Elon Musk made a groundbreaking announcement while hosting Saturday Night Live in May 2021. “I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL. Or at least the first to admit it,” the now-Twitter chief executive told the audience. At the time, Musk, 49, had never publicly disclosed his condition, which is today considered part of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The multi-hyphenate CEO, billionaire, and entrepreneur was not shy to link his condition to his success—and polarizing leadership style. “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, ‘I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?’”
He’s not the only man to credit his “genius” to neurodivergence. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, and musician Kanye West have made similar remarks. “That’s my bipolar shit…That’s my superpower. Ain’t no disability. I am a superhero,” the artist and former billionaire rapped in his song “Yikes.”
To be certain, life isn’t a cakewalk for neurodivergent men. Musk spoke about his childhood bullying, and a dyslexic Branson dropped out of school at age 15 owing, in part, to academic struggles.
Still, these men’s accomplishments today are lauded, often attributed to their neurodivergence. And it’s hard not to miss that so few openly neurodivergent women are among the revered cohort of entrepreneurs and innovative business minds.
That isn’t to say women are entirely absent from these lists. Real estate mogul and Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran has said dyslexia made her a millionaire. But broadly speaking, men occupy most of the spotlight.
There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, few women reach the CEO rank or receive adequate funding to become successful entrepreneurs—not to talk of neurodivergent women. The second is that women are less likely to be diagnosed with several disorders that fall under neurodivergence than men, and many report receiving a diagnosis later in life. By and large, the media presents white men as the face of neurodivergence.
“As soon as I say I’m autistic, Rain Man comes up. I’m tired of that,” says Charlotte Valeur, founder of the Institute of Neurodiversity.
Many female leaders miss out on a diagnosis because of gender stereotypes about neurodivergence. Joey Ng, chief marketing officer at Yami, first realized she was autistic after a 2020 consultation with a career coach.
Ng answered a few end-of-session questions, assuming they’d provide insight into her leadership style. Upon completion, the coach suggested that Ng may be on the spectrum.
“I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” Ng recalls. In her mind, she didn’t fit any autism stereotype. She was extroverted and only knew of autistic figures like Musk or TV characters assumed to be autistic, like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. “I am nothing like those people, these male phenotypes of autism. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she remembers thinking.
The coach shared her own late diagnosis and asked Ng if she’d experienced social barriers in school or romantic relationships. She had. “All of the boxes were checked,” Ng says. She left the session still skeptical, but the realization soon sank in. “I went for a drive, did my errands, came back, and parked in my spot beneath my apartment. And then I just full-on bawled like someone had finally seen me truly for the first time.”
Lonely at the top
Neurodivergent women who ascend to leadership positions often struggle to find peers with whom they can connect. “You have less community, less support, less understanding of your unique identity,” Ng says. “I would be the only woman of color in a room of white men.”
Archana Iyer, a marketing strategist who’s held leadership roles at communications firms DDB and Weber Shandwick, says one of her biggest challenges as an autistic woman is the lack of female role models. One of her exemplars is Sherlock Holmes, the 19th-century detective who some modern readers have posited could be autistic. “But Holmes is a white male and gets away with being called an eccentric genius,” Iyer says, “[That’s] never a phrase you hear associated with a woman, especially of color.”
Ng hypothesizes that there are more neurodivergent women in leadership positions than is publicly known. “When we think of all these extraordinarily successful women, we don’t think of them as average. The pure definition of being neuro-atypical is that you are not average,” she says. But getting to the top is no easy feat, and neurodivergent women experience extra barriers when climbing the career ladder.
Second glass ceiling
The glass ceiling is a painfully familiar concept to any career-driven woman. Yet neurodivergent people experience a concrete ceiling. They’re underrepresented in senior roles and often don’t exhibit skills typically associated with leadership, like strong communication or management abilities.
When organizations provide support to neurodivergent individuals, they benefit: JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program found that, if matched to the right job, autistic workers are up to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.
Neurodivergent women do see a career benefit thanks to their unique brain function. Iyer credits her success as a marketing strategist to her outsider-like perception of social norms. “You might think that’s a problem,” she says, but thinking outside the box and challenging the status quo are key to a successful marketing campaign.
