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November 28, 2021

Gender & disability: Intersectional best practice in the workplace

WORK180 Intersectionality Campaign blog featuring women with disabilities thriving at the workplace

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According to the World Health Organization, there are over 1 billion people living with disabilities worldwide. Further, there is a significant skew in the rates of employment for people with disability, with 52.8% of men with disability being employed, while only 19.6% of women with a disability are employed.

Despite most of these people being women, there is still a very limited understanding of the intersection of gender and disability. This article will explore how marginalization can be magnified as a result of these different layers of identity, through the eyes of women living these experiences. 

Nine personal journeys, nine women with disabilities’ voices 

Nine women* share not only their workplace stories but their best practice suggestions for companies to ensure they are supporting other women and employees with disabilities.

Kat Jennings is the Senior Quantity Surveyor at CityFibre, a WORK180 Endorsed Employer

Kat Jennings, Senior Quantity Surveyor | CityFibre

Kat Jennings joined CityFibre team three years ago as a Quantity Surveyor and was promoted a year ago to Senior Quantity Surveyor. Kat has a hearing impairment and wears hearing aids in both ears. She also has tinnitus which further compounds her hearing loss.

“When looking for an employer, it has been quite difficult at times because it’s not a visual disability, people don’t look at me and think, ‘she’s got hearing aids’. I have had some bad experiences in the past with employers requesting proof of my disabilities.

When CityFibre were organizing my first interview, I made them aware of my hearing impairment. They ensured we were able to complete this face to face instead of over the phone, because I sometimes struggle with the telephone. And when I started, they got Occupational Health involved immediately to ensure I had everything I needed. They were so accommodating, absolutely brilliant.”

Read more about Kat’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace:

“My team are incredible and always make me feel like part of the team when it comes to meetings. They always leave a seat at the front of the room, we joke I am like the teacher’s pet, but obviously it’s because I wear hearing aids, and this allows me to participate better. They ensure they talk to me face to face. And if they’re trying to talk to me from behind, they will always tap my shoulder.

They don’t rush, they don’t talk over each other and ensure I am always part of the conversation. They have never asked about my disability, and accept me for who I am. They see how others treat me and treat me the same. It is great because I’m not constantly having to explain myself or ask them to speak to me in a different way.

Kat Jennings Senior Quantity Surveyor CityFibre

Especially during COVID the team have been incredible and understanding. When required I lip read, especially if I’m in a noisy area. The wider business has been so supportive in pulling their mask down if I’m struggling to hear, even at a distance so I can still understand what they’re saying. I know people want to and need to wear masks, but the fact that people could notice that I was struggling and were willing to lower their mask (sometimes even without me asking), really means so much to me. 

When we go to big events, CityFibre always ask what requirements I need and if I need any support. They always accommodate my needs, and it’s never been an inconvenience or a concern.

I’ve never felt different. I’ve never felt left out. I’ve never felt like I have something wrong with me. I don’t have to wear this big banner saying, “I’m disabled”, I’m just part of the team and they make me feel included. I’m sure the management team are doing a lot in the background to make sure that people are aware and are educated. Sometimes people treat you differently when they know that you have a disability, so it’s great that I have never been made to feel that way at CityFibre.

Induction loops are a sound system where a loop of wire circles an area in a building, office or meeting room, and produces an electromagnetic signal that is received directly by hearing aids to better pick up the spoken word.

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

I think understanding the disabilities is really, really important, especially with hearing impairments and people who are deaf. It’s imperative to understand what we need, like induction loops in meeting rooms, personal induction loops, requirements for the telephones, overhead headphones for meetings, or understanding why we don’t wear headphones if they’re on a Teams call.

If everyone had an induction loop in all of their meeting rooms and on a reception desk, things would be a lot easier for people to communicate. When thinking of desk layouts for example, I think it’s important for employers to think about how their layout may impact hearing and communication styles for their employees with hearing impairments.

Sign language is so important too. I’m not saying that everyone needs to learn sign language. But if we all had a bit more understanding and a bit more appreciation for these small things, it would make things a lot easier.

One of our colleagues at CityFibre did a four-week introduction to British Sign Language. It was great that there are other people in the business who want to learn. Knowing that there were people trying to learn it with me who have full hearing meant a lot to me.” 

Ashleigh Douglas Barnard found her current workplace (Cummins) via a university-based internship program

Ashleigh Douglas Barnard, HR Assistant | Cummins South Pacific 

Ashleigh Douglas Barnard found her current workplace (Cummins) via a university-based internship program, and now has a permanent position as a HR Assistant. Ashleigh was born with Epilepsy due to brain damage caused during birth. In her early twenties she was also diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. Both of these are considered invisible disabilities.

“Prior to working at Cummins I had negative experiences disclosing my disability – I disclosed it after I had started working and found that my ability to do the job was questioned (despite successfully fulfilling the duties of the role prior to revealing my condition). 

