Neurodivergence and inclusion are hot topics today.
Companies mention how inclusive they are, but when asked how they are attaining an inclusive environment, they often don’t have an answer.
Of course, it is great that topics like inclusion and neurodiversity are finally being talked about. It’s absolutely a step in the right direction. However, one cannot truly become inclusive by simply stating one is inclusive. There are so many things that need to be discussed and learned to empower neurodivergent employees.
What is neurodiversity?
Firstly, let’s define neurodiversity. It’s a term used to describe the natural variations in the human brain, relating to the differences in how we think, process, learn, and behave. Neurotypicals (most people) have a brain that functions in the way society expects, but 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent and process things differently. Neurodivergent conditions include ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, Dysnomia, and Dyspraxia.
The sad truth is that discrimination is still a huge problem. Many employees still feel ashamed of being different and feel forced to hide who they are and the gifts they bring to the table. Instead of feeling empowered by seeing things differently, they may feel compelled to think and behave more like neurotypicals.
The difference between neurodivergent women and men
Women, in particular, are at an unfair disadvantage because of how society wants women to act. Women need to be agreeable, kind, apologetic, and unopinionated. If they don’t act as expected, they are told to “watch their tone” in performance reviews.
Many neurodivergent people see things from different angles, may not understand social cues, might interrupt people, and may speak at a high volume (depending on which neurodivergent traits they have). If a man displays these traits, society may call him assertive. But if a woman is assertive and forceful in her communication, she is often labeled rude, disruptive, and hysterical.
Therefore, being a neurodivergent woman in the workplace can often be even more challenging than being a neurodivergent man (although all neurodivergent genders should get support and feel valued).
Women often need to fight harder to be seen and heard and land a promotion due to leadership stereotypes not aligning with the female stereotypes (whereas the male stereotypes do align). This means that the addition of neurodivergence can make things a lot more daunting.
There is also so much negative stigma regarding neurodivergent conditions (and mental health conditions), so leaders need to start actively working towards an inclusive work environment.
It’s also important to recognize that neurodivergent conditions like Autism and ADHD present differently in women compared to men, which makes it even more important to proactively listen to neurodivergent women.
Remember that every neurodivergent person is different. You should always talk to your neurodivergent employee to understand them and their strengths and areas where they may need support.
I include examples from my own life in this article to give illustrative examples to my points. However, other neurodivergent people may have different experiences, and that’s completely fine.
Here’s how to empower neurodivergent women in the workplace
1. Never make assumptions
Dr. Stephen Shore’s quote: “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism,” couldn’t be more true. This means that every autistic person displays different traits and has different support needs. The same could probably be said about most other neurodivergent conditions too.
But often, neurotypicals don’t consider that. Neurodivergent labels all come with a ton of stereotypes, which make neurotypicals instantly form opinions of a person. These stereotypes can be so toxic.
Subconsciously, an employer might not want to hire a person with ADHD, Dyslexia, or Autism because they might believe that this person would fail. That’s not ok.
It’s important to not assume that every job that a neurotypical finds easy (like making phone calls) will be easy for a neurodivergent person. But it is equally important to not assume that this neurodivergent person will fail.
Talk to this person and get to know them rather than go by assumptions. Find out what they struggle with (so that you can support them), and find out what they feel comfortable doing.
I’m autistic and find social situations quite challenging. At a previous job, I looked after a region of betting shops that weren’t performing as well as other regions when it came to compliance reporting. Therefore, I thought it would be great to host a workshop for leaders to display the issues and show them how they could improve reporting in their shops.
My boss initially didn’t like the idea, but I thought this would be the right thing to do. I hosted the workshop, and the leaders called it “the most engaging compliance workshop they had ever attended.” Despite being autistic, finding social encounters difficult, and my boss not being 100% confident that I could do it.
Naturally, not all Autistics would feel comfortable hosting a workshop. But some might and would truly excel at it (planned social encounters like presentations are easier, in my opinion). Therefore, it is important to find out what neurodivergent employees feel comfortable with.
Similarly, I have a friend who is dyslexic, and she currently works as a writer. She is amazing at it. One would be quick to assume that a dyslexic person could never be a writer, but often dyslexics are very creative and have a unique way of perceiving the world.
This links nicely to my next point.
2. Find the strengths of your employees
As people leaders, your most important mission is to discover your employees’ strengths to empower them.
