Ageism in tech has been an open secret in Silicon Valley for years. We spoke with Ariana Tobin, engagement editor at ProPublica, and co-author of the investigative piece "Cutting 'Old Heads' at IBM," about what ageism in tech really looks like, and allegations of ageism against the tech giant.
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[00:00:27] (Music) Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about
ageism in tech with Ariana Tobin, Engagement Editor and Reporter at ProPublica.
[00:00:41] AT: That’s not exactly a business strategy and it’s one where you can then end up making blunt moves that end up hurting a lot of people.
[00:00:48] SY: Ariana talks about her large investigative piece on ageism, what it is, and how employees can spot if they’re experiencing it after this.
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[00:02:23] SY: Thanks so much for being here.
[00:02:25] AT: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:02:26] SY: So you did a huge investigative piece on ageism and tech and specifically looking at IBM in a piece titled “Cutting Old Heads at IBM”. How did you start digging into this topic?
[00:02:38] AT: Yeah. So I actually think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the entire story is where it started. My job here at ProPublica, we’re an investigative news outlet, is about trying to find big groups of people who have shared pieces of evidence that they don’t know that all together adds up to something bad. So when I first started about two and a half years ago, somebody else started at the same time. And his name was Peter Gosselin. He’s a reporter who specializes in age discrimination, which is a long winding story. We started talking about different ways that we could work together. I said, “I think age discrimination seems like a perfect topic for the kind of work that I’m supposed to do, this audience engagement stuff. Why don’t you just like write a little bit about what age discrimination means to you and we’ll see if anyone responds? Like maybe there’s a story out there.” So we put up this big questionnaire on our website like pretty modest, you know, a couple thousand words, a couple of questions that we asked people, and almost immediately, we started getting absolutely flooded with responses, like people were so happy that someone was finally asking this question about ageism and why it was so hard to find a job and all of the different ways that people who are looking for jobs or getting caught and getting stuck and getting trapped. And almost immediately, we started noticing a theme in the responses and that was people who worked in tech. We got hundreds of responses within the first couple of days, but even within the first five or ten, we’d already heard from people saying, “You know, you really should look into IBM, like I used to work there or my cousin used to work there or my friend used to work there. You’ve got to look at this company. And if you’re going to do an age discrimination story, this is the one to do.” And we don’t normally start stories that way, like with a bunch of people telling us a tip about a story people already know, but then we started getting on the phone with people who were writing into us, and as it turned out, there was a ton of stuff there and there were all of these groups of people who had left the company in one way, shape, or form and got together to compare notes. And they were getting together to compare notes and everyone on their end knew that something had happened, but nobody had really taken them seriously and no one had really done the work to put together all of these individual disparate stories. So we decided that this was like a really good way to try this engagement reporting thing that I hadn’t really done at ProPublica yet and talk to enough people to the point where we had a set of follow-up questions that we thought it would be interesting to have answered by many people and kept getting this wealth of response upon wealth of response upon wealth of response to the point where we were like, “Wow, it seems like there’s really an investigation to be done here,” like there really does seem to be a story and these people have been saying it for years and no one did it.
[00:05:41] SY: Why do you think no one talked about it? Because, I mean, ageism in tech is something that our community talks about and worries about all the time as they’re breaking into tech. So it’s not really a huge secret. It’s not unknown. Why did it take so long for someone to write about it?
[00:05:55] AT: It’s definitely not a secret in the traditional sense of like nobody knows about it. I think it’s what you would call an open secret. So it’s like the people who it’s happening to absolutely know that it’s a problem. The people who it’s happening to who have friends who it’s happening to know that they are in a community. I think the people who often have the power in a company, people who have the power even in media organizations have taken particularly seriously because it’s very difficult to prove, right? Like any form of discrimination is hard to prove but until you have the language and you have The telltale signs and you have the warnings, you aren’t going to be able to measure or point to specific paper trails or look out for different kinds of hallmarks that make it more than a haunting suspicion.
[00:06:46] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:06:47] AT: It’s not very often that someone will say like, “You’re absolutely too old for this job,” or, “We’re firing you because it’s time for you to retire.” And I think it’s also important to say like I think a lot of times employers are not thinking when they look at someone you’re too old or you need to go because you have too much experience. Usually, what it comes down to according to a lot of the research out there is, “Our business isn’t doing well. We need to cut expenses.” And historically, the most expensive people have been the ones with the most experience and the longest tenure.
[00:07:21] SY: That’s true.
[00:07:22] AT: Depending on what kind of business reporting you’re doing, depending on what kind of analysis of business that you’re doing, like it’s the kind of thing that can seem obvious but is also pretty easily explainable by using other metrics and measures.
