×

Category: Diversity

The Disability Price Tag

How bad service design punishes those with a disability.

If you’ve never heard of the ‘Disability Price Tag’; the simplest way to describe it is that it’s the price you pay for costly mistakes due to symptoms of (or a byproduct of) your disability.

An image by the ADHD treatment centre describing the common issues that cause the 'ADHD tax'
The ADHD tax – as described by the ADHD Treatment Centre

People with ADHD are so often hit by the disability price tag; it’s been nicknamed the “ADHD Tax“, some obvious examples of this are parking and traffic tickets, late fees, high interest debt (i.e. credit cards), and low credit score (leading to higher interest debt, inability to get loans, problems renting apartments and buying cars, etc.) But this isn’t the only way people with disabilities are being hit financially.

Heating, insurance, equipment and care cost’s are all higher for people with Disabilities; and the Scope Extra Cost Commission in 2014 found that people with a Disability faced an extra £550 a month on their living expenses due to disability-related expenditure. In fact a study in 2015 by MacInnes, T., Tinson, A., Hughes, C., Born, T.B., Aldridge, H: Monitoring poverty and social exclusion found the poverty rate among people in families where someone has a disability is 8% higher than of those in families where no one is disabled.

For able-bodied and/or neurotypical folks, these can be really hard to comprehend; and even when they can comprehend the truth is, they have little sympathy for it.

But even if we acknowledge that people with Disabilities face the Disability Price Tag; there’s little recognition of the fact that bad service design can make these problems significantly worse for people with disabilities.

Many companies deliberately make it hard to cancel your subscription after a free trial period; or to register a complaint or appeal an unjustified fine; this is a fact everyone can easily recognise. What people fail to recognise if that this disproportionately affects people with disabilities, who are likely they to find it much harder to navigate these systems.

An image showing some complicated cancellation instructions
Complicated cancellation instructions

Let’s examine an example we’ve been dealing with recently; my family recently paid for parking in Manchester‘s Arndale shopping centre; where they’ve recently swapped their parking system to a new paperless (but still not digital) system.

The new system requires you to enter your Registration number on the machine and pay, but doesn’t issue you a ticket. There are a number of flaws in here that makes this utterly inaccessible and un-user friendly for people; so lets consider the issues this could cause:

  1. You have to guess how long you’ll need to park; if you need longer there is no easy way to top up your time without physically returning to the machine to extend it. Not very practical for those with a physical impairment, or who have caring responsibilities which would make nipping back to the car difficult.
  2. As users aren’t issued a ticket, and the machine doesn’t capture your mobile number or any way of issuing an e-ticket or reminder, users have to remember what time their ticket ends; this is not designed to support those with a cognitive disability which may make remembering information difficult.
  3. The system requires you to enter your registration number from memory; there are no reminders or prompts on the system; which features a normal alpha-numeric keyboard, relying on you to know your registration by heart; which means it can be very easy to enter your registration plate wrong. As the system doesn’t issue you a ticket/receipt; nor does it email you your ticket information, there is no way to check you entered the information correctly. This can easily trip up people with a learning difficulty like Dyslexia, or for those whom the English Alphabet is not their default.

My partner has Dyslexia and ASC and I have ADHD (always a winning combination when it comes to the Disability Price Tag). When we parked and went to purchase the ticket we managed to accidentally mix up the O for a 0; because we didn’t receive a copy of our ticket, we had no way of knowing we’d made this mistake, and simply assumed everything was fine. Upon returning to our car we spotted the fine sitting on the car window. We went to speak to the parking warden, who acknowledged we did indeed have a valid ticket on the system, but that the reg was technically wrong, and therefor we’d been fined. The warden acknowledged this was a very common issue that caught many people out; and recommended we appeal.

Appealing in and of its self is not an easy process; and what many able-bodied and neurotypical folks don’t understand is how much privilege it takes to appeal things; and how many spoons it can take to do so. Lets use our example of the the parking fine again:

  • The details of the fine and how to appeal it was only available on a piece of paper, and you have to wait unto 24hrs for the system to be updated before you can appeal (very easy to lose for those with ADHD etc.)
  • The print is extremely small (not good for those with a visual impairment and/or Dyslexia etc.);
  • and the reference number is not only small but also long and complex (very easy to get wrong for those with Visual Impairments or ADHD/ Dyslexia etc.)

Of course, to make matters more frustrating Manchester City Council then rejected the appeal, saying it’s the users responsibility to make sure they have bought their parking ticket correctly; which is a prime example of the higher price tag people with a Disability can face for doing that so many people would consider relatively simple.

So, how when we’re designing services can we do better? The answer is easy than you think; carry out research and test with users! User research and testing aren’t only applicable when we’re developing web services; they are equally important when developing and rolling out new systems in the physical world. Within Disabled service provision, this co-production of services is being seen as more and more important.

Co-Production is a term used to describe the partnership between people with disabilities or health conditions, carers and citizens and those who develop and run public services. While the upfront costs of co-production may seem higher; by designing services with users needs at the heart, we can significantly reduce the financial and emotional burden inaccessible services place on those with Disabilities; in turn improving their quality and way of life.

Somewhere under the Double Rainbow – Discussing Intersectionality  in the LGBTQIA+ & Neurodivergent community

An infinity symbol in rainbow colours
The rainbow infinity symbol – sometimes used to identify the ‘NeuroQueer’ community

As a queer woman with ADHD, the subject of intersectionality is one I’ve always been interested in.

There have been numerous discussions and studies about the links between people with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) and Gender Dysphoria; with the theory being that there are many Trans/ gender-diverse folks who have ASC; perhaps because (in the words of an acquaintance of mine) “folks with ASC are less likely to just accept societal gender rules without questioning them when they make no logical sense”. This sentiment certainly seems to be backed up by the data; with one study of 641,860 people finding that “about 5%, of the cisgender people in the study had autism, whereas 24% of the gender-diverse people were also Autistic.

