Thriving at Work While Autistic, Introverted, Shy, and Otherwise Different: Part 3

Dealing with Discrimination: Equity, Equality, and Intersectionality

By Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., Professor and Director, Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Vanguard University of Southern California.

After highlighting successes of job-crafting and fulfilling outcomes of our teamwork and leadership efforts, I confess that this installment is hard – and possibly triggering. Sometimes, job crafting is not enough. Sometimes, the effort is not enough. Sometimes, we feel that we are not enough.

Sometimes, systems are set up to make us feel that we are not enough.

For 20+ years, it seemed like I was good at “work stuff.” If having multiple unsolicited job offers is any indication, very good.

Until I was not.

I crafted several jobs I loved. Interpreting was fun, and my strange brain could go for 9+ hours of simultaneous interpreting (the limit is supposed to be 30 minutes). I loved being a global diversity/intercultural relations leader and helping people collaborate despite their differences. I did not love politics, but I could manage some. I love consulting and helping organizations thrive. And I love being a university professor – though I also crafted administrative roles in a couple of universities. My advocacy on behalf of the collective had proven effective, even if self-promotion is not my strongest point. But no job is 100% preferred tasks, and all in all, teaching, program design and writing are a great match to my strengths, and seeing the results is worth doing some hard things.

And then there was a year when I did not just hit a wall – I hit multiple walls, and it felt like one or two fell on top of me.

This happened, of all times, during the “year of women’s equality emphasis.”

Looking back, if I did not hit these particular walls at this particular time, I would not have developed my way of helping organizations focus on equity – not just equality – through intersectionality. I might not have realized I was autistic. Still, hitting those walls was not fun.

The Dangers of “Diversity Drives” 

It is ironic that the “women’s equality emphasis” could contribute to “hitting the wall” – but not surprising. Single-focus, limited-time “diversity drives” might be well-intentioned, but are often problematic. While it is tempting to say “we need to do something fast – let’s hire/promote a certain number of women”  – there are 2 major problems with such “diversity drives.”

1) Ignoring intersectionality and differences other than the “focal variable” – in this case, gender – creates inequity within the “equality intervention.”

2) Treating equality as a time-limited “let’s fill some positions” diversification drive rather than a systemic change forces women or other underrepresented groups to compete with each other for what is seen as possibly once in a lifetime opportunity – Hunger Games style.

Those in power might be operating by the “golden rule” – perhaps misunderstood and oversimplified. Abundantly confident people who are energized by competition and enjoy a bit of a fight (typically men, extroverts, and those without conditions associated with higher physiological reaction to stress) may feel that all others should be happy to play by their rules. And if some are not, then these others are flawed, and perhaps even inferior.

With those in power as both judges and game-makers, the competition is typically run by the rules of the patriarchal system, privileging women who can, in the words of Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “outmen men” in their penchant for self-promotion and rewarding overconfidence regardless of competence. We know that internal competitions at work encourage excessive politics and playing dirty. In the long term, by ensuring that the same psychological type of individuals rises to the top, regardless of gender – or other characteristics – the patriarchal system perpetuates itself and robs organizations of truly diverse perspectives in leadership.

Systemic change can only be accomplished with a systemic intervention.

The “Equality Year” of Despair

Although women brought up the importance of intersectionality, the “equality year” went ahead as the single-emphasis program.  A part of the program was encouraging everyone to self-nominate for promotions, by coming to the leadership and initiating the discussion. The invitation was open to all, equally, and the intention to promote several women was clear.

I knew the intention was sincere, and I wanted to keep contributing and give the self-nomination a try. When you invest your heart into an organization, you want to believe in it. And perhaps it was indeed a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Every day I would resolve to “self-promote,” but there were people in a bind who urgently needed help, work overrun from an unfilled position, e-mails to answer, and documents to write. After 12 hours of doing what needed to be done, I would hate myself a little more every night because I never got over to self-promotion.

