Neurodiversity ‘the new frontier of inclusion’ at business school
Presented with lots of numbers, “your mind goes blank, you feel lost and anxious that you won’t ever get it,” says Stephanie Webster of studying for an executive MBA with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “You think classmates are better than you are. You feel less capable than others.”
Webster quit her job because of stigma around ADHD. “Colleagues can dismiss you because you appear not to get the work. They felt like I did not fit in. I was uncomfortable,” she says.
Like many “neurodiverse” people who have differences in brain function (see box below) and want to do business in their own way, or who have faced barriers in the corporate world, Webster created her own company. She applied to London Business School last year to “scale up” Urban Health Method, a nutritional therapy clinic in Harley Street, London’s private-healthcare quarter.
Webster felt safe disclosing her ADHD after meeting welcoming LBS alumni. She was also introduced to Sharon Rankin, wellbeing services manager, who identified potential barriers and coping strategies. Those included assistive technology, such as the tool Mural for “mind mapping”, which Webster explains “helps me visualise financial concepts to get a more intuitive understanding”.
At LBS, 1.7 per cent of the student body has disclosed a disability of any kind, including neurodiversity. A team of specialist tutors adapts the learning process for these students. For instance, those with dyslexia, which affects reading and writing, may convert written material into an audio file (or the opposite for dyspraxia, which affects co-ordination and movement).
“We want all students to compete on a level playing field,” Rankin says. “You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Diversity has been a rising priority for business schools for many years, but until now the focus has been on its more visible and identifiable forms, such as gender and race. That is slowly changing as awareness of neurodivergence grows and companies respond.
Business schools are reacting with fresh initiatives to enrol people who think differently. “Neurodiversity is the new frontier of inclusion,” says Sionade Robinson, associate dean for people and culture at City, University of London’s Business School (formerly Cass). Across City university, 7 per cent of students have disclosed a neurodivergent condition.
These students can receive up to 25 per cent extra time in exams and have grades revised upwards by as much as 10 per cent through confidential “sympathetic marking” that does not penalise grammatical or spelling mistakes.
“We are becoming much more attuned to recognising differences in how people learn and solve problems, and making adjustments to the process of assessment to create a more equitable outcome,” Robinson says.
But with 15 per cent of the UK population estimated to be neurodivergent, business schools with lower rates of disclosure agree that stigma is a problem. Rob Austin, professor of information systems at Ivey Business School in Canada, studies neurodiversity in the workplace and suspects that many people go undiagnosed. Others fear disclosure because of potential discrimination.
There are cultural variations, with conditions such as dyslexia still not well understood in countries including China. Even where there is greater awareness, people can be stigmatised. “Historically, there has been a feeling neurodiversity has been a net negative,” says Prof Austin.
For instance, only 16 per cent of autistic adults are employed full-time in the UK.
Autism can create difficulties with social interaction, which may make job interviews particularly challenging or overwhelming. This has prompted some companies to adjust recruitment processes as they seek to reap the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce.
EY, the professional services firm, says it views diversity of thought as a competitive advantage. Five years ago, it designed a recruitment process for neurodivergent people that places less emphasis on interviews and includes performance-based tasks, such as analysing a data set and producing a report to present the insight gained.
“We believe this untapped population has key abilities that are extremely accretive to solving client problems,” says Hiren Shukla, director of neurodiversity hiring for EY.
EY has recruited 100 people through this process, and found these employees often excel in lateral thinking, problem solving and creativity. They may also have exceptional attention to detail and shine in focusing on repetitive tasks, working with data and software.
HEC Paris business school is educating students on mental and physical disorders. “Business schools tend to talk about diversity in terms of physical attributes, but so many disorders are invisible. We need to start the conversation about neurodiversity,” says Marcelle Laliberté, head of student affairs.
At HEC, 1.7 per cent of students have disclosed a disability. Faculty make accommodations for the neurodiverse population. For example, dyslexic students can request material printed on coloured paper (white can be too dazzling, creating reading difficulties such as losing one’s place, skipping or misreading words).
Emma Day-Duro, senior qualitative research specialist with Ashridge Executive Education in the UK, has studied what neurodiverse people want from work. She found that processing and relaying information was a common challenge for many respondents, whether verbally or in writing.
“Educators need to have conversations with neurodivergent students to find out their preferred modes of communication, so they can play to their strengths,” says Day-Duro. “If you are willing to listen, they will help you to become more inclusive.”
The next frontier of neurodiversity may be online learning during campus closures in the coronavirus era, says Martin Davidson, global chief diversity officer at Virginia’s Darden School of Business. For example, those with ADHD could struggle to concentrate at home with so many potential distractions. Prof Davidson is considering tracking online engagement to understand the impact of the pandemic on such students. Echoing his counterparts at other schools, he says: “We hope to build up our ability to recognise differences of thought. But we are at the beginning of this journey.”
Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that affects reading, writing and spelling but not intelligence. Symptoms usually appear in childhood when learning how to read and write. It is a life-long condition.
Autism spectrum disorder affects people differently. Autistic people may find it difficult to communicate and interact socially, or understand how others feel. Bright lights or loud noises can be stressful. Another lifelong disorder, it is something you are born with or it appears at an early age.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural disorder that can cause hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness. Symptoms tend to show in childhood and usually improve with age. The exact cause is unknown, but ADHD can run in families.
Dyspraxia is also known as development co-ordination disorder. People may seem to move clumsily, and it usually affects their writing and drawing. It is far more common in males than females and sometimes runs in families. It is a life-long condition.