Ageism in startups: to all the oldies out there

co-written with Judith Tripard

A few weeks ago, Judith & I joined a panel to discuss diversity and inclusion in the workplace. One of the participants asked this question: “What would you suggest to a 50 year old woman who wants to work in a start-up?”. After diving deeper into the question, it seemed this bias doesn’t necessarily start at 50, but at age 40. With at least 20 years left to offer to the workforce before retirement, how is it possible to think you could be put in the box of ancient relics that would be lucky enough to get a job?

As two proud 40-ish year old women, we think this question merits a deeper and stronger answer. Ageism is one of the strongest biases there is in a startup, and is usually forgotten when talking about D&I.

Ageism runs even deeper than sexism and racism in startups

Ageism happens when age becomes part of a criteria that divides people or groups; resulting in disadvantages or prejudices.

In all sectors, even outside the startup ecosystem; age is the main factor of discrimination in employment in France. A study by Staticia in 2016 found out that 15.3 % of people in the workforce in France had experienced discrimination based on age. Unfortunately, although the behaviour of ageism is illegal in France, it is relatively tolerated and has less consequences compared to our European counterparts. 20% of job offers analyzed in France show an age criterion, compared to only 1% among the British; this practice is however discriminatory (source). As a result, it is one of the biggest causes of discrimination in the recruitment process in France today.

In the study we published in 2020 on diversity in tech, we also found that age discrimination was the most ranked in startups. Among the companies that took part in the survey, the percentage of people over 45 was particularly low. For startups with less than 300 employees, on average: 7.7% of employees were over 45 years old, and it goes done to 2.4% of employees over 55 years old.

Why is that ?

So why do we see that there is more bias around older workers in start-ups?

Firstly, they may demand a higher salary, so they could potentially cost the company more money. Secondly, will an older worker fit the “young and cool” vibe? It seems there’s a concern they won’t be a good cultural fit. We could also assume that older workers lack flexibility and aren’t necessarily technologically savvy. This assumption is unfounded and lacks merit because the world is always changing and we are forced to adapt constantly, old or young.

Another myth is about the fact that older workers would not perform as well as younger workers: it has been proven that it was totally not true. The Cogito study (2010) compared 101 young adults aged 20–31 to 103 older adults aged 65–80 on 12 different tasks over 100 days. It revealed that older workers’ performance was more consistent over time than younger workers, making them better at solving problems.

The scary thing is that we are all aging, whether we want to or not. This means that it could affect us at some point in our lives. So let’s act collectively. The start-up ecosystem has a huge impact on the business world. The way we can collectively address ageism can hopefully change this terrifying trend.

What are the opportunities to make things change ?

Social media seems to show that the most successful entrepreneurs are the youngest. Venture Capitalists accentuate this myth by themselves discriminating against older founders. Yet the reality is quite different. A study by HBR shows that amongst the top 1% of start-ups based on growth in their first 5 years, founders were on average 45 years old. Success can come at any age, look at this Entrepreneur article with 6 examples of senior entrepreneurs. The press has to stop exclusively chasing founders who fit the “Silicon Valley” portrait.

Also, tech may have had a predominantly young target a few years ago, but this is no longer the case: tech is everywhere. As an example, the average age of Facebook users is over 40. The sooner the industry confronts and corrects those biases, the sooner it’ll realize the business opportunities to come.

Tips to candidates

Now, how do we answer the question of this young 50 year-old candidate who asked us how to get in? Here’s some tips.

Investigate the company

1/ The founders. Take a look at the startup you’re interested in. How old are the founder(s)? Did they have experience in the workplace before creating their startup? What do they talk about their culture and the people they work with? Usually, you’ll get more traction with the founders or leaders in the company if they have already experienced working with seasoned colleagues.

2/ The fundraising series. Note that startups at under series A/B may have way less cash to spend than the more seasoned ones. The structuring phase of scale usually happens when you start to raise a few millions and that’s where the founders begin to look for a higher level of expertise in their workforce.

3/ The employees. Go to their LinkedIn page, and look at the people they hired (both the names, their journeys and also the pictures they display on the company page). Are they all fresh out of school or are they in a phase of structuring their workforce and bringing on more expertise?

4/ Their social media. Check out the articles they are writing and the events they’re participating in. Are they conscious of bringing more diversity and trying to be more inclusive? Even if their actions are not focused on diversity of age, startups that are dedicated to a more inclusive workplace may take more attention to your profile.

5/ The job descriptions. Analyse the job descriptions they’re hiring for. Not just the one you’re interested in, but all of them. Are they hiring more experienced people globally, or is it just one experienced position amongst a sea of junior ones? And regarding the job description you’re applying for, are they asking for a VP position with (only) 5 years experience? Are they specifically looking for people with just startup similar experience? Are they exclusively targeting people with a Master degree? Is the mission execution-based only? These clues are all pointing out to ageism-biased hiring.

It’s not about age, it’s about attitude.

Not everyone likes to work in a startup, whatever their age is. You need to make sure the environment you’re applying for corresponds to what you like to do on a daily basis.

