Unlocking potential

Unlocking potential

Friday 8 March 2024 09:28 London/ 04.28 New York/ 17.28 Tokyo

Embrace neurodiversity to drive success in securitisation

Neurodiversity is gaining more recognition as a crucial component in the pursuit of gender diversity and inclusion in structured finance. This year’s theme of ‘inspiring inclusion’ for International Women’s Day underscores the imperative to address the hidden challenges women face on top of gender. 

The rising numbers of later-life diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in women highlights the need not only to support neurodiverse women, but the importance of including neurodiverse women in structured finance.

Of the total one percent of the world’s population understood to exist on the autistic spectrum, women make up a very small proportion of those with a clinical diagnosis. In fact, the ratio of males to females diagnosed with ASD presently sits at around 4:1 – although mathematical models predict the reality to be closer to 3:4. 

The gender divide in the diagnosis of ASD and ADHD is reducing as the number of adult women seeking diagnosis is on the rise. Lockdown served as a catalyst for many women in recognising their neurodiversity, as conversations on the presentation of ADHD and ASD in women ramped up worldwide.

“Coming out of lockdown, I just noticed that there was so much more sensitivity to noise, to light, to crowds, to people,” shares Naomi Prasad, director at Pemberton Capital Advisors, on her recent autism diagnosis. “I know everyone was affected by lockdown, but some of my reactions were unusually extreme.”

She adds: “I questioned why things were not getting to most people like they were getting to me. Why was I being so intolerant? And when I began reading around various things, a lot of traits seen in autistic women were ringing bells with me – but by myself, it was hard to tell whether it was just positive bias or not.”

Neurodiversity is an important component in establishing inclusion for women not only because of the challenges, but the unique strengths neurodiverse individuals can bring to structured finance.

 “In securitisation, autism can almost be a superpower,” explains Prasad.  “I love being a CLO corporate credit analyst because I get to look at completely new things every day – you can go from looking at a company that makes ceramic hip components one day, to a water company the next. It feeds that constant intellectual curiosity so common with neurodivergent people. And being neurodiverse makes people creative, it gives us the ability to think laterally - making us good at problem solving because we’re constantly probing and testing.”

Prasad continues: “And that’s great for securitisation, because it’s finding that extra level of how can we do this a little bit better? It’s not just numerical pattern spotting, but it’s finding trends too. It’s important to have these different perspectives, people looking at things from a slightly different angle – and I think all of those things are incredibly valuable in securitisation.”

A primary reason why women so often go undiagnosed earlier in life is their ability to ‘mask’ – the ability to act like non-autistic, neurotypical friends and colleagues. However, this additional cognitive burden of embodying a neurotypical person can have serious ramifications on the mental health of women with autism – no matter how successful they are at masking, or indeed in their personal and professional lives.

Prasad says: “What really triggered it for me was that separate layer of cognition that you have going on when you’re autistic. For women, from a very early age you’re working on two different levels, there’s what’s going on in your head and how you present – and you just assume that everyone’s like this.” 

While masking is a common feature of autism in women, every individual with autism presents differently – each facing their own challenges, as well as possessing their own unique skillsets and abilities. However, many women go without ASD and ADHD diagnoses as a result of the medical field’s historical failing of basing the understanding of most mental and physical health conditions solely on their presentation in white males. 

Cultural misunderstandings of the presentation of neurodiversity in women prevail too, as Prasad attests: Because people are so used to autism being diagnosed in boys and men, there’s a lack of understanding around it – there is an enormous range, we present in almost infinite different ways - but I think that’s just going to take time.”

Much like ASD, ADHD commonly goes undiagnosed in women until adulthood as a result of their unique ability to mask. The gender disparity in the understanding of ADHD begins young, with boys being more than twice as likely to be diagnosed than girls in the US. Worldwide, 2.6% of adults are understood to experience persistent ADHD from childhood. However, the misunderstanding of ADHD itself as presenting solely through hyperactivity makes it harder for girls with ADHD to be taken seriously given their tendency to be less outwardly disruptive in school.

Despite the importance of the inclusion of neurodiversity in the securitisation profession, neurodivergent women continue to lack support and accommodation they need to succeed at work as a direct result of the universal failure to understand neurodiversity in women.

Late-life diagnosis
80% of autistic females in the US remain undiagnosed by the age of 18 - despite the presentation of neurodiversity in both men and women being evident from early childhood. However, society’s conditioning of young girls often also means that women with ADHD and autism have the challenges they face underestimated due to masking. 

“As women we just don’t get diagnosed because we learn from very early on to camouflage, to mask and to present – and that is what society teaches all little girls to do is to go along with things, be nice, be compliant,” explains Prasad.

Going undiagnosed into adulthood can have severe negative consequences in both the short and long term on the mental health and wellbeing of women and girls. Neurodiverse women often go misdiagnosed for much of their lives with other mental health struggles like anxiety, depression and mood disorders.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals with ASD and ADHD face very high rates of comorbid mental health disorders – including each other. In fact, the overlap of the two is vastly common, with somewhere between 50% and 70% of people with ASD also meeting the diagnostic criteria for ADHD – a phenomenon often referred to as AuDHD.

