Neurodivergent Women Make Great Leaders — Why Don't We Have More of Them?

Women are all too familiar with the glass ceiling at work. But for those who are neurodivergent, the glass ceiling can feel more like a concrete wall.

Jennifer Alumbaugh found her neurodivergent status holding her back in jobs where she quickly outgrew her old position. Yet any attempts to move up the corporate ladder or present ideas to supervisors for improving the company were dismissed or disregarded. “It felt like I was always being rejected for promotions and now I look back and see it’s because others couldn’t see how [my neurodivergent brain] was one of my strengths.” 

Alumbaugh’s experience is not so different from other neurodivergent folk. And despite attempts to create inclusive workplaces, the face of neurodivergent leadership is often white men. 

Take a look at Elon Musk, says Julie Landry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at NeuroSpark Health. The tech entrepreneur opened up about having Asperger’s at a Saturday Night Live opening monologue and received praise for his intelligence and willingness to take risks. Virgin founder Richard Branson is another billionaire who has attributed his dyslexia for his ability to think outside the box. 

Neurodivergent brains are wired to experience the world differently, and these tech bosses have shown that it’s not a bad thing. It can help with thinking creatively for building products or solving complex problems, says Alumbaugh, who is now a neuroinclusive coach and consultant at Expansive Expressions. Yet, neurodivergent women are not on the same playing field and face unique challenges to reaching a leadership role.

The top CEOs and billionaire moguls are often men, and a number of factors contribute to this inequality in representation.

Delayed or missed diagnosis

Research shows women are more likely than men to be undiagnosed or diagnosed later in life with a neurodivergent condition. Alumbaugh, for example, experienced this herself when she was diagnosed in her 40s as autistic and with ADHD. A delayed diagnosis can lead to masking — where people are socialized to suppress certain actions to avoid looking ‘weird’ and that fits in with more neurotypical behavior. Girls specifically are taught to stay quiet, polite and pretty while it’s more acceptable for boys to be rambunctious and rowdy. This makes it easier for girls to fly under the radar and not receive a diagnosis.

Medical gaslighting leads to misdiagnosis

Women have historically been ignored or told what they’re feeling is all in their heads. Even the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, claimed a wandering womb was the reason behind a woman’s hysteria — a psychological diagnosis that was only recently removed as a diagnosis in 1980.

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It’s even worse when it comes to mental health conditions. Doctors are more likely to ignore the concerns of women more than men, chalking it up to hormones, stress, or perimenopause. Women of color are more at risk of gaslighting and being neglected in healthcare. “For many folks who are coming into their neurodivergence later in life, they might have sought assistance with things they were struggling with like executive function only to have it written off as depression or anxiety,” says Alumbaugh. 

Not receiving a proper diagnosis can set girls back in school, and later in the workforce. A lack of accommodations would make it harder for women to excel at their roles if they are having trouble concentrating, get injured, or are ostracized from their coworkers.

Stereotypes and misunderstanding of neurodivergence

Media culture has shaped a stereotypical view of what certain conditions like autism are supposed to look like. “As soon as I say I’m autistic, Rain Man comes up. I’m tired of that,” Charlotte Valeur, founder of the Institute of Neurodiversity, told Fortune.

While movies and TV shows like The Good Doctor give representation to neurodivergent characters, they also typecast people to certain behaviors. Alumbaugh recalls hearing hundreds of stories of adult women going to seek diagnosis, only to be told it’s impossible for them to have autism because they make eye contact or have a graduate degree.

There’s also the misperception of neurodivergence being a setback. “Just because something is considered a disability doesn’t mean it is disabling,” explains Landry, who has ADHD. Since conditions like autism fall under a spectrum, many neurodivergent folk are high-functioning and do not fit the stereotypical mold for the condition.

Gender bias

Even when women are open about their neurodivergence, they are treated in different ways for the same behavior as neurodivergent men. For example, a common trait for autism is being very direct in communication, which is lauded in men. But if a woman is being frank and assertive she is more likely to be perceived as bad-tempered and rude.

Another issue is the stereotypical gender role of women being more submissive. When men want to overhaul the system and present new ideas, they are celebrated as innovative thinkers, but neurodivergent women who look at things a different way are considered not a team player. “It was already difficult being a woman at work, and then being a neurodivergent woman is one more thing to overcome,” says Landry.

Businesses who fail to pay attention to their neurodivergent female coworkers are missing out on some important revenue. Companies can lose employees if they’re unwilling to be accommodating and inclusive. This high turnover rate would end up costing them more money hiring and training new employees.

Neurodiversity is also a great asset with some research suggesting neurodiverse teams are 30 percent more productive than neurotypical teams. Lastly, the creative out-of-the-box thinking neurodivergent people have can spur innovative ideas that may result in life-sustaining treatments or life-altering ideas.

“I see it as having an IT department that only knows how to work on Macs,” describes Alumbaugh. “If somebody needs help with a PC computer, then they’re stuck. But if you had a comprehensive understanding of all the different operating systems, they are able to work with whatever tech comes their way.” In other words, having a diverse group of workers — including female management — can only help with building an innovative future.

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