I’m Cis and I don’t have ASC; so I’m in no way qualified to comment on any possible links; and why or why not they might exist; and I will leave that conversation to people who are far more informed than I. However, what I can comment on; at least from my looking around my own friendship group and social media; is that there does seem to be a significant overlap between LGBTQIA+ folks and those who are neurodivergent of some flavour or other (although sadly there’s no specific data on this subject). 

3% of people in the UK identify as LGBTQIA+ (according to the ONS; but it’s acknowledged it’s likely to be closer to 10% as underreporting is still an issue due to the amount of stigma that still exists) but let’s just say 3% for now; and 15% of the UK population is estimated to be neurodiverse. There is evidence to suggest that neurodiverse people are more likely to be gender diverse and/or identify as lesbian, gay, queer, or asexual themselves, compared to neurotypical people. One study in 2008 found that more adults with ADHD identified themselves as bisexual compared to individuals without ADHD. Again, the predominate theory as to why more neurodivergent people identify as LGBTQAI+ is that “if you are positioned to question “norms” than you are automatically more willing to embrace a non-conforming gender identity or sexuality.”

Ok, more neurodivergent people identify as LGBTQIA+, so what? 

Well firstly; it’s important to recognise that there are lots of parallels between the experiences of neurodivergent people and LGBTQIA+ people; with some neurodivergent folks describing having to ‘come out‘ at work or to friends/family as neurodivergent; in the same way LGBTQIA+ folks have to ‘come out’ about their sexuality. Interestingly I found it much harder and got much more backlash from my parents when I told them I had ADHD than I did when I told them I was Queer. 

Being Neurodiverse, like being LGBTQIA+, also still comes with a lot of stigma; and both neurodiverse and LGBTQAI+ folks still face a lot of discrimination. There are ‘charities’ and organisations out there dedicated to finding a ‘cure’ for folks with ASC just like there are for ‘curing’ or finding the ‘cause’ of being Queer; with conversation therapy being a harmful ‘tool’ used against both neurodiverse and LGBTQIA+ people in an attempt to ‘normalise’ them.  

Secondly, it’s important to recognise that because of the above; folks who are both neurodivergent and Queer (I’ve seen this referred to in some circles as being NeuroQueer) can face double the amount of prejudice, discrimination and hurdles to overcome. As the Equality Network explains; “having an intersectional identity often generates a feeling that someone does not completely belong in one group or another, and can lead to isolation, depression and other mental health issues.” 

Many LGBT-focused organisations sadly have little knowledge of, for example, disability or race issues, which can lead to people feeling excluded or shut out of the community. In 2019 Brighton Pride faced accusations of running an inaccessibly pride event, with disabled LGBTQIA+ folks feeling excluded from attending; and they weren’t the only one facing this accusation. This has led to an increasing number of conversations happening recently about how to make Pride events inclusive to people with disabilities. 

Recognising the importance of intersectional inclusivity, “several organisations and groups in the UK have been set up to specifically cater to Queer disabled people’s needs, like Brownton Abbey, “where queer, black and brown disabled folks reign supreme”, ParaPride, who work with venues to improve accessibility, and LGBTQ+ Disabled Queer and Hear.” 

But this isn’t just something that LGBTQIA+ or Neurodiversity focused organisations need to consider; it’s also equally important for every businesses to recognise the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality when they are considering how they support their staff; or develop services for people to use. As an example, addressing issues that may affect the recruitment or retention or promotion of LGBTQIA+ folks in a way that’s not inclusive of neurodiverse people will likely not have the impact you’re hoping for; and vice versa. Sadly, only 1 in 10% organisations in the UK take neurodiversity into consideration as part of their people management procesess; and this lack of support is likely to impact Queer staff more.

As it’s Pride Month, and many organisations are considering how they support LGBTQIA+ folks better; it’s extremely important that we focus on creating inclusive environments that respect every part of people’s identity rather than focusing on singular elements of it. 

A brain in rainbow colours
A rainbow brain

(Race is another important area of intersectionality that I haven’t touched on in this blog; as a white person I’m really not qualified to comment on that so, I won’t touch on that here and will instead provide some links below and defer that topic to those with more lived experience and knowledge of the issues that need addressing.) 

Other useful links:

The managers guide to understanding ADHD

(and why it’s often misunderstood for CIS women in particular)

Let’s talk about ADHD

We’ve all seen characters with ADHD on TV and in books etc, try and think of a few examples and I bet they all fit in one stereotypical box; “the naughty young white boy acting out in class”. But not only is this stereotype wrong, it’s actually really harmful!

Calvin and Hobbs
Calvin and Hobbs (Calvin is a ‘typical’ boy with ADHD

Historically ADHD was seen as only (or as least predominantly) affecting boys (often white boys, but that’s a whole other subject I’m not qualified to talk about), but evidence shows that many girls do have ADHD, however it is often the inattentive presentation of ADHD which tends to be under-recognised or under-diagnosed, because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical (hyperactive) trope and kids with it aren’t causing problems in the classroom etc; instead they’re just being labelled as ‘day dreamers’ and are left to slowly fall behind or put under pressure to sort themselves out with no support.

Ironically, whilst the Hyperactive/impulsive symptoms are more well-known, due to being more visible, they are in-fact less common than inattentive ones, both for women and adults in general. These symptoms often become more “internal” when they persist; as adults learn to manage their hyperactivity; which historically led medical practitioners to believe that ADHD symptoms decreased after childhood, which is now known to be incorrect. Currently 2.8% of adults in the UK have ADHD, but many are undiagnosed and the number of adult diagnosis’s is increasing every year; it is believed that as many as 1 in 20 adults in the UK are likely to have ADHD.   

