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Neurodiversity Amongst Women at Work

Let's talk about neurodiversity amongst women at work

Before diving into the experience of neurodivergent women, we need to clarify what it means to be neurodivergent. I promise that it has nothing to do with the Divergent movie… or does it? I will leave that for you to decide.

Let’s make things clear, we have neurodiversity which explains the diversity and variations of cognitive functions in people, relating to ability, skills and needs. The term ‘neurodivergent’ therefore relates to the individuals who are not considered ‘typical’ in the way they process information.

For example, successful, Harvard and Berkeley-educated writer and devoted mother, Jenara Nerenberg didn’t discover her autism and ADHD until well into her adulthood, after it had already taken a huge toll on her personal and professional life. Being a journalist, she dove into the research and discovered neurodiversity – a movement which seeks to stop pathologising ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ brains and start embracing the variety of mental makeups we all have. But we can’t accept what we don’t recognise, and when it comes to women, sensory processing disorders including autism, ADHD and synesthesia are often overlooked, masked, or mistaken for something else entirely. Between a flawed system that focuses on diagnosing younger, male populations, and the fact that women are conditioned from a young age to blend in and conform to gender expectations, women often don’t learn about their condition until they are adults, if at all. And that’s the problem surrounding neurodiversity and women.

In the UK alone, we have 5 million people who think and consider themselves to be neurodivergent, but only 120,000 have been formally diagnosed. A 2014 review of ADHD in women and girls found that because the symptoms women showed were more likely to fall under the category of ‘inattentiveness’ than ‘hyperactivity’, they were also more likely to be considered below the threshold for diagnosis or missed altogether. Many women are wrongly misdiagnosed with having anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders before being properly assessed for ADHD. In some cases, women are even diagnosed significantly later in their 30s and even in their 40s after years of struggling with some aspects of the condition and how ADHD manifests itself on a daily basis.

“I guess I’ve always had quirky habits and my attention chooses to swing in different directions, and I get overexcited about things people accept as normal. However, I’ve never thought that could be something so different from what others do or how they think. But I guess something clicked during the pandemic and the stress and anxiety around it opened up Pandora’s Box,  resulting in a significant increase in ADHD symptoms.”

One of the following symptoms are could affect day-to-day communication and other aspects of a person’s life. For instance, neurodiverse individuals tend to get overwhelmed by stimulations such as lights, sounds and smell. That does not mean that we cannot tolerate it, but they may need a break from it during the day. For instance, when they sit in a room with a lot of chatter, they can get overwhelmed and need to spend 30 minutes away from the stimulating environment.

Another example is how neurodivergent people interrupt others during a conversation, which could be due to their overexcitement to share an idea or opinion on a given topic. Some people may mistake this as being rude, but that’s not the case – they are often just bursting with enthusiasm and would like to share the idea as quickly as possible before something else distracts them.

“Another aspect of ADHD could be oversensitivity to outside stimuli, especially when we need to concentrate on certain tasks.  Sometimes going to a quiet room without much activity could help, other times listening to music could help me to get concentrated on the task. Very often people with ADHD use a mechanism called ‘masking’ so they can ‘fit in’ in social situations. I’ve caught myself masking from time to time, sometimes it’s exhausting but other times it is just a nature of habit.”

What does ADHD masking look like?

If you’re masking ADHD, other people might not be able to tell. But there may be signs that you can spot:

  • purposefully saying less so you will not talk too much or interrupt people;
  • writing everything down so you can remember it later;
  • suppressing strong emotions;
  • having difficulty focusing because you’re trying hard to hide excess energy;
  • feeling unable to relax before an upcoming appointment because you might lose track of time;
  • feeling the urge to organise a task or project rather than work on it;
  • experiencing irritability from having to focus on a low-interest activity;
  • maintaining perfectionist standards to hide your self-perceived flaws;
  • mimicking other people in social situations so you’ll fit in.

SOME DIFFERENCES OF ADHD IN WOMEN & MEN

Other internalised symptoms of inattention, distractibility and hyperactivity among women and girls with ADHD may include:

  • Maladaptive daydreaming
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Spacing out during conversations
  • Easily losing focus
  • Auditory processing disorder
  • Forgetfulness
  • Eating disorders
  • Hyper-sexuality
  • Impatience
  • Body-focused repetitive behaviors (e.g., skin picking, hair pulling, leg bouncing)
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Crying with deep emotion, anger, and feelings of guilt and shame
  • Shyness due to social anxiety and sensory sensitivities
  • Perfectionism
  • People-pleasing
  • Codependency
  • Low self-esteem
  • Overachieving or underachieving
  • Intense emotional reactions and overwhelm
  • Hyperactivity (e.g., fidgeting)
  • Disruptive behaviour
  • Frequently losing items
  • Interrupting others during conversations
  • Aggressive behaviours
  • High-risk behaviours (e.g., substance misuse, speeding, unhealthy sexual behaviours, excessive financial spending, etc.)

Notably, RSD can present among men in the same intensity as women. Men can also experience low self-esteem and insecurities, but most of the time it’s externalised as:

  • Anger
  • Apathy
  • Self-centeredness
  • Seeming insensitive to other people’s emotions
  • Teasing others or being sarcastic
  • Needing to be right or proving others wrong
  • Defensiveness

It is always nice to pay attention to symptoms of ADHD, and there are self-diagnostic tools online that can help you understand it better. See below:

ADHD UK

ADHD Adulthood

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