Every person has something they are good at and something they bring to the table. Many neurodivergent people have a different way of thinking and could bring fresh perspectives, creative solutions, and innovative ideas to an organization. They may also possess great empathetic skills and are not afraid to speak their minds.
Many Autistic women are also highly opinionated and possess a strong sense of justice. While some may label those qualities disruptive, they are amazing assets. For growth to happen, things need to change and evolve. So why not harness the power of someone who isn’t scared to speak their mind? Allow them to discuss issues that can be improved and see if those ideas can help your business grow.
Don’t force neurodivergent women to comply with the expectations of society. Instead, see the positives and how their traits make them unique.
Just because a woman doesn’t adhere to the expectations placed on her gender by society doesn’t mean that she is flawed. She is unique and powerful in her own way.
Another advantage of finding employees’ strengths is that you’ll help them feel useful and valued. Make them feel like they are needed and appreciated for their hard work through praise and recognition, and they’ll feel happier and more likely to stay.
3. Create an open culture
This one may be tricky to achieve and won’t happen overnight, but strive towards creating a culture where anything can be discussed. Help people feel comfortable discussing how they feel and allow them to openly share their neurodivergent traits without fear of being judged.
Naturally, these things take time, and it can be difficult to instantly get every person on the team onboard. But start by making it a priority to check in with people to see how they feel and if there is anything they find challenging when performing their jobs.
More people will become aware and considerate of other people’s support needs from starting the conversation. Ultimately, this will lead to a more open and inclusive culture.
You could host events where a speaker talks about neurodiversity and then normalize talking about it. You could even consider signing up the whole team to do training around this.
Also, consider making a support group for neurodivergent employees and even one for women, where they can meet up once a week or month to share their experiences. Create a buddy system where neurodivergents are paired with other neurodivergent people so that they can support each other and talk about their challenges.
It may be difficult to create an open culture, but it is a battle worth fighting.
4. Openly discuss support needs
If you have a neurodivergent employee, openly discuss what support they need to do their job well and also if they would find any adjustments helpful.
Support can take the shape of many forms. It could be something like:
- Allow noise-canceling headphones while working
- Allow different start and finishing times (to enable the person to travel to work when it’s quieter)
- Ensure clear communication (so that instructions are less confusing and less open for interpretation)
- Arrange for the person to sit in a quieter area in the office
- Look into different software (to, for instance, help Dyslexic employees)
- If possible, have a quiet contemplation space in the office (where the person can withdraw to when they feel overwhelmed)
Pretty much anything that the individual would find helpful. So start the conversation.
One size doesn’t necessarily fit all, so it’s important to discuss what’s helpful versus a hindrance.
When an employee doesn’t need to spend all their energy coping with their environment, it becomes easier for them to use their strengths and perform.
So don’t ever assume that an employee that asks for support is being difficult or useless. Support them and watch them flourish.
5. Keep learning
Nobody has all the answers in the universe. I might know things you don’t know, and you might know something that I don’t. But together, we can both learn.
This is precisely why it’s important to have a diverse workforce.
If you repeatedly copy and paste the same employee, it will be difficult to develop innovative solutions. Having different perspectives in your team will help you see other ways to solve a problem, and you’ll spot things that would otherwise be missed.
There’s so much to learn about neurodiversity; this article cannot teach you everything there is to know.
To keep empowering neurodivergent women in the workplace, we must keep learning, do the research and speak directly to neurodivergent employees. Be patient and persistent. Understanding can take time, but it’s important to stay committed.
Also, be aware of unconscious bias relating to gender, and learn to value women who don’t necessarily conform to society’s expectations.
It’ll teach you so much and make you a better leader.
A career coach once said something to me that I found quite interesting.
“Assume that all employees are neurodivergent to create an inclusive culture. Don’t assume that everyone would feel comfortable switching desks or not find the lights too bright. Then, if an employee is neurodivergent and you check in with them regarding the seating allocation and the environment, they will feel more supported.”
Every neurodivergent person is different. The stereotypes that exist can be extremely toxic and create unconscious bias, influencing leaders to believe that neurodivergent employees can’t contribute when, in fact, they are tremendous assets.
If you are a neurodivergent woman, please remember that you are awesome and valuable. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are worthless or don’t belong. Tap into your powers and learn how special you are.
And women: let’s always strive to empower other women. Let’s empower ourselves first, then empower each other. The world needs this.