So, what is ADHD?

ADHD as a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s executive functions. Executive functions are the cognitive processes that organises thoughts and activities, prioritises tasks, manages time efficiently, and makes decisions. They’re basically the little office manager that lives in our heads.

Research suggests that many people with ADHD tend to be perfectionists who fear getting things wrong; they struggle to cope with failure or letting others down. Most people with ADHD are seen to be extremely empathetic to others’ emotions and suffer from Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations; being rejected or criticized by important people in their life.)

Many people with ADHD struggle with procrastination issues; at one time this was seen as people with ADHD being ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ however, research has shown that due to issues with executive functioning, people with ADHD struggle with ‘knowing where to begin’. When the size or scale of the work needed to complete things is ‘too big’, or ‘there is too much to do’ they are unable to start for fear they won’t be able to finish and will only fail or disappoint. 

This often leads to people with ADHD leaving everything to the end when a deadline looms or the amount of work becomes overwhelming, and the work cannot be delayed any longer. From the outside it can be viewing as everything being ‘rushed’ at the end rather than logically planned and spaced out to give enough time. 

However, this ‘scramble’ to complete work before a deadline, will produce a larger dopamine release as the brain views it as a bigger win vs. a scheduled timely plan, which will produce less dopamine, and therefor offer less ‘reward’. Studies suggest that ADHD brains have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain that allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. It’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.)

Due to this inability to regulate dopamine properly, ADHD brains are constantly seeking more; leaving people with ADHD with the constant desire to move from task to task, focusing on ‘the most interesting’ or ‘most urgent’ work which will offer the greatest feeling of reward; and struggling to start or complete ‘boring’ or ‘mundane’ tasks that aren’t interesting and don’t offer the ‘dopamine hit’. 

Many people with ADHD also have Sensory Processing Disorder, which means they could be ‘over-stimulated’ by sounds, sights or smells, with unexpected noises or changes in light levels etc. causing sensory overload and breaking their concentration or making it harder to focus.

How to best support employees with ADHD

Because ADHD is so misunderstood, many employers worry about disclosing their ADHD status; and many employers struggle to understand how to best support their staff. Studies suggest that adults with ADHD are change jobs frequently and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers; but employees with ADHD can thrive in the right environments and with the right support. There are many useful places out there offering advice on how to best tailor workplace environments so as to take the best advantage of people with ADHD’s strong points (such as their creativity or people skills), whilst also minimising any negative impacts of their ADHD; and I’ve captured many of the commonly agreed useful strategies below.

But as an employee or manager, there here are a couple of important things to note:

  • Many people (between 25-50%) with ADHD also suffer from sleep issues; and many ADHD medications can make these issues worse.
  • While ADHD medication can be beneficial in helping combat the symptoms of ADHD, medical titration can be a long process which can cause some symptoms to get worse before they get better and have many side effects.

The Scottish ADHD coalition wrote this guide for employers which offers helpful advice and guidance.

Some helpful strategies people with ADHD use: 

  • Having clear priorities, reviewed daily; with no more that 5 items on to complete at any one time. 
  • Making colour-coded lists and notes, to make it easy to find information easily. 
  • Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks that can be tackled independently rather than all at once. ADHD brains tend to work best in 15 minute intervals; many people with ADHD find setting a timer for 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one task; then when the timer chimes, deciding if they have the energy to continue on that task or, if completed, start a new timer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. If they still feel motivated, resetting the timer and continue working in short intervals for as long as they can.
  • Avoiding multi-tasking. This is more likely to lead to distraction; only work on one thing at any time (working in 15 min chunks where possible). 
  • Setting time-limits for decision making. 
  • Setting a ‘WIP limit’ to avoid over-committing to work, For each new commitment made, giving up an old one.
  • Associating ‘rewards’ with mundane task completion, “if I complete X then I can spend 5 minutes doing Y before I move onto Z”
  • Clustering similar tasks together under the same time umbrella, i.e. Answering emails and returning phone calls once in the morning and once in the afternoon, instead of throughout the day, to avoid getting side tracked from priority work; 
  • Replaying instructions, repeating back verbal instructions, or confirming in writing to ensure they have been understood correctly. 
  • Setting electronic alarms and reminders, to remind them to move onto the next task or meeting. 
  • Setting aside time each day to deal with ‘additional thoughts and ideas that have popped up’ to avoid getting side tracked when completing tasks. 
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones or listening to music when focusing on a task. Research shows that music structure helps the ADHD brain stay on a linear path and address timing deficits.
  • Overestimating how long it will take to complete something, adding at least 10 minutes to how long it will take to finish a task.
  • Building in a 5 minute break between tasks to allow the brain time to reset before focusing on the next thing. 
  • Using a “body double.” Many people with ADHD find when tackling mundane or boring tasks, sitting with someone else who is quietly doing another ‘mundane’ task creates a productive atmosphere.

So, to sum up; Not all folks with ADHD are hyperactive boys. If you have a member of staff who has (or you suspect has) ADHD; great! Research shows employees with ADHD can be more curious, creative, imaginative, innovative, and inventive. They tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers, with an approach that can be highly prized in the workplace.

Any potential weaknesses can be overcome with just a little bit of effort and some open, honest conversations; talk to them, focus on their strengths (there are lots of them) and what they do well; and put some plans in place to help them succeed and you’ll all be happy!

5 positive traits of ADHD.

Neurodiverse parenting

One thing I’ve noticed, since I started blogging and talking more openly about being Neurodiverse myself, is how many people have reached out to me virtually or in real life to chat about how they as parents support their children who are (or might be) neurodiverse.

I’ve spoken publicly many times (especially on twitter) about the journey we’ve been on as a family to get my son’s diagnosis; and to get him the support he needs at school etc. The process to get an EHCP in and of itself was a minefield; and finding a secondary school that could not just ‘cope’ with his ASD and ADHD, but actually allow him to thrive; far harder than it should have been!