[00:07:35] SY: So you’re talking to all these people, doing all these interviews, what were some of the initial patterns that you noticed?
[00:07:40] AT: Most striking one to me was that there was a group of people who wrote in to say, “Yeah. You know, I’ve been with this company for 25 years or 30 years or 40 years and I got the notification that I was being laid off, but of course they don’t call it a layoff because that is not euphemistic enough of a term. You’re being resource actioned. Your last day is going to be then you can apply for another job within the company. You’re probably not going to get it. You know, we’re so sorry.” And then a couple of days later, they get an email or a note or even sometimes like a fake handwritten letter from the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, saying, “Congratulations on your retirement.”
[00:08:21] SY: Oh!
[00:08:22] AT: And it’s like those two things next to each other suggest something and the people receiving those letters were of course infuriated by them.
[00:08:31] SY: I’m sure.
[00:08:31] AT: And there is an explanation, there are explanations, but it was that pattern where we were hearing this from more than one person in different parts of the country that we were like, “Yeah. They’re like not even really being that subtle about this, are they?” And it was the kind of thing where we realize this is perhaps enough of a paper trail, it’s enough of a specific form of evidence that if we collect enough of these, we can at least say that they’re not isolated incidents, like it’s not possible for us to find the denominator because the company won’t give us this information and they haven’t released that information to anyone since 2014, but there is a way to say there is a data gap here and it suggests that there’s more that we might be able to do to fill it.
[00:09:17] SY: What was the information they were releasing up until 2014?
[00:09:21] AT: So there is a federal law that says when you have a layoff, according to just anti-discrimination law or something called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that when you have a layoff, you’re supposed to list the ages of the people and the locations of the people who you’re laying off and that’s so that you can prove that we’re not doing this based on any of these criteria that might mean that you’re treating older workers differently than younger ones. And there are a couple of exceptions, but in general, this is a thing that supposed to be against the law. IBM, in 2014, stopped releasing those lists because they stopped doing layoffs at the same level of scale. So they’d have smaller layoffs across the country that didn’t trigger those requirements and not everything, not all of the people who suspected age discrimination or thought that they’d lost their job because they were at a certain life phase or an older worker were necessarily laid off. They were trying a lot of things to cut down on their workforce including something called “collocation”. So for a long, long, long time, IBM was one of those companies where you could work from home whenever you wanted. So you had okay people for decades working out of their home offices, building lives and communities, like we talked to one guy for a while who lived way out in Idaho and ran a theater company and worked in marketing at IBM for decades. And one day, he gets an email from corporate saying, “Cool. So we want to offer you this opportunity to move to your corporate office,” and it was halfway across the country where they were like, “Congratulations. You can move to North Carolina.”
[00:11:02] SY: Congratulations. Wow.
[00:11:03] AT: And of course people who’ve been lodged in a town or a community where they have kids or they have families, it’s much harder for them to pick up and move to North Carolina when they are accustomed to working remotely for a long time and that meant a lot of people had to leave their jobs. And in other cases, they had to leave their jobs without any kind of severance because there was no real alternative and this is something that according to many experts in employment is going to target a specific kind of worker over another. You’d see people who were not promoted and who purposefully were not promoted. You’d find them on list somewhere that said like, “We definitely don’t want to give this person the sense that they could be promoted because we don’t really think that they should stay,” that kind of logic going on behind the scenes that are more invisible pressures for people to leave, but equally as effective in meeting people don’t have jobs.
[00:11:59] SY: So the good news is there are laws that are supposed to protect people from discrimination and ageism included and that you mentioned one of them about the disclosure, the data disclosure. What are some other ways that the law is supposed to protect people?
[00:12:13] AT: So people are supposed to be able to file age discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and this is like a federal watchdog agency where you as an employee are supposed to be able to say, “I think that this happened to me at work. You should investigate.” And we know that lots of people who left IBM did file those complaints. We don’t really think that the EEOC did anything with them until after our story. Also, in theory, you should be able to sue for age discrimination, like there should be the prospect of a class action lawsuit. But included in a lot of the paperwork that these people had to sign once they were laid off and wanted to get 90 days of health insurance, a small severance package, the things that you should get when you are laid off, they also had to sign what’s called an Arbitration Agreement and that came with also a nondisclosure agreement in a lot of ways that promised exactly that you would not do such a thing. So it said, “We’re not going to settle these claims in court. If I do want to challenge anything about this, I agree that I will go through arbitration with the company.” And arbitration is when you have one arbitrary, nobody really has lawyers, nobody has an advocate in their side or another and the arbiter is of course paid by the company.