I should be trying harder. For many years, I knew that people who were different had to work harder, and fair or not, as a woman, an immigrant, and a class migrant, I did what I had to.

Was I getting lazy? Was I mistaken in thinking that the career I loved and succeeded in for 20+ years was really a match? What changed?

Energy Economy and Economic Impacts

I did not get lazy. The job itself did not change – and I’ve always worked more than most, so the workload was not new. The context changed – but could the changes be that problematic? Yes, more politics were required, and there were a couple of additional demands: the occasional driving to off-site meetings and attending events that used to be voluntary. Could such “basic” things as driving to meetings, attending events, and having conversations, however high-stakes, really bring down someone who wrote a dissertation in the second language while living below the poverty level?

We all have different energy economies. I can do 9-10 hours of simultaneous interpreting in a day – and then study for 2 hours. I can do 12+ hours of research. Or 4 hours of teaching plus 4 hours of writing. Or one hour of driving – surface streets only. Maybe 15 minutes of intense self-promotion. And 3 minutes of exposure to loud music.  As in, if I do any of the last three, my brain crashes and I can’t do anything productive that day. So, attending events involving music and driving to off-site meetings translated into making up for full days of work.

I never even got over to politics. There was too much “work work.” I knew that politics were important. In internally competitive environments, simply protecting your work is a fight because when some people are busy working, others get busy taking credit. Forget promotions – or productivity. Much energy must go into survival.  I should have been trying harder at politics. Except I could not.

Stupid, lazy thing.

When I was not blaming myself, I blamed poverty. Poverty and my working-class background.

I was bad at politics because I was raised by peasants and mechanics. They did not know about credit-taking and backstabbing. When you plant a tree or fix a car, everyone knows who did the work, and your work speaks for itself.

I was a bad driver because I did not have a car until after I had my PhD. I was too old to learn the way that a 16-year old would.

Music hurt – with some music being debilitating – because in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with thin walls, there was no escape from the torture of noise created by my family and the neighbors, and everyone’s TVs, radios, stereos, and singing. Anyone would come to hate music growing up like that.

Still, poverty or not, I should have been trying harder. People like me have to work harder, and “can’t does not count” – that was my family’s rule.

But is it fair that the system requires some to work so much harder than the others and to be “penalized” for each difference? If people are systematically disadvantaged because of various circumstances of their birth, is this the status-quo to be accepted, or discrimination to fight?

Systemic discrimination feels different from the blatant kind. And my reaction was different.

Dealing with Discrimination

I was not new to discrimination. Not new at all.

In one of my first jobs, my organization promised that the “best person”- which I naively assumed meant the best performer – will be sponsored for a professional development opportunity. Well, the first person sponsored was related to someone in power. The second was a guy who did not even show up to work half the time. So, I inquired when will be my turn. The look I got might have been intended for a 3-year old, and I was informed that “a person means a brother.”

Well, who needs strings-attached special arrangements when there are GRE preparation books and applications for PhD programs. No politics required – just studying and following the same rules as everyone can open the doors. I could create my own equality.

But education does not protect one from inequality – or hate. In the next job, my boss responded to “my father died” with a preemptive – “you can’t go, I need this work done” – before I even requested anything. I am not sure why I asked, “do you know how this makes me feel?” – it should have been obvious this was not a concern. It was not – “it does not matter what you feel, you are not American.”

Well, I still knew how to manage job applications, and there were better jobs out there. Applications and cover letters can open the doors.

Blatant gender discrimination, xenophobic hate, not “qualifying for equality” – these things I recognized.

But now, there was an organizational goal to support the equality of women. And everyone had an equal opportunity to self-nominate for promotions. Why did it not feel equal?

Because equality is not equity.

Equality is not Equity

Large-scale gender differences research, the story of self-nomination at Google, as well as the study in French academia, indicate that women are less likely to self-nominate. Most women do not thrive in competitive environments. Beyond just gender, the lack of clarity and criteria in promotion keeps people from disadvantaged and stigmatized groups out. If we consider intersectionality and layer anti-self-promotion gender norms with modesty norms of collectivistic cultures and with “your work should speak for itself” norms of the working class, the likelihood of self-nomination goes down exponentially.

