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Jeff Spirer, 61, poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Calif. A tech marketing and strategy veteran, he's rejected suggestions that he undergo cosmetic surgery. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Jeff Spirer, 61, poses for a portrait in San Francisco, Calif. A tech marketing and strategy veteran, he's rejected suggestions that he undergo cosmetic surgery. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret – age bias Add to ...

When Randy Adams, 60, was looking for a chief executive officer job in Silicon Valley last year, he got turned down from position after position that he thought he was going to nail – only to see much younger, less-experienced men win out.

Finally, before heading into his next interview, he shaved off his grey hair and traded in his loafers for a pair of Converse sneakers. The board hired him.

“I don’t think I would have been able to get this CEO job if I hadn’t shaved my head,” says Mr. Adams, who has founded eight venture-backed companies. He is now chairman of the company that hired him, mobile conference-call service Socialdial Inc., and is fundraising for a new business. Mr. Adams has supplemented his makeover by trading in his button-down shirts for T-shirts, making sure he owns the latest gadgets, and getting an eyelid lift.

Such are the pressures in Silicon Valley, where the startup ethos extols fresh ideas and young programmers willing to toil through the night. Chief executives in their 20s, led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, are lionized, in part because of their youth. Many investors state bluntly that they prefer to see people under 40 in charge.

Yet the youth worship undercuts another of Silicon Valley’s cherished ideals: that anyone smart and driven can get ahead in what the industry likes to think of as an egalitarian culture. To many, it looks like simple age discrimination – and it’s affecting people who wouldn’t fit any normal definition of old.

“I don’t think in the outside world, outside tech, anyone in their 40s would think age discrimination was happening to them,” says Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco employment attorney who has fielded age-discrimination inquiries from people in their early 40s. But they feel it in the Bay Area, he said, and it’s “100 per cent due to the new, young, tech startup mindset.”

Regional data on age discrimination are hard to come by, making it hard to establish precisely how Silicon Valley stacks up against other parts of the United States.

Of the 18,335 employment cases filed in 2010 with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, one-fifth cited age. That puts age below retaliation as a discrimination claim, but above racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual orientation.

Nationally, retaliation is also the most frequently cited discrimination claim, according to the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. But age comes much lower down on the national list, below race, sex, and disability.

The federal agency says age is cited in 26 per cent of total complaints in California, compared to 22 per cent in New York and 21 per cent in Texas. Among large states, Illinois had the highest ratio of age-related complaints, at 37 per cent.

Some technology recruiters say unequivocally they see bias at work. Marta Fuentealba, a principal at startup specialist Talent Farm, says she’s encountered it many times.

She recalls a meeting at a software company a few years ago, when the human-resources executive told her he would like to find somebody “around age 26 or so” to fill a job. An age requirement along those lines would violate both state and federal laws on discrimination, California labour lawyers say.

“You mean, somebody less jaded?” Ms. Fuentealba recalls asking, hoping to jolt the executive back into legal territory. “And he said, ‘No, I mean somebody young, probably no older than 26.’” Back at the office, she sent the executive résumés from a variety of candidates.

Jeff Spirer, a 61-year-old technology marketing and strategy veteran, landed a new job in October after a stint doing part-time consulting. It was a tough search. He recalls the follow-up after a long phone interview at a small online-surveys company last year.

The hiring manager asked Mr. Spirer to come in for an interview with the chief executive, who was in his 20s. When Mr. Spirer walked into the room, the CEO looked at him, said something had come up unexpectedly, and left.

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