Breaking down Barriers: Embracing Neurodiversity in STEM for a Brighter Future

Breaking down Barriers: Embracing Neurodiversity in STEM for a Brighter Future

Diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives often prioritise gender over neurodiversity, despite the fact that 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent.1

“Neurodivergence” describes cognitive function and behaviours which diverge from the ‘typical’. The term, which often serves as an umbrella term covering many neurological differences such as attention deficit (ADD, ADHD), autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s Initiatives around neurodiversity in the STEM sector, suggests the sector is looking to recognise and value a wider range of neurological difference. Employers in the STEM sector can benefit greatly from fostering a neurodiverse workplace.

The digital skills gap

As we have noted in our newsletter previously, the UK’s digital skills gap – the inability to access skilled professionals with the proper knowledge and experience in emerging technologies – is an ongoing and significant obstacle for UK-based STEM companies and the UK economy as a whole; ultimately, companies need a wider talent pool of STEM candidates. There are many ways to do this and, while this issue cannot be resolved overnight, widening the net to a more neurodivergent pool of candidates is one way in which the sector may be able to close the gap. Inevitably, neurodivergent employees bring unique skills to roles such as problem solving, pattern recognition and data analysis, all of which are essential across STEM industries.

What is needed?

The key starting point for companies to attract neurodivergent talent is to implement inclusive and accessible hiring practices. There are many organisations that can support companies in this aim. See, for example: Scottish Autism, National Autistic Society and Scottish ADHD Coalition.

Employers may also consider partnerships with recruitment organisations which specialise in neurodiverse talent and perhaps focus on recruiting based on skills and competencies, rather than traditional qualifications. Employers should also make reasonable adjustments in the recruitment stage for candidates who require “reasonable adjustments” as part of the recruitment process, particularly where they have cited a specific disability (companies are of course legally obliged to do this for candidates possessing a disability in accordance with the Equality Act). Employers should never assume that adjustments are required but should be ready to offer alternative recruitment practices such as extra time for timed exercises or the provision of assistive technology.

Employers should continue implementing reasonable adjustments as requested for neurodivergent employees even after the recruitment stage, and continue these measures throughout their employment. One way to create this inclusive environment is for employers to provide training for all employees to increase awareness and understanding of neurodiversity in order to foster an inclusive workspace for all employees.

Part of this training could include the importance of clearly communicating expectations and awareness that neurodivergent individuals may interpret information differently, an open and inclusive workplace should allow for neurodivergent individuals to express their needs and preferences, as well as giving feedback on mechanisms in place in the workplace and suggestions for improvement.

Another way to support neurodivergent employees is to create a flexible work environment which accommodates different work styles and preferences such as being open to offer flexible hours, home based working and customised workspaces. Similarly, employers should provide reasonable adjustments during employment where required, such as assistive technology, quiet workspaces or modified working schedules to ensure that neurodivergent employees have equal opportunities for success.

Regarding performance and appraisals, employers should evaluate performance based on individual contributions and achievements rather than conformity to traditional norms. Thus, the employer would be fostering an environment where the unique strengths and talents that neurodivergent individuals bring to the workplace are celebrated.

Promoting neurodiversity in the STEM sector not only contributes to a more inclusive and equitable workplace – widening the pool of talent and working to close the digital skills gap – but it also brings diverse perspectives and innovative thinking to the workplace, which can be particularly beneficial in fields that thrive on creativity and problem-solving, such as companies operating in the STEM sector.

For further information around neurodivergence in the workplace, see Autism Understanding Scotland’s Information for Employers.

This update contains general information only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice.

Dawn Robertson, Partner & Accredited Specialist in Employment Law: / 0131 222 3242 / Connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

Kimberley Tochel, Trainee Solicitor: / 0141 221 8012Connect with Kimberley on LinkedIn

1Victoria Knight published August 09, 2023, Tech Radar