Neurodivergent women are fighting stigma at work: ‘As soon as I say I’m autistic, Rain Man comes up. I’m tired of that.’

May 22, 2023, 12:09 PM UTC
Women worry that disclosing their diagnoses will ostracize them at work.
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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Uber puts its DEI head on leave, incoming Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino is ready for competition, and Fortune writer Paige McGlauflin shares her latest feature on why openly neurodivergent women are absent from leadership ranks. Have a meaningful Monday!

– A notable absence. What do Elon Musk and Richard Branson have in common? Aside from being extremely wealthy male CEOs, both are neurodivergent and partly attribute their success to their unique brain functions.

Musk revealed that he has Asperger’s, which is considered part of autism spectrum disorder, in May 2021 while hosting Saturday Night Live. “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?’” Musk said on the show.

Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has said he has dyslexia, and that it shaped his company “right from the very beginning.”

Today, these men’s accomplishments are lauded, but it’s easy to notice that so few openly neurodivergent women are among the revered cohort of business and entrepreneurial leaders. Sure, there are some examples—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.

I dug into the reasons why for my latest feature. First, there are simply fewer female CEOs or high-profile entrepreneurs, making the share of neurodivergent women proportionally small. The second is that women are less likely than men to be diagnosed with several disorders that fall under neurodivergence, and many report receiving a diagnosis later in life. By and large, the media presents white men as the face of neurodivergence.

“There are biases and ideas that people have from media, press, and films…and it’s so stubborn to get moving,” Charlotte Valeur, founder of the Institute of Neurodiversity, told me. “As soon as I say I’m autistic, Rain Man comes up. I’m tired of that.”

Neurodivergent people in general are underrepresented in senior roles and often don’t exhibit skills typically associated with leadership, like strong communication or management abilities. But many neurodivergent women extol their unique brain function as an advantage and credit it for accelerating their career in other ways. Valeur told me that she excelled as a stockbroker because she thrives in fast-paced environments. Another woman says being autistic—and having an outsider-like perception of social norms—was key to her success as a marketing strategist. 

Still, women struggle with whether to disclose their neurodivergence in the workplace, fearing discrimination and stigma that could prevent them from climbing the corporate ladder.

To bring more neurodivergent women into higher ranks, organizations must expand how they define strong leadership and recognize that its current parameters exclude a large swath of people. “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, says Ludmila Praslova, a professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. “It‘s just way too narrow.”

You can read my full story here.

Paige McGlauflin

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- On leave. Uber has placed Bo Young Lee, its head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, on leave after employees complained that a series of events she hosted, titled “Don’t Call Me Karen,” were insensitive to people of color. Workers said the sessions felt like lectures about the plight of white women, and that Lee didn’t respect their feedback. Uber confirmed Lee was on leave; she didn’t respond to a request for comment. New York Times

- Game time. Incoming Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino is welcoming new competition. She tweeted “game on” in response to reports that Instagram is developing a Twitter rival, set to launch this summer. For now, Yaccarino must smooth things over with Twitter’s skittish advertisers. The good news so far: GroupM, a top media agency, has told clients Twitter is no longer “high risk” given Yaccarino’s appointment. Fortune

- Making it Official. Bumble, the female-focused dating app run by CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, last week paid an undisclosed sum to acquire Official, an app intended to strengthen couples’ relationships with mood check-ins and date planning. “We’re really trying to build the entire relationship journey and take care of the entire relationship from start to finish,” Wolfe Herd says. Fast Company

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Pacsun has named co-CEO Brie Olson chief executive officer starting June 15.


- If it ain’t broke. In a new interview, incoming Man Group CEO Robyn Grew says her top priority is to “not break” the publicly-listed hedge fund’s “cracking core business.” The firm’s assets surged 80% during her predecessor’s seven-year tenure. She also says that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community “makes me better at understanding what it feels like when you don’t belong.” Bloomberg

- Not-so-secret weapon. Ron DeSantis’s soon-to-be-announced presidential run has launched his wife Casey into the spotlight. She is said to be a sort of saving grace for the Florida governor; more polished and social than her at-times awkward husband. But critics argue that DeSantis’s dependence on his wife as his chief advisor is keeping him from hearing alternative opinions. Politico

- Calling all creators. On the Fortune MPW Next Gen stage, OnlyFans CEO Amrapali Gan reiterated her argument that the platform most associated with adult content is not just about porn. “We are a platform for all kinds of content creators,” she said. The 37-year-old first told Fortune in January about her efforts to rebrand the subscription-based social media site. Fortune


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Brittney Griner has the right to change her mind The Atlantic 

Tinx explains why we’re dating all wrong The New Yorker


[T]here’s very little in our society that levels the playing field more than a good novel does. It’s just a different part of how we have conversations and how we investigate our world.”

—Author and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who’s publishing her latest novel Rogue Justice this week

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