Neurodiversity may be the most invisible diversity dilemma facing the industry but it is nonetheless urgent. Expecting the workforce to conform to one definition of normal is not only hindering progress on diversity, it is stifling creativity and having a negative impact on business outcomes.
As Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, explained as she shared her own experiences of overcoming and embracing the challenges of being dyslexic: "If we are all the same how can we think differently?"
With this in mind, here are five key takeaways from the event:
1. Build cultures which allow people to bring their ‘whole self’ to work
Bringing your whole self to work is more than just business jargon. According to data from Creative Equals, when people say they feel more included at work they are 45% more happier at work and 48% less likely to leave a company. In essence, creating a culture that embraces neurodiversity is more than window dressing; it is a route to creating a fulfilling, positive workplace.
Neil Miliken, head of accessibility and digital inclusion at Atos, adds that technology is also putting up barriers for people. "There is an $8trillion market for accessible products, we are consumers too so make your products work for us makes sense for everyone." Miliken believes that forcing people to conform is forcing people to fail. Driving the accessibility agenda can start from simple steps like keeping language simple and clear and killing Captchas. "It’s not the people who are broken, it's the process," he adds.
2. Embrace the role of media and creativity as an engine of change
Sulaiman Khan, founder and chief purpose officer at ThisAbility, says that not seeing anyone like himself in the industry was isolating. He says: "There are many forms of diversity, some of which are not visible. All disabilities are important in the workplace. One is not greater than the other."
The media and advertising industry have a unique role in pushing change on attitudes to neurodiversity and disability. Sam Phillips, chief marketing officer Omnicom Media Group and chair of OPEN (Omnicom People Engagement Network) UK, pointed to the example of Channel 4 as evidence of the business benefits of diversity. "If the industry is to reflect Modern Britain then we must show disability in advertising."
3. Bridge the gap between policy and practice
Quantitative data from the Creative Equality Standard underlines the small changes that companies can make to build more inclusive spaces. Responses included: "I have autism I hate this open plan office it’s so noisy" and "I need private quiet rooms where I don’t get distracted. I have dyslexia so my attention span is really short".
Moving the dial can also start by partnering with Auticon, an organisation which exclusively employs autistic adults as IT and compliance consultants. Ray Coyle, chief executive at the group, says the vast majority of their employees would not make it through the recruitment processes at many organisations. However, once reasonable adjustments are made they thrive.
"If you can create an environment where there is understanding and make small adjustments you can make the workplace more open. The question is why wouldn’t you make a reasonable adjustment?"
Indeed, Microsoft has had huge success in hiring autistic talent to drive creativity and provide new ways of addressing technical problems.
4. Redefine what it means to be a role model
The emotional power of bringing your whole self to work was evident in panel discussions in which industry leaders shared their own challenges publicly, often for the first time. Laura Chamberlain, the managing director of Now, spoke movingly about the fact that despite she is 40 she has never spoken publicly about her dyslexia. "There is a whole host of things that I can’t do, my spelling is awful but let’s talk about what we can do better. A lot of the coping mechanisms I have developed have helped me; I’m better at proofing than most neurotypicals because I assume everything is wrong."
Chamberlain talked of the power of building on this resilence and show new role models. "It is important to be honest instead of hiding it for fear of being judged, or not being the perfect suit. I feel compelled to tell people."
For Ellie Gerszt, senior partnership at NABS, the coping mechanisms she had developed to hide her Aspergers were exhausting. Using the analogy of "coming out" to describe how she shared her story at work, she explained: "I needed to be able to look myself in the eyes in the mirror and be comfortable in who I am. I had been wrong to hide my disability. I needed to choose what I was and was not prepared to be and what I was not."
She adds: "I’m incredibly lucky to work somewhere where I felt comfortable enough to come out - most people don’t have that. So if I can’t, who can?" Advising companies how to be more inclusive, she says, is simply about being a good human. "In terms of what you can do, be kind, leave the door open. Just make sure the questions that you ask are open. In the end it all comes down to being kind," she adds.
5. Stop defining people by what they can’t do
Roxanne Hobbs, founder of the Hobbs Consultancy, says that we need to "stop defining people by what they can’t do".
A view also reinforced by Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line Group, who says that the greatest innovation in marketing will come "from the edges" making embracing neurodiversity a business priority. He said: "The world is changing faster than ever but specifically for the marketing industry we are being asked to be both left and right brain but that full spectrum doesn’t exist in one brain."
This is a state of play which he believes means everything in the middle (the repetitive tasks) will be done by AI. He adds: "Where is the innovation going to come from? It’s going to come from the edges."
Indeed, rather than being a box-ticking exercise building an inclusive culture can help guard against the malaise of groupthink and an ecosystem in which everyone thinks the same.
James Hilton, co-chief creative officer at Native, says that inclusion is the secret to creativity. "The task is to depathologise anything outside of what society constitutes is ‘normal’", he says, adding that it is damaging to force people to conform to the same neurological standards. "In the absence of diversity businesses wither. Diversity is only useful when it is inextricably linked to equality," he explains.