“It’s not a deficit or a disorder. It has literally made my career,” Valeur says. She thrived in a fast-paced environment in her 25-year tenure as a stock trader. Now, she finds sitting on multiple corporate boards and serving as a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, a good match for her energy. “I love it. There’s a lot to think about all the time. That is what my brain wants.”
Yet these strengths can carry someone only so far in a workplace designed for the neurotypical. “I think that being autistic and the characteristics that come with it can definitely help accelerate your career to a certain extent. Then you reach that ceiling of it being uncomfortable for people,” Ng says.
Lia Grimanis, founder and CEO of Canadian nonprofit Up With Women, excelled as a technology sales leader at companies like SAS and TIBCO. “I worked a lot harder, but it was because I was really geeking out on this stuff,” she says. “Being able to talk to other geeks and convince them that this is the software they need didn’t take much, because we all had passion in the room.” But her difficulty reading facial expressions, picking up on social cues, and habit of “dancing all over people’s boundaries” often put her in the hot seat at work. Grimanis recalls removing her shoes at the office since she found she could function better without them. “People were like, ‘Lia, what are you doing? Put on your shoes.’ I’m like, ‘My feet don’t stink. I think better this way.’” In all, she was fired from four of the six jobs she held in the tech sector.
Walking the tightrope
Women face tightrope bias, the difficult balancing act between being perceived as too likable or aggressive.
“If you take neurodivergent women, there’s an additional layer of stereotypes because women are expected to be always nurturing, always emotionally available,” says Ludmila Praslova, a professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. “You kind of violate the gender norm just by virtue of being neurodivergent.”
Jhillika Kumar, cofounder and CEO of Mentra, a neurodiversity employment network whose backers include OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, long struggled with executive dysfunction, though she didn’t always recognize it. Even after leaving her role at a top bank to focus on Mentra full-time, she still struggled to attend meetings on time and feel prepared.
She felt pressure to conform to leadership stereotypes directly contradicting her true personality. “I’m very honest and very over-the-top—emotions everywhere. I’ll put my heart on my sleeve and come in with a lot of enthusiasm,” she says. “It’s been a learning curve to temper that back because people often perceive you as not masculine or authoritative enough to steer the company forward.”
For male CEOs like Satya Nadella or Marc Benioff, who have made empathy part of their leadership personas, such passion earns them praise. For women, it’s considered the bare minimum but not necessarily a leadership trait. Women are generally expected to take on office housework and “mother” employees, Praslova points out, while men who take on fathering are “like a super bonus.”
“The expectation of care is very unbalanced by gender,” she says.
Behind the mask
Existing in a workplace that requires you to mask your neurodivergence is a surefire path to burnout.
Before her diagnosis, the burden of masking would leave Kumar exhausted from her banking job. “I would come home completely drained [and] required hours to decompress,” she says. “Sometimes I would just sob on my couch for a bit because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t conform and didn’t feel accepted and valued on the team.”
Ng has to be especially mindful of social cues and personal interactions in corporate settings so she doesn’t appear rude. “That takes a lot of effort,” she says, so she mutes herself during end-of-day Zoom meetings. “It’s not because I hate them or I hate work. It’s just that I’m tired of pretending not to be an alien all day.”
Sensory issues also affect neurodivergent women’s ability to thrive at work. Grimanis paid a tailor to make her suits—already the same cut but in different monochromatic colors—feel like silk pajamas on the inside. “There was no pinching, no scratching, no nothing. That allowed me to be more resourceful at work.” But women, she notes, are held to a higher standard of dressing, while leaders like Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg can get away with T-shirts and jeans as standard business attire. “All of a sudden, it’s an issue that we’re wearing the same thing every day,” she says. “They think you’re trying to be like Steve Jobs.”
And given that neurodivergent women tend to be diagnosed later in life or misdiagnosed entirely, it could create invisible barriers for women that they can’t seem to overcome.
