Equity Isn't Easy

‘Ugh, you type the rest. I make so many typos because I’m dyslexic’, when our Country Head said that in a senior management off-site, my heart leaped.

An ally. A very unlikely ally.

Yes, I knew Spielberg is dyslexic, but the idea that someone who’s not neurotypical could rise so high in the corporate ladder and be vocal about it was shocking to me.

I had new found adoration and respect for them. Every time they passed a judgmental look for making a colourful joke was now forgiven.

I whispered softly, ‘Are you really dyslexic though?’ 

And, they laughed in my face, ‘Of course, not. I am just bad at typing.’

If this was a K-serial, there would be dramatic crash zooms on my face. You would hear the sound of mirror-cracking, but instead I heaved a barely audible sigh.

The rest of the off-site was about OKRs, company goals, culture, pointless team building activity followed by sessions where the Country Head reaffirmed their commitment towards building a safe space for people who were different from the ones we call ‘family’ right now in the company.

‘I want to hire more people from the LGBTQ community. I want someone who’s not from the upper caste. I want to put into action all the things we say in our DEI workshops.’

Don’t hold your breath, we did nothing of that. And, I’m glad.

The Two DEIs

DEI is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Dei is also a Tamil word. Its rough translation is meh in English. Bhakk in Hindi. Kahi pan in Marathi. DEI has the same letters as die. And, I think that is beautiful.

Let me explain. There aren’t many of us neuro-atypicals in your office. If there are, we have learnt to keep it low key. You might suspect a perpetually stressed out colleague is anxious. Or someone who’s way too honest or terse is autistic, but you can never really know. And, if your colleagues know and they don’t talk about it, it’s for a good reason.

As an autistic person, I found it hard to understand social mores and even basic courtesies. I was fifteen years old when my best friend had to explain to me that it was mandatory to smile at strangers, acquaintances, and even teachers when you bumped into them.

My retort, ‘Well, I didn’t ask them to smile in the first place. What if I don’t want to smile?’ 

Now throw a person like that in the sycophantic, back-biting, cover-your-ass, CC your manager on everything marcomm industry, what do you think will happen?

Surprisingly, a seat at the table.

As an autistic person, I bring a tremendous laser focused energy at work. What takes others hours, I accomplish in minutes.
Emphasis on sometimes as people with autism often show signs of ADHD too which can marr your focus tremendously.

I bring heaps of empathy.

I will understand what your motivations and mindspace is and persuade you. I once convinced a Bollywood A-lister to commit to an outrageous script because other B-town stars wouldn’t do that. My point was simple, once he does that, more brands will walk to his door because of his flexibility - a tenet missing in most stars. 

This makes it seem like I should deserve a seat at the table. But, I’ll never be at the head of the table. Does it make sense? On it.

Masking before Covid

Masking is something us neuro-atypicals did before it was mainstream. Masking is what I do to fit in with the group. Masking is what I do when I don’t talk sternly with my gen-Z team when they vape during a brainstorming sesh. Masking is what I do when you show me sixteen photos of your child/cat/plant, and I feign interest in it. 

And, if you think wearing a mask during Covid was suffocating, then imagine what wearing this metaphorical mask through a work week is like?

So, of course the mask falls. Or oftentimes people see through the mask.

The next time a client or a senior suggests an insanely daft idea, I see others nod in approval, but my jaw’s on the floor. I re-compose myself and say I need a moment to react, and then laud praises on the idea. 

But, the thing about groupthink is it is preceded by group feel.

Whether it was school, college or most of my workspaces, I wasn’t welcomed with open arms. On a talent scale, I stand out on the basis of my sheer talent, but when it comes to the social scale, I don’t fit in. Even when I want to.

So, I don’t get invited to smoke breaks. The post-work drinking sessions. Every unwritten do and don’t that a newbie has to learn about a company’s culture won’t be whispered to me by a friend. I will learn it by trial and error. 

While most management is glad when I bring in the business, the awards, the recognition, they have never felt compelled to address the elephant in the room that is my autism.

One of the nicest managers I have had once told me, ‘You are so honest that you aren’t being empathetic.’ What he should have said was, ‘Yes, a certain team you work with is headed by an investor’s brother-in-law. They are incompetent, don’t keep track of emails and deadlines, and hence you end up working long hours. It’s not fair, but you can’t push back on them, or communicate your frustration on Slack or Email.’