Interestingly, since joining Kainos and the Neurodiversity working group, I’ve had a number of colleagues approach me to get advice from someone, or just have someone to talk too; who has a neurodiverse child themselves and is perhaps ‘further along in the process’. Far more people in fact than have contacted me to chat about having ADHD myself.

The official services that exist to support neurodiverse children and their families are massively over subscribed and underfunded so trying to get accurate advice and support isn’t that easy. This leaves many parents and carers relying on the internet for help. If you google “does my child have ADHD or Autism” you’ll get a bazillion results back, and it can be quite overwhelming knowing where to start. They’re a millions of Facebook groups and online forums out there for parents and carers looking for help or advice on how to best support their neurodiverse children. The problem is different countries and regions do things in different ways; so what worked for one family in the US, won’t necessarily work for another family in the UK; heck the process a family in London followed won’t even necessarily be the same process that a family in Manchester has to follow.

Many organisations ask staff to disclose if they are the parent to a child with caring needs; but many parents won’t think about ticking that box unless their child has complex physical healthcare conditions, which can leave them in a tricky position (unless they have an understanding manager) when they start needing time off in order to navigate the confusing waters of getting their child a diagnosis or support for neurodiversity.

When I first started down the diagnosis pathway for my son (over 6 years ago) I was still working in the public sector, and was very lucky to have a line manager who herself was in the process of trying to get a diagnosis for her son; we were able to swap tips and advice; and she was very understanding of the multiple appointments I had to attend to try and get my son help. But I know from talking to other parents, not everyone is that lucky. Many have had to either go part time, or give up work altogether, in order to be able to support their children, let down by the systems that are meant to support them.

As we move into ‘the new world’ post pandemic, so many organisations are recognising the importance of focusing on their culture and their staff’s wellbeing; which is great to see. Within Kainos we’ve been having a number of really good conversations about how we better support our neurodiverse staff to thrive; and how we can create an inclusive culture that ensures ‘our staff who choose to remain working from home for what ever reason are fully supported.

Twitter post announcing the Kainos Neurodiversity Employee Network launch

More companies now a days are prioritising private healthcare as part of their staff offer; however, as ADHD and Autism etc. are not acute disorders; most healthcare insurers don’t cover them, nor will they cover any treatment for conditions relating too or arising from them. The ones slight exception to this seems to be Bupa. Recently, Bupa has removed ADHD from its general restrictions list which means they will now cover mental health conditions (such as anxiety, stress, and depression) even if they relate to or arise from ADHD; and they will also fund diagnostic tests to rule out ADHD when a mental health condition is suspected. 

With waiting lists for adult diagnosis averaging at 2 years+ for the NHS, and 6 months+ for private diagnosis; the picture for children isn’t much better; with the average NHS waiting list being around 18 months; but some trusts have been reporting waiting lists of up to 7 years for diagnosis and titration (where appropriate). Should you choose to go private, the costs for children’s assessments are higher than for adults; with the costs for a child ADHD assessment ranging from £700 to £1,500 for the diagnosis alone; and for ASD the costs range from £1700 to over £3,500; and while the waiting times may be shorter; not all local authorities will accept a private assessment as proof of a diagnosis or eligibility for support.

Leaving aside the process of getting diagnosed; for parents and careers there’s also the stress of trying to get your child the help they’ll need at school. The process of getting an EHCP is a logistical nightmare; and there are whole forums and sites out there dedicated to helping parents figure out how to apply for an EHCP. Even once you’ve managed to figure out how to get the ball rolling, getting the EHCP finalised and put in place as no easy task. While the law states EHCP’s should be finalised within 20 weeks; some local authorities had such large backlogs, even before the pandemic, that the process was reported to be taking over two years to get in multiple areas.

On top of that, a 2012 survey of teachers found that over 70% of mainstream teachers didn’t feel that their training adequately prepared them to teach pupils with special educational needs. It’s possibly no surprise in that case that almost 30% of neurodiverse children in 2019 were being homeschooled; and that number is believed to have gone up during the pandemic.

The pandemic has had another impact on children and young people; with the number of children suffering with mental health issues rising dramatically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that spike has been especially high for neurodiverse children; and that in turn has been impacting their families. One study in particular noted the negative impact the pandemic has had on parents and families of neurodiverse children.

As such, as employers, we need to be considering not only how we best support our neurodiverse staff, but we also need to acknowledge the extra responsibilities and pressures our staff with neurodiverse children might be facing. We need to create a culture that supports them, so that they can balance their work and parental responsibilities successfully without having to worry; enabling them to thrive at home, and at work.

‘The question is who… are you?’

Why being a Leader doesn’t mean not being yourself.

A sign in the woods baring the words, be yourself, everyone else is taken.
Be yourself, everyone else is taken

Chatting to a friend over the weekend, she mentioned her work had been encouraging her to go for more leadership type roles in the last year; but she hadn’t done it so far as she was worried she could never ‘fit in’ or be seen as a leader while she was being herself.

This made me reflect on my career, and when I had those same concerns; and how I over came them.

Back at the start of 2015 I had been working as a Grade 7 for a few years and I was now considering applying for my Grade 6. It’d had taken me a lot of effort and rejection to get my promotion to Grade 7 (I went through seven interviews before I finally got promoted) and I and was worried it would be the same all over again. When I’d first been going for my Grade 7, my manager at the time had tried to tell me I wasn’t leadership material and I’d really struggled to put myself into the professional box I thought leaders in the Civil Service had to fit within; and I was concerned I’d never be able to reach Grade 6 or higher because I just didn’t fit well enough.

