Neurodiverse talent: the key to closing the digital skills gap?
02 December 2022 • 5 min read
More than 15% of the population are neurodivergent. Many of these individuals have skills and capabilities that are highly relevant to the digital industry, such as creative thinking, effective problem solving and the ability to absorb large amounts of information.
Considering that 3 in 20 UK employers face a digital skills gap, there is an urgency to find skilled digital talent and subsequently a strong business argument for promoting a neurodiverse technology workforce. Neurodiverse people have different lived experiences and can therefore enhance the cognitive diversity of our teams, enabling complex problems to be solved more effectively.
Despite this, neurodiverse talent remains largely untapped by many tech organisations, with neurotypical recruitment and retention practices taking precedence. This is partly due to the term neurodiversity being coined fairly recently in 1998 by Australian Sociologist, Judy Singer. Despite being a relatively new term, neurodiversity has climbed the agenda for some organisations such as GCHQ and Microsoft who have openly pushed for neurodiverse applicants in the hope of diversifying their teams. Yet this approach seems to be an exception rather than a rule.
Specifically targeting and attracting neurodiverse talent must become a tech sector norm, not doing so will significantly risk stifling innovation and productivity.
The need for thinking different
As humans, we lean towards homophily, which means we tend to gravitate towards people who are akin to ourselves with similar lived experiences. This makes us feel more comfortable, as those who think in a similar way are more likely to validate our perceptions and ideas.
Importantly however, homophily often leads to poor decision making. In his book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed argues how a lack of cognitive diversity in teams undermines potential for success. Syed suggests that when individuals are brought together who have different lived experiences and different approaches, accuracy of solving complex problems increases by up to 15%. The same theory can be applied to coming up with creative ideas or innovation; all integral components of a progressive tech sector.
Given that only 1 in 10 HR professionals consider neurodiversity in their people management practices, it does not come as a complete surprise that just one in five people with autism in the UK are in any form of employment. In reality, this figure may be even higher, given that many people with autism are undiagnosed.
When neurodiverse people are hired, studies have shown impressive results; Hewlett Packard Enterprise kick-started and subsequently monitored a development programme, results of which indicate that teams including neurodiverse developers are 30% more productive than neurotypical teams. Therefore, any digital organisation wishing to foster high performing teams must give ample time and attention to nurturing a neurodiverse talent, but what steps can organisations take to achieve this?
Key steps to nurturing neurodiverse talent
- Inform your people
Getting people in your organisation to think, talk and reflect on how neurodiverse learners can be best supported is integral to creating an environment which will attract and retain neurodiverse talent. For example, encouraging leaders to speak about personal experiences with neurodiversity or making sure line managers have received targeted training on how to understand and cater for different types of neurodiverse behaviours can help cultivate a more open minded and well informed workforce.
It is important to remember that you don’t need to be neurodiverse in order to speak about it. Allyship is key to creating an inclusive culture where people of all backgrounds feel welcomed and supported.
- Create a transparent recruitment approach
Recruitment processes are largely developed with neurotypical audiences in mind. Take live coding interviews as an example; these can be daunting for neurodiverse candidates who may find unprepared circumstances disorientating. A more inclusive approach would be to share briefs in advance.
Organisations must also ensure job adverts or role descriptions don’t inadvertently discriminate against neurodiverse applicants by including a long list of requirements or using generic phrases such as “good communication skills” or “strong teamwork ethic”. Whilst these are useful skills for most roles, they are open to interpretation and could dissuade neurodiverse candidates from applying, even if they are otherwise suitable and skilled.
- Put individuals needs first
Neurodiversity can affect people in a number of ways, meaning there is no one size fits all solution to providing adjustments and support. Reasonable adjustments should be bespoke and subject to personal circumstances, with the aim of creating equitable access to opportunities and optimised working conditions. Conversation is key to understanding how people work best. Simply asking team members whether there are any adjustments or support needed in their role is a good starting point.
However, being inclusive does not need to be reactive; building regular breaks into longer meetings can also make a huge difference for neurodiverse team members who may struggle to focus for longer periods of time. Sometimes it is the small things which make the biggest difference.
- Embed structural inclusion into everything you do
Structural inclusion is about changing our policies, procedures and ways of working to remove barriers to ensure everyone is included and can thrive at work. It is about recognising that processes and systems like these are not neutrally designed, and so they can unfairly benefit some people more than others.
As an example, a panel style progression approach may disadvantage neurodiverse people who struggle with unpredictable social interactions. There may also be lengthy forms and documents to complete which could be a challenge for others, particularly given that neurodiverse people can demonstrate value in different ways. Organisations should consider offering alternative formats such as less formal panel discussions or sharing promotion panel questions in advance.
It is important to recognise that not everyone who is neurodivergent will feel comfortable openly disclosing this information, nor should they feel pressured to do so. Some may not even be aware they are neurodiverse or have received a later in life diagnosis.
Responsibility lies with organisations to create an environment which is open to conversations around neurodiversity should it wish to be disclosed. Beyond creating an environment where neurodiversity can be openly discussed, a more proactive approach of equipping managers to be able to spot and manage any neurodiverse nuances is key.
Being able to interpret behaviours and manage people in the right way will benefit all groups by generating higher performing teams, greater productivity and building our individual empathy for others.
Whilst these recommendations are agnostic to all sectors, the digital skills gap means the tech industry must be hyper proactive when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Alternative thinking and thought processing is a must. To disregard the neurodiverse talent pool would be foolish for any organisation wishing to thrive in today’s tough economic conditions.
Selina Starflinger is a Senior Consultant at AND Digital