal prejudices, and there is a good chance that some of them are going to be inaccurate.

The Two Question Technology Bias Test

Even if you didn’t take the bait on that first point, consider the assumptions at play in the following two question quiz.

(1) What Operating system does the man in this photo prefer?
Guess my favorite OS!

(2) What makes the following image humorous?
Unix Girls on the Beach

Despite what the guilt mongers would have you believe, prejudice, discrimination, and bias are not fundamental human failings that are uniquely modern and need to be worked out of the system. Instead, instead they are shortcuts wired into our primitive brains that allow us to apply a probabilistic model based on our own experience.

In a survival sense, it provided competitive advantage for our ancestors to assume that a particular lion is prone to violence based on their experience with a completely different lion eating a cousin’s face. The types who argued that maybe this new lion seems nice and deserves a fair shake probably didn’t fare as well as the lion-ist jerk who didn’t trust anything with six inch incisors. Given the eons it took to condition this into us, I don’t think it is feasible to eliminate it from our nature.

Although you can argue that the lion-prejudice pattern is outdated and no longer applicable. Consider the more modern practical applications of bias for programmers in the refactoring movement. Code Smells are little more than prescribed bias against certain coding elements that may or may not indicate real problems. I am not going to go all Gordon Gekko on you and declare that “Bias is Good.” I am just trying to say that in the appropriate context bias can be beneficial.

Conscious acknowledgement of preconceived notions and being vigilantly objective despite experience is critical, however, for managers making recruiting decisions. For the candidate, who is unlikely to suspend the well-shorn biases of society for the duration of an interview, mitigation strategies are in order.

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