We know very little about neurodivergent women—and they may be entirely overlooked at work

Approximately 15% to 20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent, meaning a diagnosis in women is anything but rare. However, it’s all too common for women to mask their neurodiversity or have it go underdiagnosed entirely. And those who do identify as neurodivergent may experience unique barriers as they look to advance their careers.

I recently had a conversation with one of our partners, a neurodivergent woman who shared the challenges she faced to obtain an official diagnosis. It was through her mother’s relentless determination that she was able to recognize her strengths and the skills that she could maximize. Without that, she may have been potentially overlooked and we would have missed out on a wonderful partner in our firm.

Why women that identify as neurodivergent are being overlooked

According to the Australian Psychological Society, stereotypes are partly to blame for gender-specific diagnostic gaps. There’s a general lack of understanding of how neurodivergent traits present in women (often more subtly, which makes them easy to miss). Boys are diagnosed with ADHD at a three-to-one ratio compared to girls. Boys are also four times likelier to be diagnosed with autism and twice as likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia.

This female underrepresentation in the workplace isn’t just an issue related to neurodiversity. Lean In’s 2023 Women in the Workplace study shows that, despite gains in senior leadership, women remain underrepresented at all levels, especially women of color. The research also points to women at the director level leaving at a higher rate than in past years—and noticeably more often than their male counterparts. Anecdotal evidence shows that when women—particularly neurodivergent women—do not get the support they need at work, the number of women in leadership roles is directly affected.

This research is important since we know the influence of women’s representation in leadership roles remains tangible and significant for the top line, bottom line, and organizational culture. An EY DE&I internal study in 2023 found that teams with a higher percentage of female partners have both higher revenues and margins. 

As EY Global Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness, I’ve been part of the EY organization’s ongoing journey toward greater neuro-inclusion and am personally keen to understand how to help women who identify as neurodivergent thrive in the workplace. Part of my work includes conversations with professionals of various ranks and identities to help us cultivate a better sense of belonging for all and an environment that supports a broad spectrum of flexibility requirements and working styles. Through these conversations, three common ideas have emerged: 

The importance of new inclusive policies or tangible updates to existing ones

Reviewing, enhancing, and updating policies and processes can open the door to new perspectives. For example, a traditional hiring process can challenge many neurodivergent professionals, particularly interviews focused on social competence versus job-related or technical skills. Creating recruiting, performance management, and promotion policies that prioritize performance-based metrics, along with more frequent feedback discussions around performance expectations, can help neurodivergent women be more successful as they navigate their careers.

Staunch leadership support

Since neurodivergent women tend to present differently than men, taking time to ask questions about how to support them is a useful way to start. Then, creating accountability around those ideas. The EY organization decided to standardize having leaders evaluated on inclusive leadership on a global scale to ensure there was a consistent bar set and an effective way to measure. A key part of this is also training managers to assess and weigh technical skills versus non-technical skills to evaluate performance against the requirements of a role.

Another idea that can go a long way towards inclusion is a sponsorship program. For women who identify as neurodivergent, having a sponsor who truly advocates on their behalf when they’re not in the room is a game-changer. For those struggling to make connections, sponsors can play a pivotal role in ensuring they are heard as they advance their careers.

Established psychological safety

It may seem simple, but awareness building goes a long way to create an environment of psychological safety. E-learning courses, producing toolkits, and organizing company-wide events can help individuals, supervisors, and teams build a more neuro-inclusive environment.

As most women’s expression of their neurodivergence is non-apparent, greater psychological safety can be established by communicating the advantages that cognitively diverse teams possess consistently and with actionable tactics. This type of education can reframe the perception of disabilities as a strength and offer specific actions or ideas to create more inclusive environments.

Neurodivergent professionals often possess in-demand skills and drive powerful results

It’s important to recognize that neurodivergent individuals often see the world differently, leading them to try approaches or see solutions to problems that others may not. These specialized skill sets can include an aptitude for complex problem-solving through data and emerging technologies, creativity, and innovation.

In today’s talent environment, these are often the skills in highest demand. As organizations invest in tech capabilities, having talent whose skillsets align with the needs of these roles helps the business, too.

At  EY, through the organization’s 23 Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence (NcoE) globally, we’ve seen neurodivergent professionals develop creative solutions resulting in new innovative products, increased retention rates, and millions of service provision hours saved—enabling almost US$1 billion in value creation. More importantly, it has also been acknowledged by the neurodiversity community (particularly women) that having dedicated hiring and career progression strategies has been a driving factor in increasing the discussion around self-disclosure and building a culture of greater acceptance and understanding. 

Gender representation shouldn’t exclude neurodivergent individuals

As organizations continue working to balance gender representation in the workplace, thinking about less understood identities like neurodivergence can help progress inclusion and cultivate a sense of belonging for all— without judgment or exclusion.

Through the lens of cognitive diversity, there’s a real opportunity to tap into the unique differences that allow individuals to think, learn, communicate, and socialize differently. Only when women who identify as neurodivergent feel free to be their authentic selves will they bring their full potential to the workplace. Our businesses thrive on the strength of our people. Including neurodivergent women in conversations about gender representation not only enhances inclusivity but also adds significant impact.

Karyn Twaronite is EY’s Global Vice Chair for diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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