The first time I heard the Shirley Chisholm quote “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” was through the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, a voluntary bar association specifically for women lawyers and our allies within the profession. It rang true to me, especially later, as our chapter president talked about disability inclusion as something we would work on during the upcoming year. When I heard those words in terms of disability inclusion, I was one of a very small number of female lawyers or law students at the event who had visible disabilities or was open about their diagnosis.
Disability is nothing new to me. I was diagnosed with autism early in childhood. One in four Americans has a disability—either from birth (like me) or acquired later in life. I’m proudly and openly autistic. Despite the fact that autism is a fairly common developmental disability (it affects one in every 59 children in the United States), autistic people have the highest rate of unemployment across all disabilities, according to research from Drexel University.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still a white woman, am law-school-educated, have an incredibly supportive family, and recently celebrated my first year as a full-time employee. I began working at my current law firm as a summer law clerk and joined full-time after passing the bar exam. My law firm respects having neurodiversity in our workplace, and I’m seen as a valuable member of the team.
Women, according to the American Bar Association’s 2019 profile of the legal profession, make up 36% of lawyers. Currently 0.53% of lawyers self-report having a disability, according to a 2018 report from the National Association of Law Placement. So I can only imagine that the proportion of disabled female lawyers like me is even smaller.
Even outside of law practice, disabled women, especially autistic women like me, are left out of disability-as-diversity conversations. Disability is an intersectional civil rights issue for women. It intersects with gender in terms of presentation, diagnosis, and the opportunities we receive. Many invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain disorders, disproportionately affect women. And with a disability such as autism, which is underdiagnosed in women, we lack the widespread representation autistic boys and men have.
Each October, the Department of Labor urges companies to observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “the right talent, right now.” People with disabilities are ready and willing to enter the workforce. We not only want to be hired, but we want to be supported and accommodated so we can remain in the workforce too.
Yet “the right talent, right now” is more diverse than disabled employees. “The right talent, right now” also includes disabled women. According to a report from Respectability, 34.6% of women with disabilities nationwide are employed, compared to 82.5% of our nondisabled female counterparts. Additionally, the unemployment rate among women with disabilities is 9.4%, compared to 4% for those without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
However, most companies actively recruiting people with disabilities—specifically, through neurodiversity or autism hiring initiatives—typically occur within science, technology, engineering, and math fields. STEM fields are disproportionately male-dominated, with women making up just 24% of workers in these positions in 2015. The discrimination that women often experience in STEM fields puts female candidates with disabilities at a further disadvantage in the workplace.
This is not to discount the importance for autistic and neurodivergent women in STEM to close these gender and disability employment disparities. But when you see positive news coverage about autism and employment, you often see a lot of stories about autistic men working, usually in a STEM-related industry. We also need recruitment efforts in non-STEM industries.
The stereotype of each of us being computer geniuses is problematic. If we continue with that way of thinking, it pigeonholes neurodiverse job seekers, meaning not only do talented folks miss out on valuable opportunities, but disabled women are multiply excluded. Disabled women need to be included in every field and at every level. And we need to be part of the conversation about bridging this employment gap.
After all, all kinds of minds are necessary in all kinds of industries. Just because autism has an employment disparity doesn’t mean you can discount the additional employment disparities disabled women face. The companies and organizations that have taken the lead on neurodiversity initiatives need to ensure their future recruitment and practices are more inclusive and supportive of women. Since disability is a truly intersectional issue, we must ensure that people of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and diverse backgrounds are actively being recruited.
I don’t have all the answers. I practice in international law currently, so I’m not an expert on HR or hiring practices. But I do know that there is a systemic failure at play for women with disabilities in the workforce.
I found that summer law-clerk position by meeting the right person at the right time. I wonder if I would have been as fortunate to be employed after graduating from law school had that chance meeting never occurred. Would I have been discriminated against because I’m a woman and I’m autistic? These biases interact with one another, and they shouldn’t be issues that women with disabilities like me should have to be concerned with. Instead, we should be able to focus on building our careers—just like anyone else.
“The right talent, right now” is women with disabilities. Now the onus is on companies and organizations to include us by giving us our seats at the table. Otherwise, I’ll continue to bring my folding chair.
Haley Moss is an attorney, author, artist, and autistic self-advocate who is passionate about disability inclusion.