My (then) current manager had put my forward for the Crossing Thresholds programme and as I sat with the group of amazing women who were like myself seeking promotion to Grade 6, all I could see was how much more professional they were; how comfortable they seemed to be in their own skin; how obviously they were what Civil Servants should be, and how much I obviously didn’t fit that mould. This wasn’t helped by the fact my previous line manager (who told me I’d never be a leader) was on the same programme as me.

Over the course of the programme we got to work together and get to know each other; and in one of the sessions we had to do some peer feedback 1:1 with each other. One of the other women on the course I’d been utterly enamoured by; she just came across as so cool and calm and together. She exemplified for me what a Civil Servant should be; and what I thought I needed to be in order to pass as a leader. During our 1:1 session as I told her all this, she astounded me by explaining that of everyone on the programme, she was most impressed with me; as I was the most ‘myself’; that I came across as real and approachable and authentic; and how she wished she’d had managers like me as she came up through her career. She was constantly exhausted from trying to pretend to be this perfect person she wasn’t; she was in fact debating leaving the civil service as she no longer felt able to pretend anymore and that I gave her hope that maybe things could change. Dear reader I was floored.

This message was repeated in different flavours throughout the day; even by my previous manager. She apologised and told me how impressed she was to see how I’d progressed, how I’d obviously flourished while remaining myself, and that she encouraged me to keep being myself and wished me luck for my future.

I reflected on that I’d heard from these amazing women, and what I’d observed; and decided that I didn’t want to spend my career pretending to be anyone other than myself, as it was exhausting. As such I attended my first Grade 6 interview sure it would be a car crash as I was determined to be myself; I spoke honestly about my neurodiversity; my strengths and weaknesses. my drives and passions; and made no effort to fit into the box I thought a Grade 6 Civil Servant needed to fit within. To my astonishment I was offered the role the very next day; and in just over a year I was then offered a role at Deputy Director level.

I’ve made a very concerted effort over the last few years to be authentic and myself; including speaking openly and transparently about things like my sexuality, my neurodiversity and my background growing up in a council estate. Because these are all the things that have helped me be me; and as such they are the things that have helped me succeed.

Now that’s not to say I could succeed anywhere and everywhere; some-places I fit, some I don’t. But part of owning who you are, and being true to it; is recognising that to be the best and most honest version of yourself, you need to recognise which environments work for you; and which ones don’t. It’s not a failing to not fit everyone. No one, if they’re being honest, does. The right organisation for you is the one that not only supports you to be yourself, but actively wants it. Because as leaders we know that people who feel able to bring their whole-self to work, are the people who generally work at their best.

Within the Kainos Neurodiveristy community group this week we were discussing personal user manuals and how they can help everyone within a team or organisation feel able to be their best and empower diverse teams to work together in the best possible way for everyone in them. This has reminded me I need to revisit my own user manual from a few years ago and share that with my new teams.

As a wise old monkey once explained to a confused young lion; you have to be true to yourself; so ask yourself, “who are you?”

Rafiki (image from Disney’s the Lion King)

We need to talk about salary

A massive pet peeve of mine is when I see roles that don’t advertise their salary clearly; and I’m aware they are plenty of others out there who share my annoyance. So why aren’t we as employers better about being open about pay?

I think ‘growing up’ in the civil service spoiled me when it comes to salaries, I always knew what grade a job was and what pay-scale that grade came with. When looking for new roles I could easily find out whether the pay-scale in a different department was higher or lower than my current home department, and there was never a need to have any awkward salary conversations as it was all out in the open.

While their were still some awkward gender pay disparity in parts of the civil service, for the most part it didn’t seem like much of an issue (*to me) as everyone working within the same role was generally on the same pay scale, and the slight differences in pay was usually about their length of time in role etc.

Interestingly when I became a Deputy Director and was involved more in recruitment and job offers I saw how complex the issue of salaries could be. While it was relatively easy to benchmark salaries against other departments; and competing with the private sector was never really going to happen; one thing I did spot was the difference in how we treated external vs. internal hires.

While internal promotions went automatically to the bottom of the pay band, external hires could negotiate higher salaries, this was based on the historic view that the private sector paid more so we had to be willing to offer them more money to join the civil service. This obviously did not give parity to people and suggested we prioritised external experience over internal experience. Given that government was forging the path of user centric design and product management; and being recognised around the world as the expert in digital innovation (at least in terms of service design and UCD etc.); it felt ridiculous to me that we weren’t being seen to value that internal expertise when it came to salary.

Thankfully I was able to get HR to agree to trial equal pay flexibility to internal and external hires; so that I could negotiate pay equally with all candidates no much what industry they came from, and base pay decisions solely on their experience and performance during recruitment. This seemed to work really well; our staff satisfaction went up when it came to the staff survey questions about pay and remuneration (almost unheard of) and it decreased the trend of civil servants constantly leaving for the private sector.

I did however notice quickly that male presenting candidates were far more comfortable negotiating than female presenting ones. To combat this when I prepared to offer anyone a role I had a small table that I’d prepared and agreed with HR that showed the candidates score and where that put them in terms of the salary scale we had for the role. This meant if the candidate wasn’t comfortable talking about salary, I could pitch them at the level I thought fair to ensure we were still giving parity to all hires.

Moving to the ‘private’ sector I now try to keep an eye one competitors salaries etc. to ensure I’m still offering a fair salary when hiring; but it’s actually really hard. It’s nigh on impossible to see salaries for other organisations without spending a lot of time doing detective work. Glassdoor and linkedIn both try to show average salaries for job roles via role titles; but there’s so much variety in job roles/ titles and responsibilities that it’s almost impossible to ensure parity.