[00:13:33] SY: Oh.
[00:13:34] AT: So other research out there has said anytime you really go into arbitration, it’s very rare that it will ever come in the employee’s favor. So essentially, you’re signing away your right to take any kind of legal action other than going to the EEOC.
[00:13:47] SY: Wow! Okay. So the laws aren’t really doing much in reality. That’s good to know.
[00:13:51] AT: They’re not doing much and there have been Supreme Court cases in recent years that just keep weakening the laws over and over again. There are laws. They’re not particularly well enforced and even the ones that are supposedly being enforced, the protections just aren’t there.
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[00:15:51] SY: So how did IBM respond to these allegations? Because the story is very thorough, very long, very detailed and has some just really, really fascinating and heartbreaking stories in there. How did they respond to these allegations?
[00:16:04] AT: So we sent them about 10 pages’ worth of questions and we received I think three lines in response.
[00:16:11] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:16:12] AT: And pretty much what they said is, “We’re really proud of our company. We’re proud of our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves time and time again. And of course, we follow the law. That’s why we’ve survived for so long. We’ve been around for a hundred years and we’re doing great.”
[00:16:27] SY: Okay.
[00:16:27] AT: That’s pretty much all we got.
[00:16:29] SY So you mentioned that cost is a huge reason why you might want to get rid of more senior employees because they’re generally getting paid more. Are there other reasons why specifically tech companies might want to push older employees out?
[00:16:43] AT: So IBM in particular is an older tech company and it’s the kind of tech company that way back in the 1950s they were doing really exciting things. And I think in this new era of technology where you have the competitors of Amazon and Facebook and Google, the branding has changed and IBM’s branding hadn’t necessarily changed along with it. The core product that IBM has always had, so some many of them are still valuable, many of them are still useful, they are not the same type of cutting-edge economy shifting excitement that you might get at another tech company and I think that there’s a lot of worry from people at the company, from investors, it’s not the same degree of value being created in the world. And when that happens, you need someone to blame, and there are probably people to blame, there are probably plenty of people to blame. I think that there are plenty of people who worked at IBM who would say things had not gone well over the past couple of years. There were plenty of people who had a really great career, had a really great time, had done a lot of really great work, but it didn’t feel particularly innovative anymore.
[00:17:57] SY: Okay. Yeah.
[00:17:57] AT: So if you’re high up at IBM and you’re trying to decide what to do, I think there was to them a very basic answer, which is we need new people, we need new blood, we need some of what’s going on over there, and what seemed like it was going on over there, the company explicitly in various recruiting materials, internal staff presentations, basically what they said was, “We need younger people and we younger people. We need young talent. We need fresh talent. We need new ideas. We need a change to our core structural business.” But the problem there of course is that that’s not exactly a business strategy and it’s one where you can then end up making blunt moves that end up hurting a lot of people.
[00:18:39] SY: And that was what really came out to me and the article is seeing this very, very aggressive, very strategic shift in mindset and in really prioritizing hiring millennials and trying to be a younger company, a hipper, cooler company. I think there’s a quote in there that said that everyone needs to think like a millennial or something like that. Yeah, and that seems to be coming from the top, it came directly from CEO Virginia Rometty who took over in 2012. And I think for our audience in particular, this is concerning because the IBM article focused, one, on IBM and also focused on layoffs, but I imagine if a huge tech company is focused on hiring millennials that that means that older and more senior folks who want to break into tech aren’t going to have the opportunity to even get those entry level jobs.
[00:19:26] AT: Yeah. People believe that there is a lot of bias out there and they encounter it and they don’t have the evidence pool behind them to say that this exists. But in other reporting that my colleague Peter who I worked on this story with has done, he’s found that it is very difficult if you were pushed out of a job later in your career to get one that pays anywhere near what your previous job paid. It’s not just in your head. It is something out there that’s real. You look at the best data that we have which isn’t perfect, it’s not great, but it really does suggest that it’s difficult to get a job when you are above a certain experience level and at a certain age and a lot of times that has nothing to do with skill or quality of work.
[00:20:11] SY: So what happens to folks once they get laid off?
