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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