Lots of companies don’t publicise the salary on their job adverts, and instead want candidates to apply and then discuss salary expectations as part of the early recruitment process. There’s lots of conversations out there on /AskAManager, LinkedIn etc. with people asking for advice on how and when they should bring up salary in the recruitment process. We shouldn’t be making it this hard for people to get a fair wage. There was a thread on twitter last week that highlighted how hard many women find it to know what salary they should be asking for when negotiating pay. This cloud of secrecy is shown to make wage parity/ discrimination higher. Women of colour in particular are shown to be hardest hit by the pay gap.

Theres plenty of studies out there that show that by not talking about salaries openly we are widening the pay gap, and it’s not just hurting our drive for equality, it’s hitting productivity too. Elena Belogolovsky stated in a study for Journal of Business and Psychology: “If I don’t know my co-worker’s pay, I assume that I might not be getting paid as much, and I decrease my performance. When people don’t know each other’s pay, they assume they are underpaid.”

So as an employer what can we do to improve pay transparency and parity?

  • Publicise the salary on all your job adverts. Ideally publicise a pay band to show the scale available to all candidates. Hell if you want a gold star, publicise your pay scales on your company website, whether you’re hiring or not; and publicise it again on all your job adverts.
  • When you’re offering a candidate a role, don’t wait for the candidate to bring up salary, and don’t only negotiate if the candidate asks to; proactively discuss with them what salary you believe is fair and why.
  • If you’re hiring multiple roles, keep track of what salary you have offered to each candidate and ensure all offers are fair and in line with people’s experience. I have previously gone back to a candidate who had accepted a role to offer them a slightly higher salary once I completed a recruitment campaign when I reviewed all the offers and felt based on experience they deserved more than initially agreed. The candidate was astonished as she’d never had anyone feedback to her before that she was worth more than the minimum.

We all need to do better to ensure pay parity. We need to be open about pay and be willing to talk about salaries and what ‘good’ and ‘equal’ looks like.

Having pride in our diversity and learning to be inclusive

June is Pride Month when members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies come together in different ways to celebrate, remember and reflect. As such, now June is over, I wanted to reflect on the things I learnt this year.

Pride and Trans Pride Flags.

This June was a Pride Month like no over, because of COVID-19; lockdown meant that the usual pride marches were cancelled and then moved online.

June was also the month that #BlackLivesMatter came to the forefront of Western consensus because of unforgivable killing of George Floyd in the US, amongst sadly so many others around the globe. With marches and rallies both in the US and UK (and elsewhere) to call for the end of police brutality and discrimination against Black people.

And finally, June (yep, still Pride Month) was when JKR yet again decided to use her platform to gatekeep women’s spaces and to decry the acceptance of trans women as women. (I’m not linking to her article, because I won’t give it airspace, but there are MANY fantastic pieces that explain why this stance is harmful, here’s just one. But the Tl:Dr version is, Trans Women are Women.)

As such, this month, more than any other June that we have seen in a long time, has been one in which the conversations about diversity and inclusion have been so important.

I was asked this month, why diversity and inclusion were important to me?

As the very wise Fareeha Usman, founder of Being women, said “Discrimination can only be tackled if we first tackle our own insecurities.”

Working within and alongside the public sector, we develop policies, products and services for the public; for citizens, for society. We can not develop things for people, if we can not empathise with them; if we can not understand where they are coming from and the problems/ barriers they are facing. The people we are building form come from diverse backgrounds. If our teams all look and sound the same, and have the same life experiences, then we will never be able to deliver things that meet the diverse needs of our users.

Lots of hands coming together with a heart over the top

The Lesbians who tech (and allies) held their annual pride summit from the 22nd to 26th of June, and this year there was a clear focus on #BlackLivesMatter and also #TransWomenAreWomen as well; with a whole host of fantastic speakers discussing actions we can all take to be more inclusive. I was also lucky enough to be asked to speak at a D&I panel* on the 24th held by @SR2 and had the opportunity to attend the Dynamo North East event on the 25th, and to attend several other virtual pride events.

Key things I learned:

  • Locational geo-clusters can be a blocker to diversity and reinforce racial discrimination – @LorraineBardeen
  • When attending a meeting/ workshop or invited to sit on a panel, it’s our responsibility to check who else is ‘in the room’ and see if we are needed there, or is there someone else from a different group who’s voice needs amplifying more than ours. – @JasmineMcElry
  • When awarding contracts we need to look at companies track record on diversity / pay etc. And make sure we are not unconsciously biased against companies that have a makes up that does not match our own. – @SenatorElizabethWarren
  • It is our job to educate ourselves and not ask anyone else to educate us; as leaders our role is to admit we don’t know everything, that we are still learning, and to actively listen to others – @TiffanyDawnson

COVID-19, if nothing else, has given us the opportunity to think about the society we want to see coming out of this pandemic. We have all embraced things like remote working to help us keep working, now is the time to consider whether these tools can also help us going forward to be more inclusive in our workforce, and our society.

Removing the dependance on geographical hiring would enable us to include people from wider ethnic communities, as well as disabled people who have often found themselves excluded from office jobs by the commute etc; or people with caring responsibilities for who the standard 9-5 office job doesn’t work.

A fantastic session led by Nic Palmarini, Director of NICA, on Agism stated that “We need to reimagine a new society that is more inclusive”. This for me sums up the conversations I have seen, heard and been lucky enough to be part of this month; and I am proud to be part of a company, an industry and a community, that is trying its hardest to do just that.

Difrent's Diversity stats
The Diversity stats from Difrent

*If you fancy catching up on the panel, details are here: https://zoom.us/rec/share/7uV5L-rezkhIZZXT8FjFVKQIAZTCeaa82yJI-Pdby0whYlngi4VRx3mii2Gvb-zR Password: 1H+a15=#

Welcome to the Dark Side.

Last week I started working for @BeDifrent, a business transformation agency working with both Public and Private sector clients to help them deliver #TechForGood.