1/ Hands-on work. Whatever your level in a startup, whatever the number of people you’re managing, you’ll be doing very hands-on work, missions that you would usually delegate in a bigger company. You also won’t have all the tools that are automating low-value tasks (it actually may be one of your missions to automate them). If you don’t want to do that, don’t join a startup.

2/ Flat hierarchy. If you think leaders are the decision keepers that everyone should follow, think again. Decisions are most of the time done collectively in a startup. You may have 20+ years of experience and 2 levels of management more than the other employees in the room, it doesn’t mean you won’t be challenged by your decisions. And it’s a good thing. Do not come in with a know-it-all / done-it-all attitude. Every company is different and there may be different solutions to one challenge. You need to be very open to new ideas and bring on your expertise at the same level of the other ones in the room. The “leadership card” is not something you can impose, you have to build trust and show legitimity.

4/ Change management. When you work at a startup, things move very (very) quickly. You can change the direction of the business, open new services, shuffle your organization — all of that in a minute time. You need to be at ease with the fact that what you’re working on today will be completely different (or even obsolete) the next one. There’s a great article about it here: in a matter of a few months, what you’ve signed up for may drastically change from what you’re doing. You need to accept the changes, and sometimes put your ego aside for the good of the company.

Change management also means decision making. In a more established company, you can turn to your boss (and the boss of your boss…) to validate the idea you want to implement. In a startup, you’re the owner of your decisions, and you need to be responsible for them. It means that you need to “think deep, decide fast” (as we say at Back Market 😉): make sure you’ve conducted your analysis properly, then take the risk of moving on with your decision, and ensure the proper communication to all parties. It’s a big responsibility, and your impact is wider than if you were in a big company. There’s a crucial difference on your autonomy level and you need to be prepared for it.

Prepare yourself

Are you still excited to join the “startup” nation? There’s still a few tips on how to get prepared.

1/ Reach out to alumni

Contact your network and discuss with those who have worked / are working in startups.

Open the discussion, not directly for an interview, but to discuss the working environment, challenges, etc. Alumni are a great network that we forget sometimes to activate. But remember that the french startup ecosystem is small, and there’s a lot of connections. Reaching out to them gives you two opportunities: learning more about the environment from someone who’s actually in it (getting the good, the bad and the ugly) and getting a chance to be referred. Referrals are on average 30% of hires.

2/ Advertise yourself properly

During the 20+ more years you have, compared to the younger candidates, you gained much more expertise. First, make sure this expertise is well advertised on your CV. Avoid the 10+ pages of all the things you’ve done (starting with your summer internship), or a list à la Prévert of every little project you’ve made. Focus on what’s important, and on the achievements rather than the description of tasks.

Also, most of the candidates today don’t go with the effort of making a proper cover letter. Please forget the generic ones that you send that recruiters never read. But a targeted email written with an open heart and a bit of humor really goes a long way. Remember that your CV can go directly from the bin to the founders in one click from the recruiter.

Finally, during the interview, be ready to demonstrate with concrete exemples how for each requirement the job you have overcome similar challenges. End up every story with the ROI it generated: increasing the revenues by X%, upgrading the code base to Y% of performance, scaling the team from A to Z, etc. KPIs are key in a startup, especially for the founders: explain how much money you’re going to make them gain instead of the money they will have to spend for your expertise.

3/ The compensation challenge

This is the most common reason why a startup is refusing an “older” candidate: it costs too much. And it’s the most difficult one to overcome. My advice on this one is to focus on expertise (again and always). Explain to the founders what you will bring on top of just the job description: the areas they didn’t think about, the transversal impact you bring in, etc.

Demonstrate how hiring you in is actually saving 1 or 2+ roles they have planned: most of the time, the impact of bringing more experienced people is twice as much as hiring 2 juniors fresh out of school (e.g. learning tasks they never worked on, onboarding on new tools, ramping up for autonomy, etc.).

Move the vision not on today’s challenges, but the ones they’re going to have in 1 or 2 years from now. Make them think long-term (which is not natural for a startup). Focus on the money they’re losing (or not gaining) today because of missing the key element (e.g. you).

Finally, on your side, think about differentiating your compensation package, and most importantly the equity part. You may have an offer with less cash, but take a deeper look at what they can offer as equity (BSPCE in France): if you really trust in the company’s success, it can take you from a few euros less now, but millions in the long-term. It’s always about risk, and trust.

Conclusion

In conclusion, yes there is still much work to be done to eradicate ageism in the workplace, and much of it depends on us - as founders, as HR, as employees and as candidates — collectively working together to combat this issue. We should be vigilant in watching for signs of age discrimination and to speak up when ageism occurs. Of course it’s always difficult to identify reasons why you do or don’t get a job, but if you hear something like “you won’t fit the culture”, your age might be the issue. If you see that your company only fires the older employees, there might be a trend. If you hear tacky comments about your age, speak up.

Have you encountered ageism and if so how did you manage it? Do not hesitate to comment on our article.

To know more and understand the picture we used, check the Global report on ageism by the World Health Organization

HR Leader for tech fast-growing companies. Chief People Officer at Back Market.