When I disclosed my disability during the interview phase I had noticed an immediate change in the behavior of my interviewers and in one scenario had a manager change tone and treat me as though I was “dim-witted”, attempting to convince me to agree to a work situation which would have been an obvious breach of Fair Work legislation.”

Read more about Ashleigh’s journey
 Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace:

“During my internship interview with Cummins, I disclosed my epilepsy and was astounded when my interviewer reassured me it wasn’t an issue, and we continued with the interview as normal. Since then, I have felt comfortable being open about my disability, thanks to the caring culture and support.

Another wonderful example is the time I disclosed my autism at work. It was soon after my diagnosis was finalised. I had gained a better understanding of why I had certain behaviours – one of which was trouble maintaining eye contact. 

As part of my role, I support the regional HR leadership team – it was in a meeting with the team that I disclosed my diagnosis and explained that since the move to remote working (due to COVID-19) I had been really struggling with keeping my video on in Zoom calls. 

Maintaining eye contact with one person is difficult and feeling the need to stay on camera and have multiple pairs of eyes looking at me was draining, causing headaches and I was struggling to focus. The team was so amazingly supportive – they were completely on board with me being able to turn off the video as I needed and encouraged me to let them know if there was any other support or accommodation I needed.”

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What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“I believe that there are two key things that can be done:

1. Employee resource groups (ERG) – to provide support, additional resources and a clear space for sharing. Our region recently created an ERG for People with Disabilities, and I joined their education and awareness committee due to my passion for the subject.

2. Actively create awareness and understanding – this goes hand in hand with the ERGs – if disabled employees are aware of the support and the resources and they see and hear stories of positive experiences they are more likely to reach out. It will help all employees as well in terms of overall awareness and reducing stereotypes and stigma which are detrimental in all situations.

Part of this is ensuring policies and values are lived and breathed – not just words on a page. This is something Cummins already does well in general. With disability the tricky part is helping to combat the stigma and attitudes from outside Cummins that can still impact employees.”

Kim Bennett, Principal Mine Closure Specialist | Stantec

Kim Bennett is Principal Mine Closure Specialist at Stantec. Kim has a condition that affects her peripheral nervous system (the nerves stretching from the spinal cord to the muscles). Symptoms include progressive weakness and muscle wasting of the legs and arms. 

“As a result of my condition, my ability to walk and stand is limited and I find it increasingly difficult to sit comfortably at a desk. On a daily basis I must manage chronic pain levels and fatigue, which impacts my ability to travel to and from an office.”

Read more about Kim’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace:

“The flexible benefits offered by Stantec have enabled me to work from home and be retained as a part time employee. I strongly value the financial independence and security associated with continuing to be employed, in addition to working in a field that I enjoy where I can develop my skills and knowledge.

Also, the additional benefits such as the ability to buy an additional four weeks leave enable me to have time-off work which I can commit to a dedicated rehabilitation program. I genuinely would not be able to continue working if these benefits were not available to me.”

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“To help people with disabilities thrive at the workplace I think the implementation of a senior role leading Inclusion and Diversity would further demonstrate an organizations commitment. 

The inclusion of disability awareness training for managers and mental health champions throughout the company could also help employees with disabilities feel respected and supported, whilst reducing any feelings of isolation. Identifying disability needs during recruitment to raise and continue awareness and support throughout the employee’s employment.”

 Top tip to find a workplace that will support you

Find out more about the benefits, policies, and initiatives that the employers endorsed by WORK180 offer to support employees with disabilities, from Employee Resource Networks and Groups for underrepresented communities to unlimited personal leave.

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Louise is a HR Business Partner at Southeastern Railway. Her dyslexia, a learning disability, was diagnosed as an adult.

Louise Davies, HR Business Partner | Southeastern Railway 

Louise is a HR Business Partner at Southeastern Railway. Her dyslexia, a learning disability, was diagnosed as an adult. 

“I have always struggled with memory weakness and barriers with literacy, leading to continually doubting my ability to string a sentence together.”

Read more about Louise’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace:

“My situation and how I felt started to change when the culture and strategy of our company focused on disability awareness. 

What made a mark for me was the responses from others and hearing other stories, this gave me confidence to talk more openly and to ask for help.

It can be difficult to get to this level of self-awareness. By taking little steps, my confidence grew and I now proudly state on my email signature to say I’m dyslexic.”

Louise_Davies_SoutheasternRailway_Intersectionality_Pillar2_WORK180
What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“The support from your employer is powerful and plays an important role in the engagement of all colleagues to be proud of their individuality and independence. 

By creating a business strategy that includes awareness and training, network groups, the use of assistive technologies, all of which needs to be fully supported and driven by the leaders, will help employees thrive in their careers.”

