LONG READ: How to Support and Empower Neurodiverse Women in the Workplace

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Toni Horn is the founder of Think Differently Coaching, Neurodiversity Consultant, and former Neurodiversity Support Lead for Barclays. She has kindly added her expert insights and commentary to this article. If you’d like to learn more from her you may want to check out her LinkedIn, or her work as a diversity and inclusion speaker.

So, how can employers and HR teams support and empower neurodiverse women in the workplace?

Dr Nick Walker, a scholar and speaker describes neurodivergence as ‘diversity of the human brain and mind’, a wonderfully simple way of encapsulating the definition.

While research, educational resources, and open conversations around neurodiversity have increased noticeably in recent years, there is still a long way to go in many respects. In the UK alone, we have 5 million people who think and consider themselves to be neurodivergent, but only 120,000 have been formally diagnosed. A major player behind this statistic is the lack of knowledge and understanding around neurodiverse women – both in the public and professional domain.

Historically, tools for diagnosing neurodiversity were designed purely for use on males, and even in recent years there has been research to suggests that the DSM continues to have a gender bias (Hartung and Lefler, 2019). With this lack of understanding around neurodivergent women existing even in the professional sphere, it comes as no surprise (but still plenty of disappointment) that the public awareness of neurodivergent women and their experiences are few and far between.

This often allows stereotypes to take hold. Stereotypes effect all neurodivergent people, but can be a particular hinderance for neurodivergent women, from seeking diagnosis to being understood by peers.

For example, Toni shares how “Some women with dyslexia were branded lazy learners as the past education system let them down and didn’t recognise, they had a different learning style. The girl in the class was not concentrating due to a million things she was hyper-focused on and being told to listen; the young girl who may hum or stare out of the window, to actively listen so she was not being distracted by the other children clicking pens.” Another example includes how often the stereotypical image of ADHD is the ‘naughty boy’ at school – disruptive and hyperactive. Meanwhile, a 2014 review of ADHD in women and girls found that the symptoms women showed were more likely to fall under the category of ‘inattentiveness’ rather than ‘hyperactivity’. They were also more likely to develop more effective coping strategies than their male counterparts.

This caused women and girls with ADHD to be more likely to be considered below the threshold for diagnosis or missed altogether. Many women are wrongly misdiagnosed with having anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders before being properly assessed for ADHD. In most cases, women are diagnosed significantly later, with the most common age for women to be diagnosed with ADHD being late 30s or early 40s, compared to just 7 years old for boys. This isn’t isolated to those living with just ADHD either, with eighty percent of autistic women still undiagnosed at age 18, which has serious consequences for their mental health.

Even this statistic alone demonstrates how much support neurodivergent women may have missed out on – which puts into glaring perspective the importance of providing the best support possible in the workplace. Neurodiverse women deserve to feel empowered and respected in their workplace, with opportunities to advocate for themselves and work to the best of their ability. We provide a few ideas of how you can work towards this below:

Identify, utilise and appreciate their strengths

Because of the misconceptions around neurodiversity, workplaces often fail to see the value a neurodiverse person can bring. Toni offers a stellar example of this: “Over the past two years, HPE’s program has placed more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Preliminary results suggest that the organisation’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others.”

Simply by paying attention to the experiences of neurodiverse women from neurodiverse women, their talent and abilities become clear. Eleanor, an Autistic professional shares that “Sometimes people assume because of my autism that I won’t want to do work that involves presenting or talking to others but if I’m clear on what I need to do and I’ve thought about what I’ll say, I really enjoy those activities.” This is a clear example of how assuming that all autistic people behave in line with stereotypes of social avoidance can get in the way of them having equal opportunity to grow and show their skills in the workplace.

Similarly, Katherine, who works on a Pupil Referral Unit and has ADHD, shares how many aspects of her ADHD are utilised in the workplace. As she works with the most challenging pupils, her “run towards danger mindset” has allowed her to be highly compatible with the day-to-day environment that comes with her role.

Carlene, CEO of Cloud9 Insight, is dyslexic. She shares how she finds it easy to spot others who are dyslexic, and that many of her clients are dyslexic. This clearly demonstrates the power of having neurodiverse talent on your team, as they will be the most able to attract, understand, and advocate for other neurodiverse talent you may bring on board.

These three examples present how neurodiverse women in the workplace can defy stereotypes, possess incredibly valuable skills because of their neurodiversity, and have an ability to spot and sympathise with neurodiverse talent at work.

This brings us back to Dr Nick Walker’s quote from the beginning of this article. Neurodiversity brings a variety of skill, perspective, and innovation to the workplace. There has been a huge amount of conversation recently around hiring for culture adds instead of culture fits, and the importance of open-minded workplace cultures. Hiring and nurturing neurodiverse talent could be one of the best ways to do this, if you educate and inform yourself correctly.

Ask what you can do to support them and act on it

While reading up and researching to better understand your neurodiverse colleagues is important, especially as resources and studies around neurodivergent women and girls improve, it’s vital to note that neurodivergent people are just as different from each other as neurotypical people. What one person may find supportive another will not. The methods which allow one person to work more productively may not cause any improvements in another.

Under the Equality Act 2010 it is vital that the workplace should offer accommodations to those who disclose their neurodiversity. They should be offered a workplace assessment to allow them access to the tools to help and support them in the workplace. Toni states how “There is proven evidence that by giving someone the right tool to do their job their productivity increases. Workplace adjustments can provide support through training and coaching as well as assistive technology, which can be done through access to work.

