A Personal Essay about Discrimination
The day I got fired I made a LinkedIn post outlining what happened. I hoped it would help my colleagues; give them some understanding that they need to fight for themselves, as no one at CDP or the Science Based Targets initiative was going to for them.
I wrote about how I was harassed and the subsequent management retaliation, and minimized the discrimination against my autism. I did so because it was the peak moment of suffering in this experience, but also because it comes with personal layers of complexity.
Most of my career is working with technology startups. Technology positions are well known for attracting a white cis male nerdy employee base. Temple Grandin famously said “Half of Silicon Valley’s got mild autism”. There is a lot of great progressive and flexible ways of working which have been introduced to the working world as a result of this. As a neurodiverse person from California; it’s obvious why I was attracted to working in tech.
My colleagues in tech roles are allowed their unique behavior. The organizations, managers, writing it off as quirks. Yet in my role as HR I am expected to be congenial, happy, positive and on a darker side; people pleasing and cooperative. No matter the level of exploitation to myself or the employees. These issues with the HR profession have deep roots in misogyny. More on that one later.
I’m what is called 3e or Thrice Exceptional, meaning I have a high IQ, dyslexia and autism. While my intellect is appreciated, my autistic characteristics are not. So to get a job and keep it, I’ve had to hide my behavior. I’ve had to mask. Ironically, I’m comfortably and openly queer, because there I face less discrimination than I do for my autism.
In many countries, and the ones I’ve worked in, autism is considered a disability and under protected status. Which means technically I could be open at work and ask for “reasonable accommodations”. I’ve never asked for these legally protected accommodations, and thankfully nor have I had to. I have what is considered mild autism, and I’ve mostly learned how to cope and do self care to function in a neurotypical world.
However, there are many harder to quantify experiences and needs for a neurodiverse person, and every one is unique. There is a good saying; if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
Especially as a woman, I have been socialized to cover up many of my natural characteristics as people (often men) find them off putting. I once had a VP tell me that he finds me more approachable when I’m smiling and have my hair down. Code for; no stone-faced-bun-wearing around here.
A more common issue is that casual touch can be very physically uncomfortable for me, like when shaking hands or hugging strangers. However, I’ve put myself through countless touching situations as it’s considered warm and sociable by society and not participating in it is an offense. Side note; gross that so many men feel it’s OK to touch women, without consent, as measure of “friendliness”.
One day a couple of years ago I heard a podcast about an autistic woman who works as a recruiter for a tech organization who explicitly hires neurodiverse people. She seemed happy and optimistic about the future for us all. I was overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I could also stop masking at work.
It’s been uplifting to have more awareness out there about our shared experience and the power of collective voices has been enriching and encouraging. I’ve also run out of patience and energy to mask. Yet it’s still a very challenging situation.
I really struggle, in each professional environment, to understand how much psychological safety exists for me to be able to drop the mask. It comes with a lot of fear. The result of a lifetime of discrimination and a very low level of engagement on the topic by employers.
For instance, my last organization, CDP had hours of mandatory cyber security training. Even hiring experts, extra training programs, regular phishing tests and I can’t remember an all hands staff meeting that didn’t have some talk about cyber security warnings.
But there was not ONE single training available or even made mandatory around DEIB or harassment. It was one of the first thing I asked about when joining the CDP, and I was met with blank answers. This is baffling to me, as the chances of an employee facing discrimination and harassment are far greater than facing a cyber threat.
Frankly speaking, I am not safe at work unless they have done committed work to unlearn harmful practices which are embedded in our system and proactively support equity. Even with some of this in place, it’s hard to tell what level of safety exists in an organization, especially in an interview format when the hiring organization has the upper hand in the power dynamic.
When I got to the offer stage at the SBTi I was also interviewing for a role at SAP. During my final interview with the department head, she told me that my autism would be a problem. That their team leaders needed empathy and was concerned that my “special accommodations” would interfere with my ability to do the work.
For the record, when I said I was autistic, she asked what special accommodations I might want. I told her that when I’m working in a flow state I don’t like to be interrupted. She responded by asking me how I can work in an office. My answer; 20+ years working in an office, all I need is noise canceling headphones, Do Not Disturb and colleagues which respect basic boundaries. This wasn’t acceptable, apparently concentrated employees are a problem for her.
