Friday, November 30, 2012

Age discrimination in Silicon Valley

I don't really know very much about age discrimination, but I assume that it does happen. (My short experience observing large pharma layoffs tells me it might, in its weird legal fashion.) The San Jose Mercury News has an interesting article about it, with plenty of quotes about investors and executives ideas that young software developers are more knowledgeable about modern software protocols and have more time on their hands:
Some technology recruiters say unequivocally they see bias at work. Marta Fuentealba, a principal at start-up specialist Talent Farm, says she's encountered it many times. 
She recalls a meeting at a software company a few years ago, when the human-resources executive told her he would like to find somebody "around age 26 or so" to fill a job. An age requirement along those lines would violate both state and federal laws on discrimination, California labor lawyers say. 
"You mean, somebody less jaded?" Fuentealba recalls asking, hoping to jolt the executive back into legal territory. "And he said, 'No, I mean somebody young, probably no older than 26.'" Back at the office, she sent the executive resumes from a variety of candidates. 
..."I am just an incredibly enthusiastic fan of very talented 20-somethings starting companies," Sequoia Capital's Mike Moritz, 58 years old and a top VC, once said at a conference, echoing similar comments he has made over the years. "They have great passion. They don't have distractions like families and children and other things that get in the way of business." He was 49 at the time.
Yikes. Remind me not to try to become a Silicon Valley entrepreneur anytime soon; seems like being a husband and a father could be a liability.

I've never really worked with older chemists as peers for an extended amount of time; I've mostly had them as bosses. I don't really think there's a significant creativity difference between younger and older chemists.*

This bit in the article about certain cosmetic changes during job hunting I found particularly distasteful:
Silicon Valley veterans try to adapt as best they can. Adams of Socialdial ticks off a list of faux pas that he believes peg older jobseekers as outsiders. "You can't have an AOL email," he says. "That's horrible. A Gmail address is okay. What's really cool is an email with your name on it," as part of the domain. 
In person, older job applicants should carry a backpack, not a briefcase, he says. Avoid Blackberries and Dell laptops in favor of Android phones and Apple products. And above all, steer clear of wristwatches, which most younger people have replaced with the clocks on their phones. "The worst would be a gold Rolex," he says. "Tacky, and old."
I wonder if similar (and stupid) age-related cosmetic issues are at work in the chemistry world -- I tend to think not, but I dunno. It seems that we have a culture that values wisdom and experience (relative to Silicon Valley, anyway). But I haven't been in the big world of the pharma/chemical industry very long. Readers, please feel free to correct me.

*I have, on occasion, found older chemists who have failed to keep up with the chemical literature in any serious fashion. (Around the time of Suzuki's Nobel prize, I was amused to talk to one manager who found palladium-catalyzed chemistry to be a cute academic oddity, as opposed to a technology that should be seriously considered.) I don't think that's really age-related, so much as it is about failing to exercise an important prerogative of a Ph.D. chemist's life: to keep current with important, job-relevant literature. I assume that these mental discipline issues are found in both the young and the old.


  1. I think wisdom collected over decades has advantages in the lab, but from my (limited) experience in biotech, there was never a lot of grey hair in the lab. I do recall grey haired bosses, but the ratio is small enough that I used to wonder where older (>40, note this group now includes me....) chemists went.

    I sure had a lot more time to spend at work in my 20s/early 30s. Taking care of kids is, overall, of paramount importance, but from a management point of view it's a distraction. Maybe older chemists are more efficient per unit time, but does that really matter? I know it should, but managers seem to like the whole notion of hours worked = productivity, rather than productivity = productivity.

    On creativity, my recollection of most great discoveries in chemistry is that they come from younger (<40) chemists, who can then feed off this for decades. KBS did his seminal work < 40, so did HCB, Watson/Crick, DHRB in his early 40s, Mullis was young when he figured out PCR, ditto Boyer and ABS.

    1. One of my favorite responses in a meeting to a comment about resources/hours = productivity:

      "If I get nine women in a room together, can I have a baby in one month?"

    2. "If I get nine women in a room together, can I have a baby in one month?"

      The MBA in me says of course.....

  2. I have been on many interviews where I was repeatedly asked what year I received my Ph.D.

  3. Based on first principles, I have big issues with people who would value business over family. Maybe it's too idealistic in these times...

  4. The original article is pretty troubling, at least to anyone >40.

    I did find this: "Khosla Ventures' Vinod Khosla, 57, told conference goers last year that "people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas." a bit ironic....

    And this: "Some venture capitalists extend their appreciation of youth to their own partnerships. In June, Benchmark Capital's Peter Fenton, 40, told a group of journalists that Benchmark strives to keep the average age of its most-active partners under 40 to better relate to young entrepreneurs.