Of course, actually accessing a diagnosis either for ADHD or ASD presents its own challenges, with years-long waiting lists for NHS referrals in the UK only getting longer, and extremely costly private assessments also seeing individuals waiting for months. Even then, medication shortages continue to disproportionately affect individuals with ADHD in the UK, impairing not only their ability to work but also having a detrimental impact on their mental health.

Statistically, women with autism face a greater risk of suffering from stress-related illnesses and suicide as a result of the failure to recognise their differences and understand their needs.  The common experience of ‘autistic burnout’ led many women in the face of heightened stress and routine disruption in lockdown to discover that they were in fact neurodiverse.

Prasad says: “A lot of women get diagnosed later in life because there is this cumulative load of exhaustion because you’re running in that extra cognitive gear – and quite often what happens is that women encounter a series of stressful events and get to the stage where they can’t do it anymore.”

Broader societal misconceptions and stigmas related to neurodiversity have led to much sensitivity on the subject of labelling. However, for many women seeking a diagnosis in later life, it is not so much about the label, but rather about receiving an explanation for a lifetime of unexplained symptoms and differences from peers. 

“Having the diagnosis was such a relief – it explained so much, it answered questions that psychotherapy couldn’t answer because it was autism. Seeing a pattern, especially in the workplace and with my career which was massively helpful,” states Prasad.

Understanding can be beneficial in securing support and creating better working practices for neurodiverse people, as well as knowledge of the accommodations workplaces can make for neurodivergent women. Reasonable adjustments that can make workplaces more autism-friendly range from introducing training for managers and teams about autism, to supporting individual autistic workers through providing extra breaks, access to quiet spaces and specific support through unavoidably disrupted or heavy periods of work.  

“I’m less bothered about labelling than others,” says Prasad. “But I think one of the biggest challenges is getting people to take me seriously. I’m incredibly lucky at Pemberton. They have been brilliant – so open to learning and wanting to learn more about it, how to support myself and other neurodivergent people and how to accommodate.”

Nevertheless, women remain less forthcoming with sharing their diagnosis in the workplace than men, including in structured finance. A fundamental hurdle women face is the questioning of the validity of their later-life diagnoses, as increasing recognition of neurodiversity in women is increasingly being looked down upon as a ‘trend’ rather than a movement addressing a long-ignored issue.

“You tell people and they just don’t believe you,” says Prasad. “I’ve had very senior psychiatrists not believe me. I don’t want to have that debate with everyone, and while I think you have to accept that people aren’t going to believe you, it only furthers the undermining of yourself. I am really good at hiding it, and there’s a lot of self-doubt and anxiety that comes with a later-life diagnosis – and being questioned all the time doesn’t help.”

Fostering inclusive workplaces
Looking ahead, Prasad emphasises the importance of openness in fostering more inclusive workplaces and seeing greater accommodations for neurodivergent women in securitisation.

“I think it’s the women and men who are saying they are neurodiverse in some way,” says Prasad. “And for people who are not used to working with you to realise that actually it’s not a complete nightmare. I think as that grows and accumulates and people are used to working with people who are openly neurodiverse [there will be progress]. We saw this happen with gender, with things like maternity leave and flexible working – we adapt, we evolve – which is why I think we should be open about it, because that’s how things change for the better.”

Indeed, the structured finance industry has been credited with undergoing immense transformation in recent decades – with improving attitudes towards gender-related inclusivity and addressing intersectional challenges such as neurodiversity. 

Prasad says: “There’s definitely a willingness, but I think a lot of it depends on the culture, because that culture can simply be a box-ticking exercise for the benefit of shareholders – it can still feel like a chore.”

However, when it comes down to addressing gender diversity and the intersectional challenge of neurodiversity, Prasad considers gender still the harder barrier for women in structured finance to overcome.

“Gender has been so much harder to overcome,” states Prasad. “In the securitisation world you will encounter the highly achieving neurodiverse people, many of whom have gone through decades of their careers without even knowing they’re neurodivergent, like myself. Especially in securitisation, where people are fixated on research, detail, numbers – it naturally suits neurodiverse people. But gender has been a bigger hurdle.”

Embracing inclusion is not a distraction from the everyday business of securitisation, but rather a cornerstone of enhancing the success of that work. By establishing inclusion, organisations in structured finance not only secure more supportive workplaces for neurodiverse women, but unlock diverse talents and perspectives essential for driving innovation and success.

“The most important thing to remember is that we are ultimately on the same side,” says Prasad. “Everyone’s got something going on, but at the end of the day we all want to succeed, and we all want to see the places we work succeed. We spend a lot of time at work, so try and make it a better place for everyone, try and be a bit more open-minded and accommodating.”

And for fellow neurodivergents, Prasad advises: ”If you’re looking to get diagnosed, it’s important to read as much as you can and try to be open-minded. Try and find an ally or a mentor in the office – someone who gets it.”

She adds: “The common thread amongst neurodiverse people is the sensitivity – it’s not that we don’t feel, rather that we feel too much. Focusing on routine, taking mundane decisions away from yourself can be helpful. It’s about finding ways to manage your life and make things easier. And try and remember that being neurodiverse and being female is brilliant. We contribute so many different things.”

Claudia Lewis