For women with Asperger’s, the workplace can be a very isolated place. Organizations are social environments, which is uniquely challenging for Aspie Women. In the workplace, women tend to form cliques, social groups, and tribes that neurotypical women are more naturally enabled to understand and navigate. In organizations that I have observed, there is a distinct social stratum among women with unclear directions and stumbling blocks for women with Asperger’s.
A couple of thoughts. First, it is important to remember that Aspie women realize there are social structures that neurotypicals are effectively able to navigate. While the Aspie Woman may choose to ignore the structure or get along the best she can in these environments; these difficulties erode self-esteem and cause a lot of stress. It’s waring and exhausting. Second, self-care is a tremendous consideration for coping.
From My Own Experience
I know from my own experience that despite having excellent qualifications, years of experience, and multiple degrees, it is true that most women with Asperger’s report difficulties in getting and keeping employment, which is supported by a study done by Yale’s Kevin Pelphrey, who is a leading researcher at Yale’s renowned Child Study Center. Aspie women tend to be highly intelligent, dialed into specific interests that don’t fit well in overly social environments, and from my own perspective, work more effectively in male-dominated fields and work situations.
Having lived this journey of trying to gain perpetual acceptance at work and from other women, I can share some insights that will be helpful for mothers of girls with Asperger’s in preparing them for employment. As an organizational researcher, and former Human Resources Director, I have gleaned additional insights that will be helpful, as well.
Aspie Women are Different
Asperger’s syndrome symptoms present much differently in females than males.
From Kevin Pelphrey’s recent study, he found that Aspie girls’ brains looks like that of a typical boy of the same age, with reduced activity in regions normally associated with socializing. “They’re still reduced relative to typically developing girls,” Pelphrey said, but the brain-activity measures they show would not be considered “autistic” in a boy. “Everything we’re looking at, brain-wise, now seems to be following that pattern,” he adds. In short, the brain of a girl with autism may be more like the brain of a typical boy than that of a boy with autism.”
In my own study that phenomenologically explored the Lived Experience of Mothers of Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, I support these statements. Mothers I interviewed generally indicated that the girls were less social, did not bond the same way socially with other girls, and were especially combative with other females in authority.
Having lived this journey myself, I can tell you that I have struggled socially at school and work. I have experienced firsthand that there is a complex social register among female tribes in the workplace. I have spent many years observing these tribes and collecting and analyzing data regarding my observations.
Here are some strategies that I have picked up over the years working in various organizations in all kinds of industries that will help parents prepare their Aspie girl for the neurotypical workplace.
1. Aspie Women are social
Aspie women are striving to gain acceptance and wish to be socially accepted on some level. It is very frustrating to work in a socially constructed workplace and to be ostracized or left out by others. For females especially, extra time and consideration needs to be provided in supporting other women.
In the workplace, human resources directors and female managers also need to pay closer attention to creating accommodations and not contributing to social isolation of other females. I am aware of workplace situations in which the human resources director herself was promoting unfair social conduct among female social groups.
Include Aspie Women for their unique contributions rather than ostracizing. Establish female mentors for other women.
2. Know your personality type
My personality platform is INTJ (introversion, intuition, thinking, judgment) which is an abbreviation used in the publications of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and refers to one of the 16 psychological types. Women of this personality type are especially rare, forming just 0.8% of the population. Knowing my type has certainly helped me understand my strengths and limitations in the workplace as I can identify other individuals with the same type.
This has also been helpful because there are career suggestions that go with each type, so if parents are struggling to help their child identify a career path – knowing the type can help eliminate less favorable options. Here is a free non-clinical test that you can take to inventory your personality. http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp Consider using this test to overlap characteristics of your daughter’s personality with her interpersonal strengths and career goals.
3. Pay attention to perseveration
Having raised my son with autism, I honed in on his areas of perseveration from an early age. He was encouraged to pursue areas of intense interest. He really loved working with animals. I did research into these areas for him to identify potential career paths. Now he is becoming certified to run his own dog walking business. He will perform this role very well because he has been learning about and caring animals from a very young age.
My Aspie husband is a Software Engineer. This technology field is one to which he has gravitated to from a very young age. Following this type of code-driven career has enabled him to excel. He works remotely and enjoys interacting with colleagues who share similar interests and routines.For Aspie Women, consider your daughter’s interests. If she is interested in technology—encourage her pursuit of this field.
Your daughter is likely incredibly smart and likely focused on a specific interest. Nurturing this intensity will help her become an expert in this field. As she becomes an expert, she will fit in more effectively because she will be contributing to advancing her work and less anxious about not fitting in with social complexity.
4. Explain the social landscape
Take time to explain the social strata to your daughter. She is observing. She is trying to figure things out. She needs to be socially equipped prior to going into the workplace. And this extends to developing networks. Aspie Women have a difficult time enjoying the benefits of networking which is so vital for how neurotypicals advance at work. Please understand this and help your daughter find a network where she can contribute and develop social connectivity.
5. Join industry associations early
As your daughter is preparing for her job, there are associations that she might join in her specific area of interest. For example, if your daughter is interested in engineering and she joins an association for engineers, she will gain a professional foothold with other professionals who share the same passion. There are excellent clubs for female engineers. Shared passion, energy, and time are excellent methods to grow professional capital.
6. Consider alternative work arrangements
I know that working remotely has been beneficial to individuals with Asperger’s. Depending on the industry, working from home, meeting through Zoom, and uploading work to cloud-based environments offers a lot of flexibility and social balance. My son attended an online high school. My husband works remotely.
I teach online classes. I communicate through online chats and virtual meetings. I provide training through Learning Management Systems. These kinds of tech tools have been vital in enabling me to work. Communication is work-driven. I don’t get caught up in trying to navigate the social landscape. I can concentrate on doing my job.
Teach your daughter these types of technologies early. Sometimes the social atmosphere can become so disruptive that it is difficult to concentrate. Navigating the social complexities of the workplace can be very overwhelming for the Aspie Woman.
7. Acknowledge your strengths
Working as a woman in most organizations is difficult enough without the added anxieties involved with managing the social challenges associated with Asperger’s syndrome.
Because Aspie Women are generally under-researched, over-burdened, rare, and vulnerable, these complexities make us susceptible to workplace bullying and other social stressors. Even though you are more likely to find us in information technology (IT) departments, engineering professions, mathematics, and on university campuses, you will surely notice us if we are working as receptionists, teachers, or generalists. We are hiding in plain sight.
I, for one, would love to see women valuing other women at work. We all have strengths. Most of the neurotypical women that I have interviewed share some of the same challenges mentioned in this article. It is time to be less adversarial and more supportive of all of our colleagues and prepare Aspie Girls for excellent careers.
Sharon Link, Ph.D. is the lead principal consultant for Leadership via Design and senior learning strategist for SharonLinkPhD.com. She holds a PhD in Leadership from Gonzaga University, an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Human Resources, and a B.A. in Education. After serving as a Human Resources Director for several years, administering HR training, compliance management, and onboarding, Dr. Link worked as a classroom teacher with K-12 students and graduate students at various universities. Since then, she has focused on teaching adult learners throughout the country for a variety of organizations.
At Leadership via Design, Dr. Link provides instructional design consulting, leadership development with an emphasis for women, and course development for a variety of different industries. Her passions are leading, teaching, researching, and writing.
This article was featured in Issue 71 – Navigating A New Year