Neurodiversity in Women, and how we can support them professionally

Our Delivery Recruitment Partner, Becca Edwards, had the pleasure of being asked to speak at WiTCH’s event, ‘Women Wired Differently,’ which focused on what neurodiversity as an umbrella term is, how women are affected by it, and what we as professionals can do to support our community. Illyana Mullins was a gracious and knowledgeable host, as she always is, and Lucy Smith and Helena Smith both sat on the panel with Becca, each sharing their own personal stories of their neurodivergence and their lived experiences. Becca felt incredibly privileged to be able to share her own journey with ADHD diagnosis and self discovery, and creating a safe space for the audience to ask questions without fear of judgement.

Becca has summarised some of the key takeaways from the conversation in her own words.

What does neurodiversity mean to you, and has it affected you personally?

I come into this subject with an ADHD lens, for which I will apologise in advance if this is polarising! I have started to go through my own diagnosis journey as of 2022, at the age of 29, and at 31, am still on the waiting list for assessment. It’s because of my workplace, InfoSec People, that the penny dropped for me that I have been living with ADHD my entire life. I was initially diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder when I was 23, and it wasn’t until my current workplace brought an ADHD coach in for additional training that I realised, fully, that in fact, I likely have combined ADHD.

It was both a relieving and grieving experience for me. Relieving, in the sense that I finally had an answer to why I’d struggled my entire life (emotionally and academically). Grieving, in the sense that it had been missed throughout my entire childhood (which, looking back, and growing up in the late 1990s, is no surprise, as ADHD wasn’t as well researched back then). I’ve learned now that I have the language and tools to understand my brain, which is wonderfully different, and want to use my platform to amplify our voices in the neurodiverse community.

Do we think that neurodiversity effects women differently?

In my own personal experience, I would say yes, it does. I struggled with emotional dysregulation as a child, crying at the slightest raise of a voice either in the classroom or at home. The fact that I was very verbal, constantly twiddling a pencil between my fingers (a form of stimming), and often letting lessons run away with me, was because I wasn’t able to focus my attention.

It was something I learned to suppress for fear of being a distraction, or a nuisance. As a cis-het girl growing up in the 1990s, I learned early on that being hyperactive like my (cis het) male class mates (who also had ADHD) was seen as me being ‘outspoken’ or ‘a distraction to the class,’ especially when I couldn’t stop talking to my classmates.

The research that has been conducted shows that ADHD in childhood diagnoses is more prevalent in boys than girls, and in adulthood it begins to equal out to a 50/50 split across men and women (who, as far as I can tell from the data, were socialised as boys/men and girls/women).

However, our lived experiences mean that women with ADHD face many of the same symptoms as our male ADHD counterparts, but will also work much harder under the added burden of restrictive gender roles, our fluctuating hormones, and a greater tendency towards self-doubt, as well as worse mental health, worse body image, and less encouragement to speak out in professional settings.

There is also the issue of women not being diagnosed with neurodiverse conditions until much later in life – often in adulthood, statistically around their late 30s as a starting point.

During the WiTCH talk, Helena spoke about her adult diagnosis of dyslexia and dyspraxia, and how as a child, she was made her whole life to feel ‘stupid’ because she didn’t ‘get it,’ in her adult peers eyes.

This really struck me, because it’s become clear that as a society, we have, historically, had to conform to an outdated idea of what ‘normalcy’ is in the neurodiverse community. Hearing Helena’s incredible leadership values, and inclusiveness with her team, was inspiring, and she serves as an example of the kind of leader we need in the professional world.

Lucy shared her story of her two children being diagnosed as autistic, and how their journeys inspired her to start her own company, Inclusive Change, which supports employers and educates them on neurodiversity. Her knowledge and drive to train employers in these crucial boundaries that we need in the neurodiverse community is nothing short of exemplary. Her transparency was refreshing, especially around there not being a single solution to managing neurodiversity in the workplace.

What are some positive aspects or strengths that neurodivergent women often bring to their communities or workplaces?

From an ADHD perspective, I know that my brain, seeking dopamine and being driven by interest, will always question the status quo, or the way ‘things have always been done.’ If I think a process can be improved, I will always be curious and push for good results.

Having ADHD also means that I will always be coming up with ideas for things spontaneously, and in the right environment (professional setting or not), can hyper-focus on a task and thoroughly complete it to the best of my ability. I speak to people everyday as part of my role, and I know that I will never leave my working day unless I’ve spoken to that person and understood their needs on an individual level as best I can.

Helena made a great point that as leaders, it can often be a daunting experience explaining to colleagues that she is dyslexic, especially when she has to submit presentations to the board. However, she said that the people she works with are very understanding, and make her feel like she can be herself at work, without fear of judgement.

Having ADHD means that I have a huge amount of empathy for the people I work with (internally and externally), which I think is an invaluable quality, especially in leadership positions. Helena’s experience means that she can adapt her management style to be as inclusive as possible, which ultimately, will make her colleagues feel happier at work and more likely to stay in their jobs.

