'They said I was too old to work at a startup' – women on ageism in tech

In a sector that values youth, female tech leaders share their experiences of working in the industry

While diversity in tech has come to the fore in recent years, there is one aspect of this which has been rather overlooked: age. While the median average age for Britons in the UK is 40, the average age of a Facebook employee is 29, while at Amazon it’s 30, according to research firm Payscale. Given the industry’s gender imbalance, older women are the ones most likely to miss out.

From the founder of startup to the chief operating officer of a major tech firm, we spoke to seven women aged over 40 about their experience of navigating the industry.

Karen Quintos, 54, chief customer officer, Dell

‘It’s definitely been challenging for me as a woman on mostly male boards,’ says Dell CCO, Karen Quintos. Photograph: PR

The two main challenges facing women as they get older is a lack of role models and a lack of confidence. It’s definitely been challenging for me as a woman on mostly male boards. I’ve been lucky at Dell, as my male colleagues recognise I may have a different perspective on things sometimes, so I’ll often be asked to cast my eye over whatever’s being worked on.

The key to really continuing to thrive in your career as you get older is recognising and staying close to your advocates. Keep an open mind as to who your advocates might be, as you may find yourself surprised – I definitely was when I discovered who mine were.

Pip Wilson, 41, angel investor and founder of divorce app amicable

I founded my consultancy company in my late 20s and never felt disadvantaged as a woman. However, when I moved into the tech space with amicable in 2015, it was a real shock to see how male-dominated and also how young the industry is. I’ve only come across one woman founder who has successfully raised funding in her 40s.

Only 7% of VC firms have a female partner, and VCs like to invest in companies they understand. Women also tend to be less bullish when seeking investment, and will be honest about the problems with their companies. I also think the startup accelerator system disadvantages older people, particularly women with families. Not everyone can up their lives and move to San Francisco for three months, working 16-hour days.

Tanya Cordrey, 50, digital consultant and former chief digital officer of the Guardian

Tech is clearly a very youth-orientated industry. Many companies even pride themselves on the age of their employees, which I find a bit gross. Job hunting in my 50s has definitely felt more challenging than it did even in my 40s. I was once told by someone that I’m too old to work in a startup, which I was quite shocked by. But then, if a company doesn’t want me because I’m a woman over a certain age, then it’s not really a company I want to work for.

It’s important to keep your skills upgraded and on top of industry trends no matter what your age, but I think this becomes particularly important over 40 because there is an expectation that you’re more out of touch. You definitely have to work twice as hard in this regard.

Dr Sue Black OBE, 55, founder of techmums and honorary professor at University College London

‘The key to thriving as you grow older is finding networks of like-minded people who can mentor and support you,’ says Dr Sue Black.

I haven’t experienced much ageism personally – I actually think it’s become easier for me as I’ve got older, as people have started taking me more seriously in a professional environment. However, I’ve heard some terrible stories from other women [within the tech industry] about how they’ve been patronised or treated in a derogatory manner, even those at the top of their field.

The key to thriving as you grow older – or at any age – is finding networks of like-minded people who can mentor and support you, and vice versa. When I entered the industry in the 1990s I wasn’t meeting many other women in the workplace or at conferences, so I set up BCSWomen, the first online network for women in tech, so we could connect with each other. Now there are all kinds of different women’s networks out there, from programming to leadership.

Jacqueline de Rojas, 54, president of trade association techUK, and non-executive director of Rightmove UK

There is an issue in the industry with people being let go when they’re older. Some companies have a “your face doesn’t fit” mentality – it’s tricky to drum up the same level of enthusiasm around a startup if it’s not seen as being down with the kids. Women also face further problems when they go on maternity leave as their confidence and own perceived skill level can drop.

Personally, I think I’ve managed to avoid this by upgrading my skills regularly. At techUK we have a Returners’ Hub that helps people access return-to-work programmes. It’s important to not let your skills or your network die out.

In my view older people make more loyal employees as they have less financial pressures on them, and aren’t constantly chasing bigger salaries.

Nikki Cochrane, 44, co-founder of Digital Mums

We’re the good news story – in all honestly we haven’t experienced any ageism or sexism while starting up. There is no doubt that investment is a very male-dominated space, and we found it very challenging to seek out female investors, but we managed.

Our business runs courses teaching mums everything they need to know to start a career in social media management. The women we train are able to empathise and manage customers and clients in a way the average graduate just can’t. 

One of the best things about being a woman over 40 in this industry is the camaraderie. It’s a brilliant age to launch a business because you bring a whole wealth of experience to the table.

Elspeth Briscoe, 44, founder of online courses platform Learning With Experts

Raising investment is difficult but not impossible, says tech startup owner Elspeth Briscoe.

I started my career at eBay and Skype before launching my own company in 2011, and managed to raise £1.5m in investment from VCs and angels while pregnant. It’s difficult, but not impossible. The VC space can be a bit of a boys’ club but it really is like dating – you have to shop around and find people you click with, who believe in what you’re doing.

I actually feel more motivated in my career now than I ever did in my 20s. The role models I’ve had have really helped me too – I worked at eBay when [Hewlett Packard Enterprise chief executive] Meg Whitman was CEO, and she was just fantastic at creating an inclusive working environment. She really inspired me to get to where I am.