The empathy part really sucked. For me, it is one of the most painful prejudices about us, that we lack empathy. Empathy dysfunction is one of the signs of psychopathy, NOT autism. Which was very clearly displayed by the discrimination of the SAP manager.
Fast forward to me taking the CDP/SBTi job, then two months in getting sexually harassed at work, my manager, the executive leadership team and HR doing nothing, except an investigator deciding to believe the harasser over me, and then using my autism against me. Saying that I wasn’t actually harassed, but because I’m autistic, I was just triggered. Then a hefty amount of relation builds rapidly over the next months. Before being terminated with no warning, no reason and no severance.
The LinkedIn post covers what happened, I don’t want to rehash that here. What I came to write about in this essay was my lived experience, the pain and roller coaster of feelings I’ve needed to process in order to manage it all.
This is a complicated experience for me to dismantle. As it starts with harassment, but is really layered on top of and woven into my autism and how neurodiverse women are treated in the workplace.
I wasn’t surprised by my bosses denial and lack of support after I told him about the harassment. He had already demonstrated his attitude towards women in our interview process. Including trash talking the top head of HR for being lazy when she took self care hours.
I wasn’t surprised that CDP HR did nothing. Even at 20 years old and with 500+ employees globally. They have no employee resource groups, no trainings, no programs. Have made no response to their policies since #MeToo, or the Black Lives Matter movement.
I wasn’t even surprised by the retaliation. When you put someone in a position of having to condone a behavior they do themselves, they will do everything they can to defend that behavior. Unless they are really ready to do the work and change. My boss was absolutely not.
What I didn’t expect was to have being autistic factor into it. As I was reading the report from the investigator, I wanted to quit on the spot. What toxic, disgusting and discriminating workplace would find this report to be acceptable? But real life is more complicated than that.
I am on a work visa in Germany, and I need employment to stay. Also, not being employed a full year yet, I was not eligible for unemployment. On top of that, my partner had been laid off in July, and we were financially supporting his family here in Berlin as they are Ukrainian refugees. Basically, quitting wasn’t an option. I needed to find a way to keep myself safe and work and try to do my best for the rest of my time there.
The reality is being a woman at work is already rocky ground, then adding neurodiversity to the mix, and it’s nearly impossible to stay standing unharmed.
There is advice to women when testifying to harassment and abuse to remove their anger and try to present quietly and calmly so they don’t look irrational, crazy, hysterical. When starting this article I did begin it calmly, factually, like I do in most of my articles. Somewhere along the way, the frustration of years of having to mask, face discrimination, and to not even be able to hold basic self boundaries, overran the seemingly rational advice of calmness.
It is unacceptable that I am not safe at work, and it makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me want to fight even more for all marginalized people. Emphasizing that as a white cis woman, with a German visa and a US citizenship, I have tons more privilege and I can only get a hint of what this must be like for the migrant workers and other undocumented, unprotected folks trying to eke out survival in a foreign country.
As I started to interview for new roles last week, I kept debating if I should reveal my autism explicitly. Wondering if it will hurt my chances in the role. My past experiences keep coming back to me over and over again, reminding me that when I have situations like I did at SAP, or any other times before, these act as filters for toxic workplaces and managers. Helping to steer me to a safer and more equitable workplace.
I know I am not the only one with a story like this. It is just one moment in time of a collective issue that covers many complicated layers of bigotry and control. And I know that many of us are fighting hard for this to change. Yet the burden shouldn’t be on individuals to effect change. Because in reality, in 95% of harassment cases the harasser faces no charges.
We cannot rely on the good will of our employers.
It is a systematic issue, and one that needs deep and real change in order to bring equity for folks. Who all deserve the right to be safe at work. At this point, I believe the only way we can protect ourselves is by supporting our colleagues and forming collective action. Unionize, form work councils, use the power of the difficult talent market to hold leadership accountable.
I also truly believe that keeping hidden, trying to pass, mask, be complicit, is not possible for me. In one way or the other, the walls crash down. The healthiest way I can live my full life is to embrace my neurodiversity, nourish it and take all the benefits from this unique way of being. A great bit of wisdom I’ve had in the recent aftermath was from another person with a marginalized background. She said “the best rebuttal is to not become like them, but to go your own way and thrive”.