[00:20:14] AT: A lot of the folks we talked to, they formed community support systems. Many of them did find other jobs. A lot of them ended up piecing together other kinds of work. And look, being laid off from IBM is awful. And for a lot of these people, they had staked their careers and their identities and their lives on being at this tech company and they had had generations of family members who had worked at this tech company. That said, being laid off from IBM means you’re probably in a slightly better financial condition than many other Americans who hadn’t had that kind of white-collar work for that amount of time. So they often have support networks to fall back on not say that it was easy and not to say that they aren’t dealing with very serious problems. But part of where I start to get really worried is if these people have it happening to them after a career in a white-collar tech job, I really worry about people in other communities, people of other financial backgrounds, people who’ve had trouble piecing together careers for their entire lives based on other reasons, like race and gender and other demographic characteristics that we know makes it harder to build a career in general.
[00:21:29] SY: Yeah, and I think it’s alarming because of any job you would think that a tech job is safe and secure and something that you can hang onto and you can really invest in. It’s a little scary that even with something that is supposed to be really safe and really trusted, you can’t always keep that job or even get that job.
[00:21:48] AT: It’s a fascinating cultural shift because we looked at quite a bit of, you know, IBM has always loved its corporate culture documentation. And when people started at IBM decades ago, they were basically promised full-time employment, like you’ve made it to IBM, you’ve made it for life, and every couple of years you’d get a new marker of how long you’d been at the company.
[00:22:12] SY: Yeah.
[00:22:13] AT: Commemorative watches and big retirement parties. And I think people really felt like the rug was pulled out from under them and I don’t know if it’s the same for people entering tech now. I’m 30 years old. I’m much younger than a lot of the people who we talked to in these cases, but that’s something I thought about quite a bit during this reporting process was like, “Are my friends who might be going into these kinds of jobs going in with the same expectations?” And even if they’re going in with different expectations, like who knows what’s going to be the case in 30 years when we’re thinking about, hopefully, knock on wood, retiring? How often can you change the economic prospects for a generation and expect them to recover? It all feels very hard and unfair. There’s no way you can look back and say that any of these people made mistakes because the company was making promises that…
[00:23:03] SY: Yeah, you believed in it.
[00:23:04] AT: You believed in it and you had to believe in it and that was why people in many cases work so hard for this company. It felt like it was supposed to be this fair exchange.
[00:23:12] SY: Well, that was what I found so interesting reading the corporate documents, just this really huge value and employees and this long-term investment that they were making with their workers was really fascinating to me because when I think about tech today, I don’t necessarily think of it that way. I think of a job that you get while you have the kills. You have to constantly almost prove yourself. You have to constantly be better, learning a new skill, making sure you’re still worthy. So at least for me, I don’t get the impression from tech companies today that they’re really going to look out for me in the long term. And so I’m wondering when you have, and I know this piece primarily focus on IBM, but have you looked at other tech companies to see if there are similar issues with pushing employees that are a little bit older, pushing them out, or maybe just not prioritizing them, not valuing them the same?
[00:24:00] AT: IBM is definitely not the only company that has an ageism problem. As you so astutely mentioned before, you see a lot of that in hiring where people have trouble getting in the door past a certain age. We did a story, another story around the same time as the IBM story where we were actually looking at employment ads where different companies were putting up new jobs and taking out paid advertising on Facebook, which was at the time a very common way to get job opportunities out there to try to reach people and we found just dozens of examples of different companies that you couldn’t even see the advertisements for these jobs if you were above a certain age.
[00:24:39] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:24:40] AT: And it was lots of different kinds of companies. So it was like a little mom-and-pop sandwich shop. It was a police department and it was even companies like Facebook itself. So a lot of the companies in those cases, they’d say that, “Oh, we didn’t know that we were doing this,” or, “We took out other ads too,” but I think it’s just something that people don’t think twice in the way that they might for other different kinds of demographic characteristics. We’ve had plenty of people write in with other tips about other companies and Peter and an economist at the Urban Institute was trying to figure out the larger world of other industries. And in general, it does seem like people in tech are more aware of the age discrimination problem, but it is something that affects lots of different kinds of people doing lots of different kinds of work in many parts of the country.
[00:25:38] SY: Coming up next, Ariana talks about what shocked her most from doing her reporting and what we can do if anything about ageism in tech after this.
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[00:26:58] EM: When approaching software design, you often will have to take either existing software or other software systems and kind of get them all to work together and one of the very true values of how you can design software is making sure that it’s extensible.
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[00:27:37] EM: Python has been designed in a very interesting way that allows it to be kind of extensible at its core. You can actually like patch different pieces of the system at runtime. So if you want to switch out how modules are imported or you want to switch out your string type or your integer types, Python allows you to do all of these things fairly easily. At the heart of Python’s extensibility is something called C extensions or C modules. And so Python has actually been designed to give you an entry point to other languages. And essentially, if you can write a C extension or C module that can then bridge to, I mean, hundreds of other languages. You can kind of hack Python.
