Neurodiversity gets a corporate champion
When Charlotte Valeur was young, she felt different from other children. Growing up in Copenhagen, she was harassed “relentlessly” by her classmates. Often silent, she moved to a class with less competent students.
She even felt separated from her three siblings. They didn’t keep little books full of numbers, nor got upset when they spotted a new license plate to register. âI was a little outside. It was right . . . I was not like them.
Years later, after finding the path to a successful career in financial services through the same love for numbers, colleagues at the bank wondered why she didn’t want to âdrink and dineâ with her clients. Bosses were alarmed by the former City bond trader’s tendency to interrupt and speak ruthless truths.
It wasn’t until decades later, when she was 51, that a friend suggested that Valeur, a former president of the UK Institute of Directors, take an autism test. But Value was still surprised that the test – and the next 10 she took to be sure – put her high on the autism spectrum. âSuddenly, so much fell into place. Because I had been able to cope intellectually. “
Workplaces can be unforgiving places for “neurodiverse” – a term that also includes ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. In the UK, only one in five people with autism are employed, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
Value decided to speak publicly about her autism while she was president of IoD – to use her position “to talk about neurodiversity in a broader sense as well, the challenges that come with it, but also the positive things. “.
Hundreds of people got in touch, including senior managers who âdidn’t have the courage to talk about it publicly. . . it’s all this shame attached to it â.
As a corporate governance expert and board diversity activist, she wanted to do something concrete to change the way neurodiversity is viewed by businesses, as well as society as a whole. .
“We [neurodiverse people] are everywhere in everything, in all strata, in all cultures, but all marginalized to varying degrees, which must end. The ultimate goal is that we don’t need all of the sub-tags; that we are simply accepted for who we are, as people in society.
On November 15, Valeur is launching the Institute of Neurodiversity in the UK, Europe and Australia âto give a voice in the world to all neurodiverse individualsâ. ION will campaign for the inclusion of neurodivergent people, to ensure that they are understood, represented and valued equally.
She rejects the idea that neurodiversity is a problem to be overcome, arguing that this approach leads to institutional discrimination. The group will call for a reform of “conversion therapies” which aim to “cure” neurodiversity but which Value regards as cruel and discriminatory.
âThey are trying to train us to be more normal. What if we let ourselves be who we are? We have a lot of potential to put on the table. We need [society] to accept that there are different ways.
Value examines how the LGBT + community has dealt with discrimination over the decades – “what they’ve done and how they’ve gone from illegality to much more acceptance.” She says a lot of people don’t see the discrimination against neurodiverse “but there is [discrimination] from the cradle to the tomb.
âIf we can get 10, 20, or 50,000 people to say ‘we’re neurodiverse’ and then put all of their faces on one screen, you can see there isn’t a single look. It’s not that you look autistic or that you look dyslexic.
Value also wants the institute to become a community for neurodiverse people, “to celebrate our presence here, instead of looking for a way to get rid of us.” It has set itself an ambitious goal of recruiting 1 million members in 100 countries by 2025.
She adds: âWe need some kind of operating model that is scalable, where you can be global but local. There are [millions] neurodiverse people around the world. If we can’t get a small percentage of that, then something we’re doing isn’t right.
She can see obstacles – including getting those without visible signs of neurodiversity to show up. Even Value felt there was a risk in revealing himself if his autism would undo “39 years of very hard work.”
During an interview for a non-executive role, she was asked how she deals with empathy – a common misunderstanding about people with autism, she says – and the headhunter then told her that she ” had scared the members of the board of directors “.
But where there are differences, Value says they can be harnessed and used effectively. The trading floor, with its intensity, long hours and results-oriented environment, was a natural home.
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While on the one hand, she needed to “work hard enough to keep her balance and keep moving forward,” autism also made her “brilliant at things like trading because you need to be very focused. all the time, you need to be quick in your mind â.
And, after banking, she found the boardroom equally inviting. Value has served as chairman of several companies alongside other board members at companies such as construction company Laing O’Rourke. His skills worked well in spotting issues and opportunities in the boardroom. Although, again, his approach – often seen as a Danish franchise before his autism was revealed – was not without its challenges.
âI see a lot of things in people’s behavior patterns, in the way an organization works, in the way the CEO works,â she says. âThe problem with that is that I sometimes see patterns before the painting. . . many board members stay at the most superficial level. It has cost me over the years. Often people don’t want to hear it.
Perceptions will only change slowly, she says, as companies adopt policies to help rather than hinder neurodiverse people – but in doing so, she is sure they will help their own businesses as well.
âThere are people who would like to be able to express themselves fully, but who cannot. It is not fair. Most of the time we operate like everyone else. We are not that different. We are everywhere. Everyone is invited.