Ashton Applewhite, in her blog, This Chair Rocks, defines ‘Ageism’ and writes about how a discrimination against age is creeping into Corporate America and why that is all wrong. Separately, Lynn Parramore wrote a post on “50 is the new 65“, talking about the discrimination that Americans increasingly face in later stages of life.
I’m going to refrain from debating whether or not they are actually right – and whether there actually is a discrimination that is plaguing our society right now. However, I do believe that the older you get, the harder you have to work to convince a decision maker that you are the right choice.
Unconscious bias is innate in humans to begin with. It starts from very early stages in every aspect of life.
- An old battered toy vs a shiny new one – which one does a child pick?
- Who do you assume can lift a heavy box – the man or the woman in the room?
The answers are obvious. Based on things we learn, we unconsciously associate characteristics and desirability to different things. Unconscious bias is articulated in this exceptionally well narrated Washington Post story, Pearls Before Breakfast, about Joshua Bell’s performance on a subway, disguised as a street performer. A world renowned musician whose concerts sold at $100 a seat, Joshua was performing at the metro station at L’ENFANT PLAZA in Washington D.C., indistinguishable to the passersby from a street musician. Sure enough, he made $32.17 during the time he played at the metro!
When it comes to the workforce, what is it that we value and how does our unconscious bias associate these values with age? Citing a few things:
- Energy (advantage young)
- Experience (advantage mature)
- Motivation (slight advantage young)
- Ability to learn new things (advantage young)
- Compensation (advantage young)
There are, of course, many other important things, such as commitment, team skills, domain knowledge, etc., but, when all else is the same, it boils down to some critical factors that lean one way or the other.
This isn’t unlike other types of unconscious bias – such as, for e.g., the (perceived) bias against women in technology. Women have to work extra hard to get recognized. To be viewed as a leader, to be viewed as a strong technologist – we have to give a lot more. Alternatively, we can work our way up starting from being a “note taker” – in other words, being of assistance to the real leaders and technologists – but, we will constantly find ourselves starting at the “note taker” level, as we work with different people.
But I digress. The reality is, when we are dealing with a natural unconscious bias in the society – cultural or global – the larger population is not on the side of the disadvantaged, by default. We have to be conscious and we have to work harder to earn our place.
All that said, capitalism actually makes this worse. The idea that the profits can be unevenly distributed in fact, creates a further divide. And yet, with this divide, is its incredible dual – the power of diversity – the fundamental value that allows us to really define who we are.
It’s not necessarily fun being on the disadvantaged side of any bias – but, it does make us a better person. And when we conquer it, we have made an amazing impact for ourselves and we have done our part in slowly chipping away at the bias!