Ageism

By Anna Debenham

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with since I started working in this industry is my age. I experience age discrimination much more than I experience any form of gender discrimination.

It’s not easy starting out if you’re under 21. Here are some examples of barriers I’ve met since starting out, and am still experiencing:

  • I wanted to ask people for help when I was 14 and learning about web design, but I was too scared because of all the negative comments I read on forums in response to young people asking questions. This later spurred me on to create Scrunchup.
  • My first geek meetup in a pub when I was 17, which I shouldn't have been in.
  • I couldn’t get a job after leaving school because employers don’t like hiring 18 year olds, despite their capabilities (which is why I went freelance).
  • When I was 19, I turned up at a book club that was held in an over 21s bar and couldn’t get in so I had to go home.
  • Next year is the first year I can go to SXSW. The cost of the ticket, flights and accommodation exceed £1,000, and as you have to be over 21 to get into any pubs in the US, I didn’t want to be sulking in my hotel room every evening unable to join in with the social events. You would not believe what torture it is reading tweets about how great it is every year.
  • When I was freelancing, I did a pitch to a law firm. They said my ideas were better and less expensive than the other guy who had pitched, but that the MD wouldn’t feel comfortable working with someone so young, so I didn’t get the job.
A chart from A List Apart showing 47% of 18 and under 18 year olds in the industry perceived an age bias

So it’s no wonder that the A List Apart survey for 2009 shows 47.1% of web designers aged 18 or under believe there is an age bias.

When I interviewed Nick and David who set up Upload Robots when they were in 5th grade, I asked them whether they thought their age has been a help or a hinderance to their work.

I think that it was both a hindrance and a benefit to the project. Being so young, VC backing was not an option as it’s too risky to invest in a couple highschoolers. We also have to constantly conceal our age because we are dealing with people’s important documents, and they might not trust us because people, including ourselves, are inherently ageist.

In a lot of online games, women will choose a gender neutral username or character to avoid abuse and judgement from other players. It’s very sad that people in the real world should have to conceal their age so that people take them seriously. We have a lot of young people in this industry (1.7% are 18 or under according to the A List Apart Survey, which is almost 2 in 100), and I imagine that number will increase over the next few years.

I’ve experienced age bias a lot more since I started speaking. I’ve also experienced a lot more sexist comments directed at me, but that doesn’t bother me as much because there are so many people who are aware of it and will call them out on it.

What frustrates me the most is that there are people who won’t even bother to listen to what I’m talking about, and will judge purely on appearances. When I published my talk on my experience of web design being taught in the curriculum, I had people criticising me for trying to “fix everything”, but the last lines of my talk are “I don’t know how to fix this”. I was just presenting a problem, and at this stage I’m not offering solutions because I don’t know what they are.

A twitter conversation criticising a talk a young person gave

I’m trying to keep a positive mind, after all, these are problems that will go away as I get older. Also, it can sometimes help because it makes people remember you, as I wrote about in a post called Iron Lung last year. I’m just frustrated on behalf of everyone who is starting out young and having to experience what I have gone through. We need to be concious that there are some very young people doing web design, and that judging them on stereotypes is unacceptable.

There are some great people doing amazing things, and they deserve the opportunity to talk about them without the fear of discrimination. There’s Matt Mullenweg who set up WordPress before he was old enough to buy a drink in his country. James Proud who I met when he was 18, and he’d set up this amazing site called Giglocator. Joe Holdcroft, also 18, who is the senior developer where I work. Nick and David set up Upload Robots who we interviewed for Scrunchup. The best thing is, none of them conform to any of the negative stereotypes associated with young developers.

Anna Debenham

Ageism

After finishing her A-Levels, Anna set up as a freelance front end developer. At the beginning of 2009, finished a 4-month internship at Clearleft