“You’ve got women growing up with a narrative that says, ‘I’ve got mental health problems’—which they may have as well—but not recognizing they have ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, or all of the above,” says Amanda Kirby, emeritus professor at the University of South Wales and CEO and founder of Do-IT, a platform specializing in training neurodivergent individuals. “When they get their diagnosis, [they become] quite angry because of where they could have been. They haven’t reached their potential and often feel frustrated by that.”
To disclose or not disclose?
Women struggle with whether to disclose their neurodivergence in the workplace, fearing discrimination and stigma that could prevent them from reaching leadership roles.
“It’s all very well for Elon Musk to say, ‘This is who I am,’ and that he doesn’t care what people think,” Kirby says. “If you’re halfway through building your career, we know that disclosure doesn’t always go well.”
Yet some believe coming out is integral to their work identity. After receiving a Forbes 30 Under 30 award for social impact, Kumar revealed her autism and ADHD diagnoses. “As my outward success has grown, there’s been an increased dissonance between the Jhillika I show to the world and the reality I experience behind closed doors,” she wrote on LinkedIn earlier this year. Disclosing her condition was no small feat for Kumar, who says skydiving was easier than coming out to her professional circles.
Plus, the response from others can be frustrating. Iyer says a few well-meaning people encouraged her to aim simpler or smaller after sharing her diagnosis. “Would you tell that to a man on the spectrum?” she asks.
A common response after disclosing a neurodivergence is disbelief. Many recount receiving comments like, “You can’t be autistic or have ADHD.”
“They mean well, so I don’t take offense,” Ng says. “Maybe in a work environment, people really think [they’re] doing the polite thing by refuting it.”
Valeur says people may also dismiss her autism diagnosis, which she disclosed seven years ago, because white men are the primary examples of neurodivergence they see. “I don’t know what people have in their heads, but it’s not me,” she says. “I think they [picture] Rain Man or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.”
As a senior principal systems engineer at Raytheon, Meghan Buchanan says the company provides her a platform to share her experience. “I know a lot of companies have initiatives…to get stories out there. It’s getting better, but I do feel it is constantly correcting misconceptions and fighting for that voice,” she says. The biggest misconception she faces at work is that she’s lazy and lacks attention to detail. “I may have looked at [a presentation] a million times, and if the spell checker doesn’t catch it, I’m screwed.”
But Buchanan also knows her strength: Her creativity helps her find solutions that other engineers may not consider. “In engineering, when there is a solution needed, and typical ways of dealing with it don’t work, you’ve got to have that creative process, which is what I bring to the company.”
To bring more neurodivergent women into higher ranks, organizations will have to dismantle their perception of what makes for a strong leader. “Leadership is often defined as this space in the organizational chart,” and its qualities are limited to how well someone can tell others what to do, Praslova says. “It‘s just way too narrow.”
Organizations must be diligent about creating evaluation and promotion systems that prioritize performance metrics over personality preferences. And while diversity trainings can help to educate neurotypical workers, they don’t create systemic change, Praslova says. “[It’s like] rinsing off a pickle and putting it back into the brine,” she says. “It doesn’t make very much sense.”
There is no clear information on the percentage of neurodivergent women in leadership compared with men. Any studies of such nature tend to have small samples and vary in how they define leadership roles, Praslova says.
Organizations also have rigid views on how best to leverage neurodivergent talent, often “typecasting” them for specific roles, such as autistic individuals in technical roles or dyslexic individuals for creative positions. “Even positive stereotypes can be damaging. And if someone doesn’t feel like they can live up to that stereotype, it can mess with them,” Praslova says.
Kirby, the University of South Wales professor, emphasizes that “spectrum” is the keyword in autism spectrum disorder. One autistic person can be nonspeaking, and another can be highly verbal; both could be matched to very different roles based on their interests and skill sets.
Factor in comorbidities, and these stereotypes are even less sticky. “It’s a bit like horoscopes, right?” she says. “You’re born under Capricorn, and there are 25 million people who are also born under Capricorn. How can we all be the same?”
When companies expand their definition of strong leadership, neurodivergent talent can stand out, says Valeur. “We need to want differences. We need to get to a place where our leadership teams are looking for someone who doesn’t fit in, because that’s diversity.”