What I've learnt about Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace as a Neurodivergent Woman
I speak quite frequently on my experiences in the workplace. The first two companies i worked for, I didn't disclosed my dyslexia.
In fact, it didn't even cross my mind.
Yup, I thought I could 'battle through it', because at that point I knew as much about dyslexia as everyone else... which wasn't that much. I didn't even really know how it affected anyone past reading and writing, let alone how it presented in me. All I knew was that my brain was different and I did things slightly differently, but it never caused me to literally breakdown...
...Not during work hours anyway, and it wasn't until recently that I realised that it was probably down to my dyslexia.
So really, I feel like I've just gone complete full-circle with this blog post. You're probably not even sure what point I'm trying to make here.
The thing is, that's how my dyslexia makes me feel. My mind's cluttered, I stutter, and I never seem to get to the point because I forget what my point is by the time my brain switches out of waffle mode.
You can imagine trying to navigate a workplace with dyslexia - but what about weaving your way through the notion of making it a better and safer environment for everyone when you don't even fully know what you need for yourself to feel more secure?
There can be some sincerity with a cluttered mind - often the things that stick at the front of my mind are the things that I see most profoundly, so let me share what's stuck with me about Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace.
1. Some people still think Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is just smoke and mirrors
If we're not inclusive, we're not diverse, and if we're not diverse, we fail to be human.
Not everyone will believe in this. "Identity politics seeping into an otherwise steady working way of life", they'll say. I saw someone asking what will happen to a workplace culture if performance is no longer a requirement to progress within. To that I say - that's not the bloody point of it all.
Diversity and Inclusion shouldn't feel like a stick with which to beat others, but at a certain point we need to accept that our plight won't get through to everybody and some people will never grasp what we campaign for. While I fail to believe that "but they were born in a different era" is a justifiable excuse to be excluded from the current societal narrative (that serves everyone) I do also accept that not everyone's environment was healthy - we often forget that in the social media era it's a lot easier to carry ideas and to move society forward together.
In these situations I think we have to break it down even further. Diversity does not have to mean an obvious difference between us and the norm, but simple diversity of mind and thought is something that should be celebrated. Everywhere, there is diversity of thought.
2. Diversity of thought - out of sight, so out of mind?
So without further ado, I'm following up that thought with another observation: diversity of thought isn't widely understood.
Nor is it particularly accepted either - it shouldn't be the only output on DE&I but it certainly counts for something. Let's not forget, neurodiversity is completely about diversity of thought - thoughts come from our brains and our brains form the basis of functioning, collaborating and fuelling the knowledge economy.
Trawling through the internet looking for why diversity of thought may be out of sight, I actually came across negative accounts of the very thing that I believe to be important. The reasoning many gave was that it negatively impacted the DE&I conversation as it was often used as a vessel for others to claim that they should remain as they were, but I think it's telling of the entire DE&I conversation - it's still, to an extent, divisive.
But I did get one thing from this - neurodiversity labels need to exist to silo us from the people who want to jump on diversity of thought as a front for not changing their harmful workplaces ways. Neurodiversity is still waiting for the big break - the break in negative stereotypes, the break in infantising it, and not to mention the vital education that's missing.
3. Disclosing a neurodiversity mid-way into your time somewhere doesn't mitigate against negative attitudes
I learnt this the hard way. When you start a new job, you have two options: disclose it straight away, or leave it until you can't hide it any longer. The hard part is knowing that it's going to emerge in some form, so it's best to plan ahead of time to ensure that you can assess the situation while you're not attached.
I went naively into that dilemma - I didn't disclose my dyslexia as I didn't know how it affected me, so I didn't think it affected me all too much. So when I accidentally dropped it into conversation a year into my tenure, it was a bit of a shock to me what I saw next.
Impressions of me changed, micro-management crept in.
It's here that I learnt the stereotypes ran a lot deeper than anticipated - what I thought was cleverness was actually point blank dewey-eyed naivety.
But I don't wish to prescribe anything here, other than keeping an open mind and staying true to self. In my situation, I became so fixated on others' opinions that I didn't make decisions that fit with my own narrative. I became uncomfortable in myself and it felt like I was being punished for not staying around my own moral anchor.
4. You can't change everything. But...
The more you study something at school, the more you realise how much you don't know.
The same goes for getting stuck into DE&I. The more you dig into what change you can make, the more your mind starts to race on how far you need to move to get close to where you want to be.
You can't change everything. But...
You can get to the root of the culture - motivations, what's rewarded, how people interact - to prioritise what needs to be actioned first. If there's one thing I've learned, knowing that you'll never reach perfection is a strength in itself for it means that we've accepted that it's actually a hindrance. I'd much rather be happy doing a small amount of good than getting stuck trying to do everything.
5. After mistreatment try to educate not vilify
Whether you call it naivety, ignorance or gullibility, I can't deny that I wasn't be-known to the customs of alpha culture. Even when I was in the eye of the storm, it felt like a personal strike, where there was no way out, nor did I see the signs telling me it wasn't normal workplace behaviour.
My vindication since has been to develop a growth mindset and no longer let it eat away at me. It's the healthiest for me, professionally and personally.
But I can only sit here and say educating for a better environment instead of vilifying is the best approach after a long period of time reflecting and growing from it. When you're fresh out of a toxic situation, it can feel liberating to vent and attack behind doors.
The crux of it is... it doesn't help anyone. Someone knowing that you feel hurt doesn't make them attempt or try to understand - otherwise the entire toxicity wouldn't have happened in the first place. And fire isn't fought with fire.
6. Performance doesn't mean anything if it's being set without motivation
I'm going to go rogue and give you my conclusion of this point first - putting performance first is detrimental. If culture is prioritised, then the performance will follow. It can't be said for culture following performance. That's unless you don't care about having a fully diverse and inclusive culture, and favour a high-performance culture that praises those who shove, kick and scream their way to the top.
Ideally, you need something to incite the workplace performance - and performance can't motivate performance in itself. That's illogical.
The issue is that Diversity & Inclusion is often seen as a business tool, a branding strategy which offers a token to false inclusion. And with this comes all the structure of a business decision - will it deliver fast results with the least cost? Will it drive further brand awareness and customer retention?
All these questions shouldn't be applied to diversity and inclusion initiatives or the KPIs for such. Performance is bred from happy, invested and valued employees, and believe me, people can see through a lot more than organisations think.
The great thing is - it's even been proven. In 2015 a study was published that found that an engaged workforce produced higher sales and higher customer satisfaction ratings, along with other business markers of success growing astronomically.
What have you learnt about Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace?