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Neurodiversity: an untapped talent pool for tech

These articles have been written by the second cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Sarah Cometa, Technology Consultant

I first “came out” as neurodiverse to my employer, about my ADHD, in April of 2019.

I was in a Quarterly Business Review; a time to reflect on areas of improvement and how to work more collaboratively. Specifically, we had to fill out a slide that asked:

What do your colleagues need to know about you, to work best with you?

When I started to respond, saying – they need to know that I can struggle with timelines, that I often can get lost in a thought, keeping up with Salesforce admin is actually the hardest part of my job — suddenly I realised the summation of all I was writing could be put into one sentence:

They need to know I have ADHD.

The decision to disclose mental illness at work is one that is rife with controversy for many individuals who suffer. At the time, I was the top performing sales engineer globally at my business, having just closed a record-breaking quarter. I was also very lucky that at the time I had many supportive colleagues, and was met with words of encouragement. But this was the first time I’d openly talked about it in a work setting.

Despite the rosy image the tech industry paints around diversity and inclusion, particularly with the newest steam from the Black Lives Matter movement, those working in the industry know this is far from reality.

Neurodiverse people at work still face significant stigma and problems “fitting in” – that is if they manage to pass a recruitment process that is built to exclude them. It’s estimated that 15% of the population of the United Kingdom is neurodivergent, and a similar figure could be assumed for the United States. However, many people experiencing neurodivergence are unemployed — far higher than the national average — with some figures putting unemployment rates for neurodivergent people at 80%.

There’s also discomfort at the management level. A study from the Institute of Leadership Management in 2020 revealed that 50% of employers would not hire a neurodiverse candidate, with the highest level of bias employers have towards neurodivergent people are to those who have Tourette syndrome and ADHD/ADD. 32% of employers who responded to the Institute’s survey said they would be uncomfortable employing or managing someone with Tourette syndrome.

While supporting neurodiversity at work seems great for PR and represents an egalitarian ideal, that doesn’t actually motivate employers, because employers are motivated by the bottom line. If anything, We all know that diverse teams perform better than non-diverse teams. When you look at why, the answer is simple – diverse teams are able to bring different perspectives to the table which allow for more creativity and problem-solving. Business needs people who think differently.

Which is the literal definition of the neurodiverse community! Many people with neurodiverse disorders have higher-than-average abilities. Research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.

This has been proven in practice. In the past two years, HPE’s neurodiversity program placed more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Preliminary results suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others.

SAP, which at 4 years old has one of the longest running neurodiversity programs among major companies has reported their program has had widespread benefits including productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement. In one example, a neurodiverse customer-support analyst spotted an opportunity to let customers help solve a common problem themselves; thousands of them subsequently used the resources he created.

So why haven’t more companies, particularly in tech, been able to take advantage of neurodiverse candidates, where the unemployment rate is still so high?

The truth is, most companies still have an ideal type, in terms of how someone needs to present, interact, and conform within a work environment. A former boss called this “Executive Presence”, which was really just a way of screening employees that didn’t act in a way he expected.

Throwing out a typical “standard” of how someone needs to behave in order to be successful is the first step to truly incorporating this talent into the workforce.

For example, does it matter if someone starts work at 10am every morning, as long as they provide consistent value to your business? If an individual is unable to maintain eye contact when speaking but is able to solve problems no one else can, where’s the problem? Companies that are able to shift a traditional view of what is expected of their workforce will be the best at obtaining and retaining these high-performing individuals.

Don’t expect your employees to “come out” to you. The fact is, they shouldn’t necessarily need to. Instead, asking every employee what changes could be made to allow them to do their best work – and then actually following through on those changes – wouldn’t only benefit the neurodiverse, it will benefit all of your employees.

Examples/ Sources:

7/10 employers aren’t doing anything to support their neurodivergent staff

Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage
Greater understanding of neurodivergent employees needed
Neurodiversity At Work And Its Untapped Commercial Potential
Supporting your employees