Lucy also agreed with this point. She has run training sessions where she spoke to a colleague who identified as autistic, and because of how adaptive their workplace were, they had worked their for 18 years with no plans to go elsewhere. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the value of inclusivity at work, I don’t know what does!

What can we do to help recruit and retain neurodiverse talent into the workplace?

One thing we collectively agreed as a panel would help is employers having a clear DE&I strategy in order to protect their neurodiverse employees, and adhering to legal protection under the Equality Act 2010.

There are 9 protected characteristics within the Equality Act that employers must legally make reasonable adjustments for: Age, Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage & Civil Partnership, Pregnancy & Maternity, Race, Religion or Belief, Sex, and Sexual Orientation. While neurodiversity itself isn’t a protected characteristic, it does fall under Disability, which is. This means that employers must make reasonable adjustments for their employees.

Illyana pointed out that, in the UK, you don’t need to have been clinically diagnosed by a GP to be entitled to the same rights as someone who has a diagnosis, and that covers anyone who falls under the above protected characteristics. Therefore, by extension, people who think they could be neurodiverse have the legal protection of the Equality Act 2010 under the Disabled protected characteristic (self diagnosis is still valid, especially with the wait times for ADHD assessment in the UK being over 7 years in some regions).

Access to Work is a government support funding scheme which employers can use to access additional support (for example, to get colleagues noise cancelling headphones or quiet spaces accommodated for).

From a recruitment standpoint, I also believe that companies will benefit massively from DE&I training. Hiring managers as a collective should understand that neurodiversity can affect each and everyone of us differently, and isn’t a ‘one size fits all,’ (although I will caveat that with the fact that the clients I have worked with have always been great with their DE&I).

Having an inclusive interview process also helps; someone who is autistic will likely prefer having a quiet place to speak to their interviewer, with minimal stimulus, and without too many people involved. As someone with ADHD, I have always benefitted from having prepared interview questions before hand, and a clear time scale for how long the interview will be (deadlines help us massively)!

Helena said that the best way to retain talent in her experience is to give equity to the people she works with. She mentioned that one way she manages her team is to have a separate teams chat for her colleagues which is set apart from their main ‘work related’ chat, and is treated as a safe space to ‘info-dump’ anything non-work related throughout the day.

I thought this was a great example of equity in the workplace; creating a space to let people be themselves, and not distract the rest of the department from their tasks, is a great way of managing colleagues, whether they are neurotypical or neurodiverse.

Lucy made a great point that neurodiverse people need clear boundaries to be set, because sometimes we’re not able to set and adhere to these boundaries ourselves. This resonated with me, as something I really struggle with is time keeping, and managing to stay focused on one task for extended periods of time.

Giving myself permission to listen to my brain is one thing, but when I deep dive into hyper focus mode, sometimes I won’t leave the office until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. My line manager will always tell me ‘finish the work tomorrow, get home and relax,’ and having that validation is incredibly soothing.

Something else we all unanimously agreed on was flexibility for neurodiverse colleagues is incredibly beneficial. Whether that takes the form of flexible working, working around core hours, working from home or reduced hours, individually, reasonable adjustments are a legal requirement, and flexibility at work falls under this.

Having permission to work flexibly, for example, and allow my brain to work in sprints, not marathons, gives me a much better chance of hyper focusing and getting my work done.

What key things do you want people to take away about neurodiversity?

At the event, I struggled not to get emotional when asked this question.

I’m not going to champion ‘ADHD is a superpower,’ because realistically, it’s not that simple. Having a brain that impulsively seeks distractions, struggles to get motivated, and results in mental and physical exhaustion? It’s both a blessing and a curse!

What I will say is what I said at WitCH’s talk.

Neurodiversity is not a bad thing.

Ultimately, as women, ESPECIALLY neurodiverse women (and I am including transgender women in this), we live in a society that tells us we are not ‘normal,’ or don’t belong, or that we simply need to ‘try harder’ not to be the way we are.

In the interest of DE&I (and in the context of finding and retaining talent), having people in your organisation who think and behave differently is only ever going to be a benefit. I believe so passionately that every single person deserves the respect and humility to live their life to the fullest, both inside and out of work.

As an ending note, I recently found a box of photographs from when I was little (there’s a particularly hilarious picture of my sister and I with matching haircuts in the same school uniform, which I’ll spare you, reader).

I’ve been using those pictures to practise speaking to my 5 year old self whenever I have hard days (which, living with ADHD, does happen). Part of the psychological healing I’ve been doing has meant every time I have a down day, I will look at Little Becca, and try saying those things I feel.

And, surprisingly, I can’t tell her she’s lazy, or stupid, or broken in anyway.

Because, she’s not. She never was. And neither are you.

Sources used for this article:

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