Startup founders say age bias is rampant in tech by age 36

A very old worker.
A very old worker.
Image: AP Photo/Thomas Peipert
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There’s a scourge in tech that apparently runs even deeper than sexism or racism: ageism.

In a wide-ranging survey of US startup founders polled by venture-capital firm First Round Capital, 37% said age is the strongest investor bias against founders, while 28% cited gender and 26% cited race.

It’s a shame, given that research research repeatedly suggests that age diversity promotes productivity and performance, and that older workers take fewer sick days, have better problem-solving skills, and are more likely than younger workers to be highly satisfied in their work. From childhood on, though, we’re bombarded with images of decrepit, fun-loathing old people, leading us to develop “pervasive negative beliefs [that] are out of step with the reality of aging,” as SYPartners president Jessica Orkin recently noted in Quartz.

But before you start imagining how this hurts white-haired, would-be entrepreneurs in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, consider this: founders participating in First Round’s survey said ageism in tech starts, on average, at the age of 46—and more than a quarter of the founders said the bias affects entrepreneurs as young as 36.

All told, 89% of the survey respondents said they agree that older people face discrimination in the tech industry.

Perspectives on ageism were just one of the areas covered by First Round’s poll of 529 venture-backed startup founders in the US, who were asked a wide range of questions about the entrepreneurial life. Demographically, the respondents were 17.4% female, 82.6% male, at companies founded within the past 11 years ago, with head counts ranging from less than six people to more than 250 people. The most popular sectors represented in the survey were enterprise (35.2%), consumer (15.2%), financial tech (12.1%), and healthcare (10.8%).

Nearly 85% of the founders said they have formal or informal diversity and inclusion policies at their companies, or intend to adopt such strategies soon. And a majority of the respondents said they believe tech will be demographically representative of America’s racial and gender makeup within the next 20 years.

Notably, in the diversity -and-inclusion portion of the survey, First Round did not ask founders when they think the tech industry will be representative in terms of age. This omission, especially for a survey that touches upon ageism, holds an important lesson: Until we take ageism as seriously as other forms of workplace bias, every industry, especially tech, will hinder its own potential.