[00:28:36] SY: You can find it wherever you get your podcast and make sure to check out the show at RedHat.com/commandline.
[00:28:47] SY: In doing all of your research, was there anything that shocked you?
[00:28:51] AT: This sounds really basic, but one of the things that shocked me was just how much we take for granted this idea of retirement and there are so many people out there who don’t feel like that’s ever going to be on the table for them. And I just find that so sad.
[00:29:07] SY: Yeah.
[00:29:08] AT: Really sad and really scary for people not only of the generation right now, but it’s like you look at all of the economic prospects out there and people my age, people a little bit older, people a little bit younger, I don’t know how people are going to plan in any kind of way that’s going to facilitate an actual happy, relaxed retirement situation.
[00:29:31] SY: What can we do about that? Because one thing that really stands out to me about this piece is it’s really about the power dynamic and it seems like at some point the laws were designed to give the little guy some power, some weight in the game, and then they, as you mentioned, started getting weaker and weaker with different rulings and it seems like the companies are kind of giving us very, very few options. So what can we possibly do? Is it something that can be tackled at an individual level? Do we need to rely on companies to make that shift on their own? Is it about new laws? What can we do?
[00:30:06] AT: Yeah. The question of what we can do is, in many ways, it’s a depressing one where I think you’re right that on an individual level, there’s just not that much that you can do to push back against a system as a single person. What was most heartening to me about this story was that we were able to build momentum among the people themselves. So we couldn’t have done this story if one person had decided to talk to us. We really couldn’t have done the story if a hundred people had decided to talk to us because what happened was every time we’d get a new critical mass of people, we’d figure out not only just a new pattern, but we would be able to send an email to the full list saying, “Hey, we can’t do this story unless we get X.” And maybe the people on the list wouldn’t have X, but someone who’d been kind of lurking or someone who’d been maybe worked in a part of the company where they knew something or knew someone at that point when they realized that they were in a community of hundreds of other people were then willing to speak up. It felt like a collective action project even though it was journalism. And I don’t think collective action is limited to journalism, but I do think in this case it was effective because even though IBM didn’t really answer any of our questions, it led to a lot of other kinds of questions, from other kinds of people who can take other kinds of activist action, like now the EEOC is investigating IBM for age discrimination.
[00:31:39] SY: Okay.
[00:31:40] AT: There is a class action lawsuit. There are other lawsuits brought by individuals where they can cite examples from other people’s stories that it’s not a way around the issue. It’s not like any of these people are going to get their jobs back, but I am given hope by the fact that there are critical masses of people coming together and supporting one another to a very least help get the stories out because I do think that that creates change and paths and inspiration for other companies to take part to changing the world.
[00:32:11] SY: For people listening who are a bit older and who want to shift careers into tech or trying to break in, what should they be aware of? What should they consider?
[00:32:20] AT: I mean, I think the first, and this is going to start the sound kind of like warm and fuzzy amateur psychologist, but we’ve talked to so, so, so many people who say that the very best mix of skill set is going to be people who are more experienced with people who are less experienced and the people who are more experienced often times are actually better employees.
[00:32:43] SY: Interesting.
[00:32:43] AT: And I think that even just as a self-confidence question and level, like you are bringing things to your work that people who are younger than you, people who are my age, people who are younger than me aren’t going to be able to bring themselves. And while it might feel like a disadvantage, in many objective ways, there are actually advantages, and finding employers who value those skills probably mean that you’re finding a functional employer. But I think as you were saying before this idea of tech companies where they want people to constantly be reinventing themselves, learning new things, I would imagine that the people listening to your podcast are actually fantastic examples of that and that seems to be the key is to be able to stay intellectually curious, to be able to stay motivated and inspired by the kind of work that you’re doing on a level that’s may be divorced from the kind of investment that your company is making in you and so something like learning how to code at an older age or a younger age seems to be a good idea and I think it’s also fair to say you do want to walk into a job interview, you want to put yourself out there for work with the understanding that age can work against you. A lot of people who have participated in our call-out who’ve written in to us about age discrimination at other companies who have talked to us about how hard it is to get another job, they’ve said things like, “I leave my graduation year off of my resume because…”
[00:34:20] SY: I was going to ask about that. Yeah.
[00:34:21] AT: Yeah, and I think that advice is out there and of course I have mixed feelings about it because it makes a bad thing more real. At the same time, I think on an individual level, it probably does help.
[00:34:33] SY: Well, thank you so much Ariana for all of your time and talking to us about ageism in tech.
[00:34:37] AT: Truly my pleasure.
[00:34:45] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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