Off the back of this, employers should be aware that some people choose to keep their diagnosis to themselves in order to avoid judgement or prejudice, so if an employee chooses to open up to you about it, this information should be treated with the utmost respect and trust.

It may be a good idea for your HR team to offer meaningful support and flexibility to all employees so that neurodiverse individuals do not feel as if they have to over-share or justify themselves to have access to it. This could come in the form of offering more flexible working models, from flexi-time, to hybrid or remote, as Forbes found employees who were placed on a flexibility program were both happier at work, as well as less prone to psychological burnout and stress.

 You could also make office days optional or allow accommodations which can make them more comfortable for employees. For example, using earplugs to drown out background noise to allow optimal focus on their work, and providing quiet vs chatty working spaces. These simple but significant accommodations have been shown to maximise employee mental wellbeing, satisfaction, and overall productivity, allowing neurodiverse talent to thrive.

It’s important to note that the needs of neurodiverse women can fluctuate and change with time. This might be due to external changes and stressors such as a change in their team structure or responsibilities at work. It can also be internal. For example, perimenopause and the menopause can affect people who have ADHD because of the hormone fluctuating that goes on in relation to the front of the brain. A workplace menopause policy can be a game changer in this respect. Toni adds to this – “PMDD is also known to disproportionately affects people with ADHD and autism, with up to 92% of autistic women and 46% of women with ADHD experiencing PMDD.”

Reject stereotypes, and educate yourself and your workforce

As touched on in our introduction, a significant obstacle for neurodivergent women is the effect gendered stereotypes can have on people understanding (or misunderstanding) their experiences and differences.

Women with autism are less likely to suffer from as many obvious social difficulties as male counterparts as they are more likely to ‘mask’. ‘Masking’ refers to a coping strategy where after years of observing the social cues of their atypical peers, autistic people copy these cues, from social scripts to non-verbal behaviours, as well as supressing behaviours they may realise are not seen as socially acceptable, such as stimming or sharing their special interests, all so that they appear more atypical and are able to integrate better. However, this can be exhausting, and effect their overall mental wellbeing. Dr Camilla Pang, an autistic scientist and author, speaks on this idea, claiming; “I feel autistic women are more likely to be described as ‘anxious’ and an autism diagnosis overlooked, since it can challenge gender stereotypes.”

Toni also speaks on this, sharing how “Women may be more likely to feel self-doubt or insecurity because they are often socialised to value academic achievement and language proficiency more highly than their male counterparts. They may face additional social pressures related to appearance and social relationships, which can compound feelings of inadequacy related to being neurodivergent.

Regardless of gender, it’s important for individuals to recognise that their struggles do not reflect their intelligence or potential.

To combat the issue of stereotypes, carry the mindset of getting to know each neurodivergent individual you meet and work with as just that, an individual. Alongside this, there is an ever-growing community of neurodivergent women online, who share their stories – including their experiences in the workplace – which you can use to inform your HR team, workforce, and workplace culture.

With more and more focus falling on the lack of understanding around neurodiverse women, many are working to change this, and so progress is being made at a quicker rate than ever. Your organisation’s DE&I training should be consistently updated to reflect the progress that is made in research and public understanding, with regular refreshers given to employees, particularly those in positions of leadership and HR teams. But this should be considered a first step, not the final one. Toni believes that “Buy-in from the top is very important; once you start exploring this, more employees will start to take notice and want to ask questions and know more; if you are going to start up an ERG (Employment Resource Group), make sure they are run by those with lived experiences. These groups can help others feel supported and allow for a confidential place to go to share experiences and best practices.” 

It’s important to look at your culture and the practices within your company critically. Having transparent and open conversations about how you can improve is absolutely necessary. You might want to consider employing the expertise of a coach or consultant specialising in neurodiversity inclusion. They can have years of expertise and practical experience, allowing them to advocate for the neurodiverse women you may already employ, as well as guide your workplace culture in the right direction. “Coaching allows the individual to gain a better understanding of their own needs and how they can bring their best to their work; employees can set themselves up for success.” Toni adds, “They can feel more fulfilled in their work, gain a greater sense of achievement, and are enabled to unlock their potential. Diverse thinkers can have a greater awareness of their strengths and harness these, leading to improved performance and productivity.”

To conclude…

There is still so much to be done for neurodiverse women, particularly in the workplace. The average person will spend over 84,365 hours at work in their entire lifetime, during which they deserve to feel, safe, supported, respected, and empowered. There is no quick fix to change what can be an unwelcoming mainstream work culture for neurodiverse women. Effort needs to be made across the board in all aspects of your business, and it is key that neurodiverse women have a seat at the table for discussing and implementing these changes.

As a final comment on the subject, Toni shares how “Neurodiversity can come with trauma and the past impact of stigma. If people choose not to disclose their diversity in the workplace, it’s primarily because, in the past, they would have been discriminated against or know someone that was discriminated against. For example, being known as the person that never goes out socialising, so it’s harder to build internal relationships with your colleagues or hear them talking about spelling mistakes on the emails.

All these factors contribute to self-esteem and how one feels about the culture they’re working in; you need to challenge the stigma and the culture and make sure that psychological safety is the first part of introducing neurodiversity into the workplace.”