Equality is not equity. The most well-intentioned mono-focus equality programs, such as gender-based, assume homogeneity within the group – but groups are not homogeneous, and the most privileged in the group benefit the most. White women benefit more than women of color. Affluent women benefit more than poor women. Those without disabilities benefit more than those with disabilities.

When the system is blind to intersectionality, those with multiple intersectional backgrounds get squashed by that seemingly unbiased system.

And the most insidious thing about systemic discrimination is the built-in gaslighting mechanism.

The system makes you think it’s your fault.

A hateful glare at least acknowledges your existence – and lets you know you’ve been singled out, unfairly. But the system can be designed to work against you while seeming impartial. The bulldozer flattens you not because it hates you, but because it does not know you are there, does not care to know. You are inconsequential. You don’t matter. And of course, it’s your fault. Why did not you work harder to become more important? Did you really think anyone would care to focus on the inclusion of academic women who are first-generation college students, had icicles on their beds growing up, and are immigrants and introverts? That’s way too much intersectionality. That’s your problem.

Nature or Nurture?

Still, things did not add up. Even multiple cultural intersectionalities could not explain what I was feeling.  I violated gender norms plenty of times. And collectivistic cultural norms. And even the norms of the working-class upbringing, though these are the hardest to override (yes, I save plastic grocery bags). I should have been able to do it again, to override the modesty bias, but this time it did not feel like I was fighting my culture. It felt like fighting my nature.

My class upbringing was a decent enough explanation for my issues with politics and self-promotion. Others have written on how working-class mentality clashes with these upper-class behaviors, in particular in academic jobs.

But class and poverty and learning to drive late could not truly explain why I can’t drive on freeways but can drive in the mountains, which is supposed to be harder.

And then there was music. And vibration. And the inability to wear synthetic clothing. And if I were honest with myself, millions of people grow up poor and love music. Poverty could not explain why music makes me sick. It was not nurture. It was nature. And perhaps so were driving and self-promotion.

I opened the doors before. This time, there was no exam, no application, no cover letter, I just needed to walk through the door and have a conversation – and I could not even find the door. Where I remembered doors, now were solid walls. It felt as if everyone else had their own secret passage made to be winding so that others could not find it, and I felt blind, running into wall after wall.

When something does not make sense, I research until it does. As an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist I had foundational knowledge of autism, but never delved deep into that area of research. Especially the newer research on autistic masking in women, non-diagnosed women, and autistic burnout. Boom. Bullseye. Now THAT did explain everything – the self-promotion, the driving, the music. And why the time and the world disappear when I am working. And why I must take care not to exhaust gracious people willing to listen to my tales of current obsessions. It even gave a new meaning to teenaged me trying to protect a marshland ecosystem from development by standing in the path of bulldozers. It took 6 months to confirm officially, but I was right.

Still, knowledge is not the same as having mechanisms to allow people of multiple intersectionalities to thrive. Women with PhDs who are first-generation college students, grew up poor, and are immigrants and introverts -that was too much intersectionality even before adding the autism.

Organizational Solutions: from Autism, with Love?

Except, autism is not a problem. It’s a solution. When there are too many variables to solve for, it makes sense to solve for the infinity – the symbol of both the infinite number of possible intersectionalities and autism acceptance.

There is rarely a need for special mechanisms for each intersectional identity. The same practices that would allow my autistic self thrive would allow every other aspect of me to thrive. Transparency, psychological safety, consideration of human differences in legitimate options for work organization, scientifically-developed job descriptions, the inclusion of a wider variety of voices – the same practices would make work better for all people. The same practices will make organizations more productive. When there are too many variables to solve for, solve for the infinity – for the infinite number of all possible intersectionalities, by embedding foundational principles of justice for all into systems and processes. And that is the topic of the next and final installment.


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