Can we talk about ageism?

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The free and open source community has been having a lot of conversations about diversity, especially gender diversity, over the last few years. Although there is still plenty to do, we've made some real strides. After all, the first step is admitting there is a problem.

Another type of diversity that has gotten much less attention, but that is integral to building sustainable communities is age diversity. If we want free and open source software to truly take over the world, then we want to welcome contributors of all ages. A few months ago, I interviewed some women approaching or over fifty about their experiences in open source, and in this article, I'll share their perspectives.

The whole spectrum

As a community, we need to cast a wide net. We need to look at where the next generation of contributors is coming from, sometimes referred to as the pipeline. But we also need to make sure we aren't alienating older contributors. At last year's Community Leadership Summit, one of the topics discussed was ageism in our communities. Young people said they didn't feel like they were taken seriously, and older people said they often felt unappreciated or even outright ignored. Most free and open source projects could use another pair of eyes or hands somewhere and there is a famous talent shortage in the industry, so why are we letting these people slip away?

"There seems to be an implicit belief that, of course, senior men may want to stay technical, but it doesn't translate as easily to women for some reason," says Sarah, who has spent her career in small start-ups.

Expectations are a huge part of the problem. Contributors need to feel like they belong and their work is valued. For a deeper discussion of how Maslow's hierarchy of needs impacts the free and open source software community, check out Sarah Sharp's keynote from SCaLE this year. We're alienating young contributors by focusing on what they don't know, when we could be using that time to help them learn. At the same time, we're often overlooking older contributors by assuming they aren't interested in learning new technologies.

Culture fit

When managers vet new employees or community contributors based on "culture fit" the outcome is rarely good for diversity. Small homogenuous communities may even work for a little while, but they aren't sustainable. Culture fit is an issue for women and people of color as well as other under-represented groups, but our industry seems to have a real problem picturing older women in technical roles.

"I don't think I get the same level of respect for my experience that a man would get with the same number of years of experience." Nellie, a programmer in Seattle.

Open source companies aren't necessarily doing better. Large companies like Facebook and Google have a long way to go, with median worker ages of 29 and 30. There is not as much data available for smaller companies, but the anecdotal experience is that job-hunting is tough when you start to look north of forty.

What employers can do

Many of the older technical women I spoke with were nervous about looking for new jobs because of hiring bias. Chris Stankatis from Pythian gave a great talk last November about data-driven hiring. His presentation has lots of great tips for employers who are looking to remove bias and cut some of the useless intangibles from their hiring processes. Others complained about noisy offices or workplace cultures where late-night hackfests were frequent.

"They are in love with open offices, and we know that noise disproportionately affects older people," says Jane, a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

Finally, some women noticed that while our community is talking about and welcoming younger women the plight of older women and women returning to tech after a hiatus isn't discussed very often. Our communities need people with experience and can't afford to alienate older technical women, or men. Quieter offices, better working hours and structured hiring processes are small changes that could make a big impact at most workplaces.

Looking forward

Community run conferences like the Southern California Linux Expo just held their fourth Kid's Day, a practice that other conferences are starting to incorporate into their events. This May, OSCON will host it's third annual Kids Day. Here on, we've collected a number of resources for getting kids to code. Google's Computer Science for High School has workshops for mentoring young people all over the world. More and more schools and after-school programs are interested in adding coding skills to their curriculum but haven't chosen specific technologies yet. That means there's plenty of opportunities to help your local institutions choose free and open source tools and platforms.

What the community can do

If you see a gap in your local area, you might be the best person to help fill it!

You might also consider using one of the technology agnostic workshops as a model for creating a free and open source learning program in your neighborhood. Or maybe you can attend or help plan a conference that doesn't yet have any activities for kids but you have experience with planning such events? Your favorite local conference may be waiting for someone to step up and get the ball rolling.

For extra points, invite some of the older people in your community to mentor kids. Once everyone's there, consider providing social alternatives that don't include loud bars. You could facilitate small, quiet dinners by providing a list of local restaurants and a bulletin board or forum for attendees to self-organize. Or take another page from SCaLE's playbook and host a family game night.

A multi-generational free and open source community will be more sustainable, more interesting, and more fun!

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Deb Nicholson wants to make the world a better place with technology and social justice for all. After many years of local political organizing, she started handling outreach for the Free Software Foundation and became an enthusiastic free software activist. She likes talking to developers about software patents, to project maintainers about leadership and to activists about free software.


Great article. I offered to teach a coding course for seniors at the local library. So far I have no takers but coding is something that sedentary seniors could excel at given the instruction. I know of several technologically engaged senior citizens who might be interested.

I think you missed the point of the article. It's not asking for your help teaching coding to sedentary little old ladies (or men). It's about ensuring we continue to reap the benefits of having older women (and men) already in the field continuing to work in it. Even women who helped invent the tech we use today face ageism and sexism.

Perhaps you were confused by the switch near the end of the article to talking about kids in tech. I was confused by that too actually.

In reply to by Don Watkins

Thanks, A, sort of, for confirming my worst fears. If indeed it's "about ensuring we continue to reap the benefits of having older women (and men) already in the field continuing to work in it" can I assume that even in the most inclusive shops, it will still be the case that "older entry level candidates need not apply?"

In reply to by A (not verified)

I'd like to see us continuing to value the people who are part of our communities as they age as well as doing a great job of welcoming new people regardless of age. Additionally, I think there's a real opportunity for us to bring in people who are looking for second careers.

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