Recently I have been focusing on the success of Autism at work schemes. Birkbeck University of London have launched a piece of research to try and find out who is taking part in these programmes and understanding their experiences. We are hoping to hear from those involved but also those who are not, in order to capture an accurate record that will help us identify any bias or barriers, and see who is being included and who is still being excluded.
From experience working in the neurodiversity field and dealing with all kinds of large companies we have seen that women, Black people and people of color are excluded from inclusion efforts at a greater level than white men. This issue becomes even more prevalent in industries that are already heavily male dominated such as the tech world. Let’s take a look at where these schemes might be going wrong.
When Stereotypes Collide
It is often the case that well intentioned inclusion schemes end up still reflecting the existing hiring biases of a business. When the stereotype for the nerdy white male tech worker is the same as the stereotype of the nerdy white male Autistic person, neurodiversity inclusion programmes need to work harder to achieve their goal.
By focusing too narrowly on ticking only one diversity box companies are allowing themselves to stay within parameters that feel comfortable. They can still seek out someone who fits the company mould, leaving many with different backgrounds or identities out in the cold.
There is also often a focus on specifically recruiting Autistic people over any of the other neurodivergent identities and without leaving room for intersectionality. This is short sighted and suggests that businesses doing this have bought into the savant stereotype of Autism but haven’t taken the time to learn about the workplace benefits of neurodivergent brains in general. Many Autistic people have co-occurring conditions, so could be ADHD, dyslexic or dyspraxic also. Are people with additional complexity in their cognitive profile knocked out of the running at interview stage because of a need for additional accommodations and a lack of understanding? Alex Onalaja is a dyslexic Black man working in tech. After struggling to get a foot on the ladder he took matters into his own hands and used his problem-solving entrepreneurial skills to forge his own path. He is now Managing Director and co-founder of TAD360. I asked him to share some of his experiences and insight about trying to break into the industry, he said:
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“The initial barriers to the tech industry are deeply rooted in the time-based assessments and severe interview processes, which are set by recruiters acting on behalf of the employer. This is one of the common causes that overlooks picking candidates from the neurodivergent and ethnic pools of creative talent.
I applied for over 1000 jobs; not one was willing to give me a chance once I mentioned my condition at the interview stage. It got to a point I started considering not disclosing it to employers, but also feared should they find out I am underperforming under standard working conditions – I would eventually be fired”.
His experience shows that an industry trying to monetize the pattern recognition skills of Autistic workers have failed to make room for skills that fall outside of this narrow view of neurodiversity. Onalaja supports the idea of neurodiversity at work programmes but suggests that they need to be accompanied with awareness training and regular check ins with the recruits they bring in. An inclusion scheme with a narrow view and a lack of understanding will struggle to move beyond the performative stage and will only retain the employees that already fit easily within the company culture.
Representation At All Levels
Next I spoke with Akua Opong who works as a Senior Analyst at London Stock Exchange Group. She has also found success in the tech world despite the barriers and has won recognition for her work driving progress in diversity and inclusion. At her workplace they have built inclusion networks representing the voices of Black, Latinx and Asian employees as well as women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, parents and caregivers, veterans, and people of different faiths and cultures.
I asked about her ideas for greater intersectional inclusion in the industry, this is what she had to say:
“Firstly, I want to discuss how organisations can change the narrative. I look at an organisation and the inclusion networks available. Do they offer the programs and benefits that support a person of disability, as well as well-being, and career development? For example, at LSEG we have a whole host of different networks and celebrate different cultures and religions. We work with partners to educate, train and drive change. Perhaps most importantly, we strive to create an environment where everyday actions and small acts of courage make a difference.
Fostering an inclusive work culture requires employees from all levels to take a role in driving change. So, how do we drive change? As a starting point, we can ensure that we celebrate and enable inclusion networks and provide continuous training and awareness days”.
It seems that Akua and Alex both agree that a holistic approach is important. Inclusivity needs to run through an entire organisation in order to create the right environment. One element of this is also to think about the technology that the organisation and employees are using. The more intersectional and diverse the tech industry becomes the more inclusive the products they produce are likely to be. Akua said:
“Accessibility features need to be embedded in the way we work, whether in the office or remotely, this is essential. Some of the key examples are features like text-to-speech that can read text out loud or speech-recognition, so helpful for people with limited vision.”.
Further, we need to incorporate all human value. 50-75% of Autistic people also have learning disabilities (AKA intellectual disabilities) yet this group are often left out of workplace inclusion and research innovations. We seem to be ‘top slicing’ at the moment, and not fully embracing the changes that technological advances could precipitate. By rebranding Autism as the nerdy tech worker, we may have inadvertently excluded many autistic people from the discourse, when actually now is the moment for bringing people in.
Let’s Make Inclusion Universal
It’s great that the Neurodiversity at Work paradigm has flipped the narrative from disability inclusion being a public service project to a bona fide talent pipeline. The work of early adopters in this space has set the bar high. However, for the many employers now trying to replicate and imitate, we need to do some careful thinking. If these programs become the only way in which only Autistic people can be included in the workplace, will they look more like segregation than inclusion. Is it any different to trying to increase racial diversity by hiring Chinese people into finance because we’ve heard they are good at math? We need to challenge, expand and research these initiatives before rolling them out wholesale.
The principle behind Neurodiversity is the value of all neuro-variants, this is where we need the management and recruitment science to bring in better links from unusual or specialist thinker, to job redesign, to output focused performance assessment. Contact the Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work if you’d like to be involved in making inclusion universal and embedded in Human Resources and management practice.