This is a massive change for me, I spent almost 15 years in the Public Sector, I always said I was a public servant for life, and in my heart I am, when people have asked me this week what I do it’s been very odd to not reply “I work in the public sector”.

But the thing is, I still am, Difrent’s clients are predominantly public sector at the moment (at least the ones I’ve been dealing with in my first two weeks). The challenges our clients are facing are so similar to those I’m used to facing, but the opportunities are so much bigger.

At my interview I got asked why I was interested in this role, and my answer was very honest and in two parts.

One, for my career development. I’ve spent three years working at Deputy Director level as a Head of Product in the Public Sector, and I loved my role. Product and Service design are things that I am passionate about, and designing and delivering services to users that really matter, that improve things for them, is the thing that drives me.

But I’d also realised what I did was wider than the label “Head of Product” really allowed for. So much of my effort and time was on the cultural and organisational changes organisations needed to make to enable them to deliver and change into a Product and User led organisation.

Which is what led me to consider Difrent. When I saw the job advertised I did my homework on the company and the people. Who were they? What made Difrent different? Why did they care?

My mentor for years had been recommending I consider doing a stint outside of the public sector to gain experience from the other-side of the table, but the thought had always made me twitch, but what I saw from Difrent’s information, from reading up on the amazing Rachel Murphy and from talking to colleagues who had made the jump into the dark side to both Difrent and other like minded agencies recently made me feel that maybe this was the time to take that leap into the dark.

My focus will be on working with our clients to ensure we can deliver. Supporting our teams and building our capability to ensure we keep doing the right things in the right ways.

So yes, not only will this give me experience on the other side of the contracting table, and the opportunity to see how the other side live. But the public sector still need us suppliers, there will always be short term projects and pieces of work that it makes sense to use suppliers to help with rather than massively increase their headcount’s, and more importantly (for me) we have more flexibility sometimes, the chance to quickly bring in different perspectives and points of view.

Difrent describe themselves as being activists for change and doing the right thing. They are passionate about delivering things that matter, and only working with clients who meet their #TechForGood ethos.

And for me that is Difrent’s main attraction, they want to help bring about that change, to ensure we are delivering the right things in the right way for the right reasons. Advocating and agitating for that change and real transformation.

As someone who talks a lot about finding their tribe, I look around the company and see a lot of great people passionate about delivering real change. It was especially great to see and hear the diversity and inclusion stats for the company being proudly discussed at events. One of the things that attracted me to Difrent is how much they talk about their people, and how important their people are to them, it feels like a real community of people who care. As stated by Dan Leakey, what ever our makeup, Difrent are 100% awesome.

With credit to @RachelleMoose for the inforgraphic

And while it’s only midway through week two, what I’ve seen so far has already made me feel like the dark side is full of bright lights. I’ve spent time in both Newcastle and Blackpool with some of our delivery teams, getting to understand the outcomes we are trying to deliver and why, and how we can best support our clients to meet their user’s needs.

Darth Vader with wings and a halo

So while I do intend to return to the public sector in the future with lots of new great experience under my belt, for now I feel like the message is “welcome to the dark side, we’re not all bad.”

Being a visible leader with an invisible disability.

Hi, I’m Zoe and I’m a NeuroDiverse Senior Civil Servant.

This is me! (Photo curtesy of @RachelleMoose)

Last week I attended Civil Service Live, it was an interesting day, with sessions on everything from AI and keeping abreast of new technologies, to Transformation to resilience and personal wellbeing. The session that stood out most for me was the “Making Government an event greater place to work” which was an interesting session featuring several people talking about their own mental health, and colleagues from DWP’s Diversity and Inclusion Team talking about the work they have been doing to make invisible disabilities more visible.

The team has been working with neurodiverse colleagues to make short videos to help neurotypical colleagues understand their disabilities. This included a video on sensory processing disorder, and how many colleagues with ASD can find what some people might call normal background noise overwhelming; and another video on how some people with Dyslexia can struggle with reading, with text moving around the page.

Exmaple of how someone with Dyslexia can perceive text

I thought these were really useful tools for colleagues to help increase understanding, and to normalise invisible disabilities.

After the session I got talking to one of the speakers and a few other attendees about some of the mentoring and leadership schemes that exist for Disabled people, and that unfortunately these are not widely visible with a lot of people not knowing they exist or how to join them. We also discussed the need for more visible representation of neurodiverse people within senior leadership.

I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia when I was 14, and nowadays I’ve recognised (through parenting my child through the intricate diagnosis process for ASD and ADHD) that I probably have ADHD as well and am now in conversations with my GP to get a referral for an assessment.

Writing ADHD on a blackboard.

When I first joined the Civil Service (technically as a temp back in 2002 before I went to university) I was doing a data entry job, and when I admitted to a senior manager that I had Dypraxia he told me to keep it quiet or everyone would wonder why he’d hired me. Having a learning disability was definitely seen as a barrier to progression.

I remember when I joined the Ministry of Defence as a Fast Streamer back in 2006, I looked at the data for the Senior Civil Service at the time and realised that less than 3% of colleagues in the SCS had a disability, and of those, the number who were declaring a non-physical disability was in single figures (in the MoD at least). At that time, I made the decision that I would do everything I could to reach the SCS, so I could help change those stats.

Until a few years ago I’d never met an SCS person who I knew was neurodiverse. I was talking to a senior leader asking for advice on speaking at conferences as it was something I’ve always struggled with in terms of confidence, and he admitted that he was Dyslexic and couldn’t read of prompts, so would always have to learn his presentations by heart. This was someone I had known for over a year, and it felt like I was being told a secret that they were ashamed of, but it made me feel hope. Here was this person 2 grades above me, who also had a learning disability. It was possible.

