The final nail in the coffin of Lizzie Somerfield’s legal career came when she was turned down for a promotion. While working as a lawyer in London, England, during the pandemic, the 33-year-old neurodiversity coach and consultant, who now lives in Oakville, Ont., was diagnosed with ADHD and autism.
She decided, as someone working from home, to stop ‘masking’ – or hiding – her neurodivergent characteristics. For many people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia and similar conditions, masking is exhausting and often futile. Unfortunately, it also happens to be one of the ways neurodivergent workers present as normal to their co-workers.
When Ms. Somerfield was passed over for a promotion, in favour of a colleague who was the same age and had similar work experience, she asked for feedback. The response was, more or less, a list of autistic traits, she says. She needed to get better at reading a room. She needed to be better at handling change. She needed to assuage the perception of her colleagues that she was a team player.
“Who I am is valid,” Ms. Somerfield recalls thinking in response, “and the things you’re promoting off of aren’t skills. They’re traits of a neurotype that I am not.”
Recent research by Robert Walters backs up Ms. Somerfield’s denial of a promotion. In a survey of 6,000 white-collar professionals across North America, the international management consulting firm found that workers with sensory or learning disabilities are 20 per cent less likely to have been offered a promotion than their non-disabled counterparts.
The firm asked respondents to identify whether they had physical, learning, mental or sensory disabilities. The firm did not give specific criteria for each category, meaning a neurodivergent worker might, for example, classify themselves as having a mental, learning, or sensory disability.
“That lack of representation, of visibility of people in senior ranks was evident,” says Coral Bamgboye, global head of equity, diversity and inclusion at Robert Walters Group. “We know the impact that representation has, so there’s a definite gap around needing to support people with what they can achieve.”
While scoring a promotion isn’t necessarily easy for anyone – about 83 per cent of non-disabled professionals said they faced some challenges in moving up the ranks – the same was true for 94 per cent of professionals with mental health or sensory disabilities, according to the Robert Walters survey. For workers with learning disabilities, that figure was 97 per cent.
When broken down by gender, the results were even more alarming. Around 40 per cent of women with a learning disability reported never having been promoted at all, compared with 12 per cent of men with learning disabilities.
The Robert Walters report suggests workplaces address unwritten rules that exclude individuals with disabilities from full participation to improve workplace conditions for neurodivergent workers, including better odds for promotion. It also calls for workplaces to consider mentorship programs, normalize requests for accommodations and be flexible in interview processes.
Heather Aleinik, a 29-year-old career coach for high-performing disabled tech professionals, has one important rule for those she mentors – never, ever disclose a disability without good reason. Ms. Aleinik, who is neurodivergent and works as a senior technical account manager at compensation software company PayScale, says candidates who are open about their disability in the workplace run the risk of managers doubting whether they’d fit in a new role.
“If they don’t know about it, then you’re almost better off,” she says.
Ms. Bamgboye isn’t surprised that some professionals don’t want to disclose their disabilities to their bosses.
“I think that workplaces have got work to do in making people feel comfortable in that disclosure,” she says, “to then be able to normalize it as a conversation and address what needs to be addressed as well.”
For disabled or neurodivergent workers, discrimination can mean anything from a lack of understanding from a manager to a refusal to accommodate requests for adaptive technology. These attitudes don’t just sideline disabled and neurodivergent workers from promotion opportunities. According to Carly Steele Fox, a disability advocate and consultant from Ottawa, it also forces a lot of them to forego pursuing promotions at all.
“We do want more disabled and neurodivergent people in higher roles with more decision-making power,” Ms. Fox says, “but at the same time, it can be a very risky move to go after promotions.”
A promotion, she says, might mean transferring to a different office where a disabled or neurodivergent worker’s needs aren’t accommodated. Ms. Fox says losing accommodations is, unfortunately, a common experience for disabled workers. To make matters worse, she adds, a promotion may mean working with unfamiliar, and potentially discriminatory, colleagues.
“It’s also very difficult to prove micro-aggressions and straight-up discrimination,” she says, “and HR processes really aren’t able to handle that kind of discrimination right now.”
In Ms. Somerfield’s experience, however, plenty of her neurodivergent clients do get promoted, but end up struggling despite being highly capable employees. “You’re basically expected to be an extroverted, neurotypical persona when you’re a manager,” she says, “and they can’t do that long term.”
But Ms. Aleinik suggests employees, especially younger ones, should learn more about their rights as workers. “They don’t know when their employer is violating their rights and when they have the law backing them,” she says, “and that’s the big missing piece.”
Being able to confront an abusive or discriminatory employer with this knowledge, she says, can reset the unequal power dynamic between workers and employers. She also recommends disabled employees who are looking for promotions ask how other employees get promoted and how they can follow in their footsteps. One of Ms. Aleinik’s consulting clients, for instance, worked for a company who simply promoted based on tenure.
“You now know this company values time over skill,” she says. “So at least then you can prepare yourself and build your strategy around that.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Somerfield suggests the onus isn’t entirely on a neurodivergent or disabled employee. Managers need to address their own unconscious biases, as well as the ways promotion processes themselves lock out highly capable candidates. Autistic employees, she says, can communicate effectively even if it isn’t done in a way neurotypical employees expect.
“When you’re making those promotion decisions, what are your criteria?” Ms. Somerfield says. “Are they neutral, regardless of neurotype?”
Ms. Fox also suggests employers cast a wide net when deciding who deserves a promotion. Disabled and neurodivergent people often don’t have as much job experience as their non-disabled counterparts. According to Statistics Canada, 6.9 per cent of Canadians with disabilities were unemployed in 2022, nearly twice as high as non-disabled people, because of unmet workplace accommodation needs and work force discrimination.
When it comes to her own experience with promotions, however, Ms. Fox says she’s been lucky. Most of her professional experience, aside from her time working retail in high school, has been with disabled peoples’ organizations. Her colleagues are disabled and all understand what it means to navigate workplace accommodations.
She says, “We all just really work to support each other.”