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  • Writer's pictureLesley Gold

Fairest in the Land

Ageism in Silicon Valley

We live in a world where much of a woman’s value is wrapped up in her looks. My Mom once told me she was reluctant to get on board with feminism when Betty Friedan was the poster child. But once Gloria Steinem burst on the scene, with her honey-colored hair and legs for days, she reconsidered her position.

Today’s feminist poster children look properly poised, and attractive. Sheryl looks amazing on the cover of “Lean In”. And, Beyonce is downright smoking. Hillary Clinton is a little more challenged in the looks department, so when people wanted to hate on Hillary they simply flashed a photo from her bespectacled Wellesley days as proof of her failings. You can almost chart Hillary’s popularity by hairstyle. So yes, we all want to be strong, accomplished women. But, we also want to be pretty.

As Blanche Dubois said in Streetcar Named Desire “…beauty fades but character is enhanced over time.” As a person that strives to be semi-pretty, but high character — I’ve been kind of banking on this.

I have embraced my 40s. You don’t have to be pretty anymore. You just have to be pretty for 40. Hallelujah! That’s a hell of a lot easier. It’s like being a day-old baked good. When placed next to the smoking hot bagels just out of the oven, the older bagels are not so desirable. Bag the old bagels up and sell them at a discount — and suddenly those bagels look pretty good.

So here I was happily embracing my “day-old” status when I learned there is something worse than being a woman in Silicon Valley. You can’t be old in Silicon Valley, either. If you’re a woman just about anywhere in the country at least you can lean in. If you’re old in Silicon Valley, well, you’re simply washed up.

According to the New Republic (for all of the young people out there — that’s an old person’s magazine), “Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America.” In a recent NPR piece, the author relays Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that, “Young people are just smarter,” and Paul Graham’s wisdom, “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32… after 32, they start to be a little skeptical,” Graham told The New York Times in 2013.

Even on Quora, members pose questions like, “‘What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35 and are officially over the hill?’” the recent T Magazine story “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” calls out.

Like many, I trace a lot of the youth craze back to Silicon Valley success stories. When I arrived in the late 90s, a generation of grad students — Sergey, Larry, Jerry -were all tinkering in technology. They hit it big. One thing to note: Silicon Valley is a land of fast followers. Once those guys hit it big, a lot of money was thrown at companies that Larry founded, Sergey, Jerry doppelgangers — similar age, pedigree and personality (even a few lookalikes). If it worked once, it will work again.

Then, Mark Zuckerberg transplanted himself and his funny little college website to Palo Alto. All of a sudden, I was meeting with prospective clients who were barely old enough to buy liquor. Suddenly, actually completing an Ivy League education and receiving a diploma was cause for suspicion, since now “real entrepreneurs” drop out. The Zuckerberg era quickly brought on Y Combinator and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund to find the other Zuckerbergs.

What I find interesting about this “ageism in tech” story is the growing outrage. As a woman, I was conditioned to know that my perceived worth would likely drop as I get older. A few years ago a VC introduced me to a prospective client. He told him I was talented, smart and had years of experience building brands. When I met the CEO for coffee, the first thing he said to me was, “The Botox is really working for you.”

The New Republic piece features a prominent San Francisco plastic surgeon and details his thriving plastic surgery practice. The reason for this surge in growth? He is no longer only seeing “late- to middle-aged prom queens.” Instead, he is seeing men—some in their twenties. Seems like this age thing cuts both ways in Silicon Valley.

I may not like aging but at least it’s an equal opportunity condition. Am I surprised that I am now considered “old” at 40? Yes. Am I surprised that the world values me less because I am old? No. Men — journalists, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors — in tech seem generally put out, shocked and worried about what will happen if we deny the world the talent the over 35 group has to offer.

I am a huge fan of the over 35-talent pool in Silicon Valley, both men and women. They are truly some of the most innovative, creative and dare I say experienced people I know. That said I am watching this age meme take shape and build momentum, and generate outrage with a somewhat amused and hopeful view. Discrimination is never okay. But why is it only truly dire when it’s happening to older white men? I do feel a kinship with my older brethren and am pulling for all of us. I am hoping that discrimination felt by all will create a world where no one eventually feels it.


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