Several years ago at a leadership development session designed to help G6 colleagues pass the SCS application tests, one of the senior colleagues stated that “anyone can just learn to do maths with a little bit practice”. I ended up speaking up and saying that “as someone with a learning disability I found that kind of sweeping statement very unhelpful”. After the session I had another colleague approach me and ask if I could provide some mentoring to one of their members of staff who had Dyslexia and wanted to progress in their career but they weren’t sure if that was possible given their disability, and my colleague believed that talking to another neurodiverse person might help their confidence.

Over the years I’ve mentored perhaps a dozen people, some through official schemes, but just as many have approached me and asked whether I would mentor them as they themselves are neurodiverse and there aren’t that many senior leaders out there who own up publicly to having a learning disability or being neurodiverse. As such people feel that there aren’t people in senior leadership positions who have learning disabilities or are not neurotypical.

Within the Civil Service and wider public sector we are doing more now to normalise Disability, there are great leadership and development schemes like the Possetive Action Pathway out there now to help build capability for Disabled colleagues or recruit more neurodiverse people. DWP and HMRC have been running Autism work placement programmes, GCHQ has it’s “Positive About Disabled People” scheme and there’s the Summer Diversity Internship programme; Diversity and Inclusion networks across the Civil Service are working to help support Disabled colleagues, and schemes like the ‘Workplace Adjustment passport’ are a great tool for disabled colleagues and their managers.

A picture of a ‘noise -o-meter sometimes used to help people with Sensory Processing Disorder indicate how they are perceiving the sound around them.

But I still believe we need more visible neurodiverse senior leaders, and leaders with both visible and invisible disabilities. Figures from 2018 show that still only 5.4% of SCS colleagues have a disability. I couldn’t find any data on the percentage of those colleagues whose disability was visible, invisible or both, but it’s safe to say we need to normalise neurodiversity at all levels.

For those of us who are neurodiverse in the Senior Civil Service, we need to speak up and say to our colleagues that we are here. It is possible. We bring something to the table, and so do you.

WomenInDigi19

How we as leaders can keep supporting people

Women In Digital Logo

As I sat listening to the conversations happening at the Women in Digital event on Wednesday, it occurred to me that although the point of the day was around creating more opportunities and continuing to support women working within digital, so many of the things that we talked about are also applicable outside of the digital industry.

Creating opportunities

One of the main points of discussion was how we can create opportunities. Opportunities through recruitment, promotion, to step up or work in new areas, to train and learn new skills, chances to take part in development programmes, attend conferences or speak at events. Opportunities for mentoring, to be a mentor or even just to job shadow someone. Those opportunities can come in all shapes and sizes and one of our roles as leaders is to make sure we’re creating those opportunities for people.

At the start of the event @Aaronjaffery mentioned that within the last year, DWP Digital has recruited for 9 new Senior Civil Service roles. For those they had almost 300 applications from men, but only 60 applications from women. However, of those 9 roles, 6 were filled by women who had applied and only 3 went to male candidates. This shows that the opportunities are out there but we need to work on encouraging women to apply for opportunities when they do arise. So what else needs to be done?

The right culture

We need to create the right kind of culture: the kind of culture that allows you to ask for help, to challenge things that you think aren’t working right, to admit that you’re not doing ok and need more support. The kind of culture that encourages people to check in with each other. @CheryJStevens did a fantastic keynote speech about her return to work journey a few years ago, the help and support she needed and the practical steps she took to successfully reintegrate into the workplace. As she so perfectly said: “It’s ok to not be ok, and to ask for help.” This message from a senior leader is really important and something we need to hear and talk about more.

Photo of Cheryl Stevens speaking at the event

Paying it forward

No one gets where they are without help and support, so it’s important to create an environment where you can pay that forward. For leaders to make themselves more available, offer coaching and support – creating those opportunities. It’s been nice to hear what organisations have been doing to create opportunities and the right culture for women to thrive in digital. It was great to hear from @ReneeNo17, Director of Digital Platforms at Sky, about their Returners Programme aimed at helping women return to work after career breaks, and the work they’re doing to increase diversity and be more inclusive. I know things like Digital Voices and Crossing Thresholds exist in the public sector to help women develop their skills, but we need more of this.

Building confidence

Whether it’s following a promotion, helping someone progress in their career or supporting someone returning to work, one of the key themes of the day was around people who have had their confidence knocked and needed to rebuild their faith in themselves. Running sessions that bust myths about who makes a good programmer and what skills they need was a good start. Following that up with opportunities to learn the basics of code in work was even better. It was great to see @SarahInTalent at the event, taking about @WILD_igital, a community in Leeds that was set up to grow and retain women in digital roles in the city. Schemes like Digital Voices where women can support each other to learn new skills and take up new opportunities are a great example of how DWP Digital is helping build skills, but all the women today cited how, most importantly, it has helped them build their confidence.

Online resources to help people learn to code

Support networks

One of the reasons I love coming to events like Women in Digital is because they’re all about building support networks, and I think they are so critical to all of us. Good networks give you all of the things I’ve talked about here. They can support you, build your confidence and encourage you. They can help you access new opportunities.

The other positive about networks is you can belong to many – none of us only wear one label. Intersectionality is important when considering things like how we get more women in digital, as we don’t want to only get more white women, or straight women, or women who went to Oxford University. It was great today to hear from lots of different women about their journey, and it’s always good to be able to hear about and consider perceptions and experiences different to our own. I want to keep widening that circle. Our networks can work together to build each other up.

@YanYanMurray and @Zoe_On_the_Go at the event

For me, days like today let me check in with my ‘tribe’. Even when we’ve all been busy, events like this are an opportunity to set aside time to focus on yourself and your development and see what is happening in the wider world, to consider that wider bubble, to challenge your assumptions and keep adding to your network; and that is really important. We gain skills and develop ourselves the more we work together to share our knowledge and experiences.

Be Brave and Believe in yourself

A guest blog written for @DWPDigital originally posted here.