Diversity matters: what neurodiversity can teach us about gender lens investing
In 2019, at the age of 54, my husband Daniel was diagnosed as autistic.
Daniel has been autistic his whole life, but until that point, he had assumed that everyone experienced the world the same way he did: from the intensity of sensory stimuli like sound, to frustrations with communication. He just thought they were more okay with it than he was. The diagnosis helped him realise that his experience of the world was in fact different to other people’s — and all the ways that the world wasn’t built to meet the needs of people like him.
Daniel has always been conscious of sexism and its impacts on women — and only more so since we started dating 24 years ago, as he has followed my work in gender lens investing. But his experiences over the last two years since his diagnosis have led us both to reflect on the parallels between how the world marginalises neurodiverse people and how it marginalises women — as well as the benefits of learning from people who have different life experiences and perspectives than you do.
Here are some of the things we’ve learned.
Diversity brings new skills and perspectives.
Daniel’s different brain wiring means that he sees things, big and small, that I don’t. In the context of our marriage, I benefit from his incredible memory, attention to detail, and visual acuity. He is the kind of person who doesn’t just read the instruction book — he also notices the places where the instruction book has gotten it wrong. In turn, he benefits from my creativity, optimism, and belief that all things are possible.
Just like you can’t generalise about people across gender or ethnicity, you can’t generalise about autistic people. There is a saying that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. But it’s also true that I feel I benefit massively from having a neurodiverse person in my life, in the same way that I wish businesses would see the benefits of having gender diversity on their teams. I benefit from Daniel’s different way of looking at problems, and his ability to zoom out and see how all the pieces fit together before zooming back in to address each detail.
Other forms of diversity aren’t based in the brain in the same way that neurodiversity is, but it is still the case that businesses can benefit from fully including people with different perspectives and experiences.
Both neurodiverse people and women experience blocks that people in the dominant group don’t notice.
The challenges women entrepreneurs and fund managers face in accessing capital are well documented: and although we know that bias plays a role, we also know it’s not the full story. As Daniel points out, in the UK especially, the “old boys network” often literally went to school with each other, which means that they speak a common, culturally-specific language that is difficult for outsiders to understand or participate in. To them, the rules of engagement are instinctive and unspoken; to others they are impenetrable.
Similarly, the unspoken cues that non-autistic people use in conversation — the way we speak in generalities and layered meanings — can be frustrating and challenging for autistic people, who think and speak with specificity and literality. The more conscious we are about how language can be exclusionary, the more we can adjust our language to be inclusive to all people at the table. In an investment context, that means the old boys’ unspoken inner-circle language can be modified and fixed, if you’re committed to gender equality. It also means cultivating an awareness that the things we accept as “normal” are actually culturally specific.
In both cases, there is a tendency to blame difference on the non-dominant group.
Psychologists often describe autistic people as having a deficit in social communication — even though, as Daniel points out, non-autistic people miscommunicate with one another all the time (it’s the major theme in art, music, and literature around the world and throughout history). Similarly, when investors talk about the funding gap for women entrepreneurs, there is a tendency to blame it on women not having enough confidence or ambition, or not being in the right circles — even though women are excluded from those circles.
In both cases the assumption is that the person who is in the non-dominant group needs to change, adapt, or be fixed, rather than the dominant group changing to be more inclusive to people whose insights and ideas they would benefit from.
What we’re really talking about is equity.
There is a school of thought that equality means treating all people the same way and measuring everyone by the same benchmarks. But this is a fiction, and one that often ends up reproducing inequality.
We are not all the same: we have different brain chemistry, bodies, life experiences, and access to opportunities, and exposures to bias that make our needs different. The answer isn’t to treat everyone exactly the same. It is to pay attention to each person’s unique skills, needs, and contributions.
I think of the famous equality vs equity cartoon, that shows three people — one tall, one short, and one in a wheelchair — trying to watch a football game over a fence. If you give them all the same size box to stand on, the tall person has a clear view, the short person can barely see the game, and the person in the wheelchair can’t get off the ground. For true equity, the first person needs to be standing on the ground, the second person needs two boxes, and the third person needs a ramp.
Wherever you are on your diversity journey, we all have room to grow.
As switched on as I like to think I am about diversity, equity, and inclusion, I am constantly learning new things that make me rethink my assumptions: about race, about gender identity, and now about neurodiversity.
Daniel’s diagnosis has driven that home for me, giving me a little bit of insight into what it’s like for someone who thinks they are switched on when it comes to gender equity, but in fact isn’t. I am having a visceral experience of understanding how the world is designed for neurotypical people, in the same way that I want other people to have a visceral experience about the way the world is designed for cis white men. I still get a lot of things wrong. They will too.
At its best, having this new perspective on the world is eye-opening, and I wish that I could give the experience to everyone — especially those I want to wake up on gender equity in the same way.
Other times, it is painful to come face to face with the areas in which I am ignorant. But it is always beneficial, and I think that empathy and open-mindedness is what’s going to help us solve the problems that we need to address.