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Diversity v. Experience in Silicon Valley

Mister Thorne

It seemed I had too much history... age discrimination is thriving in Silicon Valley.


In Silicon Valley, there are precious few jobs available for high-tech workers right now. In the past two years, hundreds of companies have folded and many thousands of workers have been laid off. Many who came here in the late 90's for the dot-com rush are gone. Some have gone back to Iowa. Many more have gone back to India.

Earlier this year, I was laid off for the second time in two years. I began reviewing job openings in my field. I’m a technical writer, and I have more than 20 years of experience.

First, I looked at companies I knew. I found one that was looking for a technical writer. I reviewed the job description, and it closely matched my skills and experience. I clearly met the requirements listed for the job. And I was interested in working for this company. Two years ago – when I was first laid off – this company was looking for a technical writer, and I sent them my résumé. They didn’t respond.

So I sent a cover letter and a copy of my résumé. My cover letter indicated that I was familiar with the company and its products, and that I had lots of experience in its market. My résumé testified to it all. And I sent along a link to my Web site, which contains information about me and samples of my work.

The company didn’t bother to respond.
And why not? It seems to me that anyone could review the job description, compare it to my résumé, and see a very good match. So what was the problem?

Based on my job-hunting experience these past two years, I hypothesized that the problem might be this simple: I had too much experience; in other words, I was too old. That, I imagined, might be why they didn’t respond when I submitted my résumé two years ago.

To test my hypothesis, I created a make-believe person: someone with half my experience; someone 15 years younger than me; someone from Asia. I submitted this person’s cover letter and résumé. And guess what? The company responded, indicating an interest and asking for additional information.

I responded on behalf of my make-believe person. I advised the recruiter that I simply created this person to test my hypothesis. The recruiter responded with an invitation for an interview; he wanted to find some good reason why I was not a good candidate. I accepted; I wanted to hear his reason for responding to my make-believe person, but not me.

At the end of the interview, he told me the reason was this: I had had too many jobs. In fact, I had five jobs in the past 20 years; my make-believe person had three jobs in 10 years. My hypothesis was holding up.

This was interesting. When I looked at the company’s Web site for job postings, I noticed that it – like many other high-tech firms here in the valley – was actively recruiting college students: people with no work history. It seemed I had too much history.

Why would a company prefer to hire a person with no experience? Why prefer recent college graduates to people with 20 years of experience? And if experience comes with age – and there’s no denying that it does – then isn’t this preference effective age bias?

Is there anything wrong with this bias? Sure. It’s like refusing to hire someone just because he or she is Black, or Jewish, or Chinese. It’s like refusing to hire a woman to do a man’s job. It’s illegal.
Despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against workers over 40, age discrimination is thriving in Silicon Valley. To catch a glimpse of it, review the employment sections of the Web sites of high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. Most often, they describe a fun workplace. This is clearly an appeal to younger workers, as mature workers tend to be more interested in a well-run company than in one that emphasizes fun.

Look at the employment section of a high-tech company’s Web site, and you’ll likely find a description of a corporate culture, one that “promotes dignity and respect for each individual.” In the corporate culture section, you’ll also find an emphasis on diversity.
High-tech, Silicon Valley companies offer workers not only fun places to work, but diversity as well: the opportunity to work with people from far-away lands.
The Web site for one well-known firm offers this apt description of diversity:
Walk into the cafeteria on any given day, and you will hear conversations in English, French, German, Russian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, just to name a few.

Here’s how Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, emphasizes diversity:
The value proposition for diversity is very clear:
* Diversity drives creativity.
* Creativity drives invention.
* Invention drives profitability and business success.
These companies advertise their commitment to diversity and to equal opportunity. They say they have a diverse work force and their goal is to make it more so. But commitment to diversity veils a preference for young foreign workers. It’s a way of making age discrimination sound like a noble cause.

Visit the campus of some high-tech, Silicon Valley company on a work-day morning. Watch the workers on their way in. What you’re likely to notice is that the vast majority of the workers are young: in their 20’s and 30’s. You’ll also notice that very many of the workers are Asian.
Visit the engineering department, and you’ll find that most of the workers are Asian. You’ll find that few, if any workers – Asian or otherwise – are over 40. And why is that?
Why would a company prefer younger workers to older workers? Why would it prefer workers with less experience over those with more? I’ve heard all sorts of reasons:
* older workers demand higher salaries
* older workers lack energy and enthusiasm
* older workers are too set in their ways
To me, these sound like the myths that used to keep women from doing men’s jobs, or blacks from supervising whites. These myths are alive in Silicon Valley.

© Mr. Thorne (www.misterthorne.org)
email: mrthorne@mindspring.com

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