Neurodiversity in STEM: The key to a more inclusive and successful workplace

Row of diverse employees
(Image credit: Shutterstock / elenabsl)

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) are no longer simply recruitment jargon, but a key driver for innovation and growth in STEM and other industries. Yet, many organizations still view DE&I as one-dimensional, often overlooking what a diverse and equitable workforce looks like in practice.

As an example, DE&I initiatives often prioritise gender over neurodiversity, despite the fact that 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent. To truly challenge traditional assumptions and foster innovation, companies must broaden their definition of diversity and embrace new ways of thinking.

By doing so, they can tap into a wider talent pool and unique skills not found within existing teams. This is particularly critical in industries like STEM, with diverse perspectives paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries and technological advancements that positively impact society.

Expanding DE&I beyond gender

Focusing solely on gender in DE&I overlooks the value of neurodiversity, which encompasses unique cognitive differences that can bring fresh perspectives and innovative problem-solving skills. Individuals who are neurodivergent, like those with dyslexia, ADHD or autism, have unique strengths and talents that are often missed by organizations that fail to recognize their potential contributions.

Only 16% of UK adults with autism are in full-time employment, emphasizing the need to prioritize this pillar of diversity. To achieve true inclusion and gain a digital advantage, businesses must expand the conversation beyond gender and adopt a 360-degree view that considers all aspects of humanity.

Research has shown that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams, and that creating a more inclusive environment for neurodivergent individuals can lead to higher employee retention and satisfaction. By prioritizing neurodiversity as part of their DE&I efforts, organizations not only enhance their workplace culture and attract a diverse talent pool, but also drive better business outcomes.

Victoria Knight

Victoria Knight is Strategic Campaigns Director for BAE Systems Digital Intelligence.

Bridging the UK’s digital skills gap

The UK’s digital skills gap poses a major obstacle for employers and the economy at large, with a shortfall of over 173,000 STEM workers exacerbating this challenge due to the difficulties in finding candidates with the right skills. In critical industries, our recent research shows that 97% of decision-makers admit a shortage of talent is hindering their ability to gain a digital advantage.

While this problem cannot be solved overnight, leveraging the skills of the neurodivergent talent pool can improve our chances of closing the skills gap. They bring unique skills to roles, such as problem solving, pattern recognition and data analysis, all of which are essential across STEM industries.

These abilities are particularly crucial in cybersecurity, where staying ahead of the adversary is imperative. Organizations must approach problems innovatively, seeking solutions that may not be considered by other teams. This calls for diversity of thought, not only from individuals of different backgrounds, but also from those who process information and analyze situations in different ways.

Empowering a neurodivergent workforce

To accelerate neurodiversity, it is essential to create a workplace environment that values and encourages different approaches to learning and collaboration. This includes addressing the needs of neurodiverse employees, who often have different working styles and preferences.

Organizations can foster a more inclusive workplace culture by implementing simple accommodations, such as adjusting office lighting, using specialized filters for screens and providing spaces that reduce sensory issues. It is crucial that companies do not just hire neurodivergent talent to boost diversity numbers, but adapt to their needs and tailor work practices accordingly.

Emotional support is also vital, particularly for those who find it challenging to regulate their emotions. Companies must establish structures that cater to all types of differences and disabilities, including employee resource groups that offer support to neurodiverse and disabled employees.

Essentially, supporting neurodiversity requires a holistic approach that extends beyond physical accommodations, involving individuals, teammates, employers and leaders within a business. It is crucial for organizations to make an effort to raise awareness of neurodiversity and educate employees on adapting to ways of working which are inherently inclusive. By doing so, we can ensure that neurodivergent individuals are able to thrive in an equitable environment.

Embracing the future of neurodiversity in STEM

It is important to recognize that neurodiversity is not a deficit or a disorder, but a difference that provides individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. In the same vein, neurodiversity in STEM should not be viewed as a box-ticking exercise, but rather as an opportunity to leverage these unique talents, unlock new opportunities and bridge the widening digital skills gap.

By fostering a more inclusive environment that supports neurodiverse individuals, companies can tap into a vast talent pool, drive innovation, improve profitability and, ultimately, deliver better customer outcomes. Celebrating and embracing neurodiversity isn't just the right thing to do, it is also a smart business decision that benefits everyone involved.

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Victoria Knight is Strategic Campaigns Director for BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. Victoria has over 20 years of experience in the tech sector across strategic development, leadership, digital skills growth, diversity and inclusion.