    Fenton says he is not ageist, arguing that there is a well-documented relationship between youth and creativity. As for partners such as himself who hit 40, "we have a discipline to try and stay young," he says. "Young at mind."

    Oh, it's just 'other people' who are less productive when they hit 40.

    "Finally, before heading into his next interview, he shaved off his gray hair and traded in his loafers for a pair of Converse sneakers. The board hired him."

    Wow. I meet with a good # of biotech CEOs. I've never seen one wear sneakers

    "Adams recommends getting rid of gray hair, either through dyes or through shaving, as he did. He also believes in treating wrinkles or other skin-related signs of age. A few years ago, he underwent an eyelid lift to reduce sagging above his eyes."


  5. Age discrimination is rampant in pharma. If you're over 40 and unemployed it's a lot harder to find a good job. I think successful drug discovery has to involve intuition developed by experience, but the people with that kind of experience aren't allowed in the door.

    1. Exactly. I don't see how this is different from pharma at all. There's been multiple stories here and in the general blogosphere detailing how hard it is for older chemists to find work after being "reorganized." Think having a spouse and kids isn't a liability? Haven't we discussed the two-body problem at length here? I personally know someone whose marriage dissolved due to living apart from his family for too long. And I know way too many people living across state lines from their families.

      The tidbit on personal appearance may seem distasteful, but not nearly as distasteful as the fact that it happens whether you find it okay or not. At least Californians are out in the open about their superficial expectations.

    2. Postdoc, I've been thinking about this two body problem thing, and besides one of the people giving up on their career and following the other (which is our plan), I think that it's good to live in a city state. The US tries to spread out research and jobs, but I think the Chinese have it right. Singapore and Hong Kong are perfect. If you lose a job, you get a new one, you don't have to sell your house or live far away from your spouse. Just take a different train line to work.

      Also countries where everything is concentrated in one city are good as well, like Taipei (there is not much in other parts of Taiwan) or Shanghai/Beijing. The States is just too spread out. Of course concentration leads to other problems... but I think for chemistry PhDs it would be perfect.

    3. We tried Singapore as a two-body problem solution. It worked for a year, then the contract was up and the bio-tech industry there had been declining for years. We ended up going to Uncle Sam's plan, back across the pacific, with me currently having the job, and she's taking some time off for family.

  6. When I first started working in pharma, in the mid-1990s, there were a lot of older chemists working in the lab with me. (I'm an MS chemist and most of these chemists were BS/MS chemists working at the bench.) By the time I left pharma in 2008, most of them were gone. I went through 4 layoffs at a couple of big pharma companies, and usually the people being laid off were heavily weighted toward chemists over 40. I remember one layoff at my company in the early 2000's, and every one of the 25+ people being laid off was over 50. I'm not sure how the company avoided an age discrimination lawsuit but I guess they were careful. I was 40 the last time I went looking for a job in pharma, and I found it very difficult - there were a lot of questions about the year I graduated, etc. I got better results after I dyed my hair and took some of the dates off my resume, but in the end I decided to leave pharma - I heard too many horror stories from former coworkers who were never able to get another pharma job after age 45-50 (even if they were excellent chemists with impressive resumes).

  7. When you are presenting results on Pd or Rh-catalyzed reactions during a job interview, you can expect a question about how did you make/where did you buy your catalysts from. Not knowing that Strem has good quality stuff whereas Alfa Aesar has crap and that Aldrich catalyst quality used to be quite variable in the past is a major sign that you are not-too-savvy as a chemist or came from a project/research group where people do not know what they are doing

  8. The way they avoid age related lawsuits is to offer a big (but not too big) severance payment in return for signing a not to sue pledge. The amount is carefully calulated to minimizie the cost to the business.

  9. I'm older but don't have children (why does everyone assume that all female applicants have/want children?). I still happen to have a life (other commitments and "distractions" that I consider important for health, happiness, and a meaningful existence) and I don't want to work for a company that expects me to devote 18 hours a day to the company. Sometimes I think companies want younger people because they can push them around and take advantage of them more easily. Also, the costs of paying health insurance are probably cheaper for the company.

    1. not just that. Hiring someone fresh out of school means that he will need to gain the on-the-job experience and therefore can't replace his boss anytime soon.

  10. There is probably something to structuring an age based hierarchy in hiring and firing. Seniority in position may conflict with the implicit age-related respect that we usually have for our elders. Perhaps managers and execs simply don't like having people directly under them who can appear to question their decisions and knowledge from an experience angle.