He never said that. Had I just been friendlier with him or the investor’s brother-in-law, I would have found out in the first week and not the first three months.

The bad blood I had created must have affected my appraisals.

It’s not like I am a snob or unfriendly. I just can’t fathom why an organisation that says honesty and clarity as its core driving values would shun me for practising them. And, this was to the degree that they would rather see red in their ledgers than see me go places, and grow in my role.

And, that is why I have never ‘come out’ as an autistic publicly. Everyone on paper wants to hire more individuals like me, but in practice it’s a whole new ballgame.

Playing the Diversity Card Wrong

On paper, I have and will be an asset to every company I will join. And, a lot of credit goes to me for having autistic traits. But, there are enough and more people who would brand me as a diversity hire. Think of me as a tick box on the org’s checklist and vanity metrics instead of seeing that an autistic person in your cadre can move metrics and monies more effectively.

The problem with seeing diversity as a cool thing to do blinds us from seeing its full potential. Think about any advertising/marketing campaign that gets cancelled by the masses, and I mean, both the right and the left wing, and I can bet that no woman was present in the room when it was thought and approved.

Here’s another quick sidebar. We had a retainer client that would constantly reject ideas and asked for multiple rounds of reworks that would extend beyond the scope of retainer. We worked hard but were always close to getting sacked by them.

Fed up, I scanned through my calendar and realised anytime we met the client in person and pitched to them, they would approve almost instantly. The client was not tech-savvy. They were old-school, and preferred a team that would wine and dine them as they presented their work. While the autistic side of me cringes at the practice, and the idea of forced socialising makes me roll my eyes, it made business sense to do this meeting in person.

So, the next time, I flew to the client’s office in Delhi at an ungodly hour in the morning and took a red-eye back home. I ‘hung out’ with the client afterwards. He opened up and told me they were a morning person, and all agencies prefer presenting in the second half because, ‘All you creative night owls come in at only 11:00 am. By that time, I’m halfway through my work day. Our cafeteria has insane food. For free. So, imagine sitting through 90 slides after having Rajma Chawal, even if your idea is good, we’re halfway comatose, buddy.’ 

He laughed and gave me an awkward side hug as he said this. He must have realised I didn’t do hugs (#TeamAutism), but my business here was done.

Did I pay for 3 rounds of Jack Daniels out of pocket? Yes. Did I gain immeasurable peace of mind because I wouldn’t have to deal with excessive feedback and a pointless loop of meetings with the client? Hell yes.

I made a case to the management to do all meetings in person, even if on-paper the cost of flights and hotels seemed unnecessary. They agreed and the client still works on retainer with us. I collected an award for them two weeks ago.

The fact that I had the bizarre idea to scan my calendar and do the correlation between campaign approvals and in-person meetings is because autistics usually are better at pattern recognition. 

This was a case of yet-to-be-disclosed diversity hire bringing in dollars. This wasn’t a diversity hire brought in for the sake of diversity.

The day companies and individuals see how diversity can drive revenue is the day you will see angry keyboard warriors not attacking organisations and individuals who come in due to DEI.

The Closet Is My Comfort Space

Despite my best efforts, I am in a tough spot in my current organisation. I don’t ‘mask’ up the way they want me to or they aren’t willing to see the value in my autistic side as my previous employers did.

I remember a recent meeting where my manager spoke of a film driven by an autistic protagonist. When I remarked that his portrayal was not getting certain facets of the disorder correctly, they told me, ‘I think you have a very base level idea of mental health and autism. It seems to be more inspired from pop culture than reality.’

I argued because I knew better due to my lived experiences as autistic individual. I should have stayed quiet because I should’ve known better as a corporate paper-pusher.

This was an organisation that treasured hierarchy and agreement over honesty and improvement. The country head’s talk about hiring different individuals still rings fresh in my ears while I score subpar ratings while putting in stellar work.

Neurotypicals who are better suited at picking up the unwritten social code of the organisation will get promoted more than neuro-atypicals who are better suited for driving the actual commercial goals of the same organisation.

They are the show horses. We are workhorses.

We are behind in the race. But, we just need to band together. Wait for our time.

Diversity will drive dollars. Equity will bring balance. Inclusion will make everyone feel invited and welcome at the table.

Will it happen in my lifetime? Possibly, no.

Will I still do my bit to actively hire individuals that aren’t neurotypicals?

Will I try and open the door for more individuals that are autistic/neuroatypicals? Yes. A thousand times, yes.
Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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