Emma Oliver is Managing Director and the Executive Sponsor of Disability Inclusion Program at Accenture Australia

Emma Olivier, Managing Director | Accenture

Emma Oliver was born without a left hand, but never let it become a barrier for to her achievement. Not only is she Managing Director and the Executive Sponsor of Disability Inclusion Program at Accenture Australia – she has even earned herself a Bronze Medallion and becoming Victoria’s first one-armed life saver. 

“As a mother, I have also always felt comfortable in juggling the demands of career and family. At times this has meant stepping away from work to meet the demands of a growing family.”

Read more about Emma’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace:

“My workplace colleagues and clients have never treated me differently because of my physical differences and I have always felt comfortable bringing my Authentic self to work. Having a workplace that has demonstrated support not just in words but in actions has been invaluable.”

Emma_Olivier_ Accenture_Intersectionality_Pillar2_WORK180_LinkedIn

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“Companies need to recognize that diversity and difference can be a superpower. We don’t need people that all think, look and act the same. Difference is the key to innovation and that should be encouraged and supported. 

Companies need to create space for differences to be accepted as the norm and not be seen as something special. This can be demonstrated by having the right policies, procedures and training in place to support disabled employees with adjustments they may need to thrive. Inclusion for all needs to be a leadership priority for all in the company.”

Amy Nakada, Electrical Tradesperson | Western Power

This year, at 32 years of age, Amy Nakada was diagnosed with ADHD, and is currently awaiting the return of assessments to see if she also has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Whilst the new diagnosis provides some clarity for Amy, time and education are still needed to better understand the breadth and adaptive strategies her diagnosis will require.  

“I have always struggled with interpersonal skills. It has affected me my whole life, people either seem to love me or hate me, there is no in between.”

Read more about Amy’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace

“I haven’t always been able to communicate effectively with people and as a result I have butted heads with superiors at work. It has made working in a male dominated space isolating. However, without any prompting, reason or further explanation, I have had some exceptional leaders accommodate for me, without making it a big deal. 

Chris Broughton, Lee Garner, Brett Dew and Steve Wilson based out of Kewdale have really been huge supports and treated me with compassion, equity and respect. Above and beyond any training they have and without medical notes or explanations. Leaders like this have made a difference, to me.”

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“Find ways of vetting the emotional Intelligence of people in management. Training that covers real life situations with ongoing support for these leaders. Training packages need to be comprehensive, because in real life, with real people… Issues are not fixed in a 30 second explanation on paper.”

Jenny_Watts_NAB__Intersectionality_Pillar2_WORK180_Endorsed_Employer

Jenny Watts-Sampson, Associate Director Accessibility | NAB

Jenny Watts-Sampson joined NAB two years ago as the Associate Director of Accessibility. She has worked to improve accessibility and inclusion of people with disability throughout her entire career.

“I have extensive expertise working in the disability sector and supporting organizations with their access and inclusion policy and procedures, development of implementation plans and strategies for review and monitoring.”

Read more about Jenny’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace

“In 2021 I was working to get a particular initiative up and had a deadline. As I seemed to be getting closer to getting the outcome I was working towards my frustration was growing as I was being asked to take extra steps that proved to be dead ends. I was able to reach out to people leaders who stepped in to support me get this initiative over the line before the deadline. it was great to know I could reach out, be heard and supported in the work I do.

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“Companies should have clear messaging, information, tools and resources for People Leaders to support team members with disability explore learning and development opportunities, secondments, etc.

Companies should ensure they have a robust system and process to access workplace adjustments so colleagues with disability have confidence in equitable participation to thrive in their careers. Lastly to challenge perceived ideas of the types of roles people with disability.  The mindset or disability bias of certain roles for people with disabilities is very damaging to opportunities to thrive in their careers.”

Alison Burgess received her Autism diagnosis later in life and had been working at EY for a little over a year at the time.

Alison Burgess, Change Manager, Talent | EY

Like many women of her generation, Alison Burgess received her Autism diagnosis later in life and had been working at EY for a little over a year at the time. 

“Receiving my diagnosis at the age of 36 was confronting; suddenly I had a new identity to come to terms with, including a new understanding of who I was at work, and I faced the decision of whether or not to disclose my Autism.”

Read more about Alison’s journey
 Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace

“The process of disclosing my diagnosis was made easier by the support I received from my leaders at the time. Their curiosity, invitation to share as much or as little as I wanted, and the general markers of inclusivity that I noticed around EY teams meant that I felt comfortable disclosing my disability and seeking the accommodations I now understood would be helpful.

I now feel at ease letting people know that I may need to use my fidgets to manage my energy, or perhaps turn off the video for a period because I find constant eye contact challenging. I’ve been invited to share my experiences to raise awareness for our leaders and people across the firm, as well as work closely with other Autistic members of the EY community.”

“Nothing About Us Without Us!” is a slogan used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group affected by that policy.

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“It’s essential that you include the voices of people with disability – “nothing about us without us” is an important phrase in the disability community.

I have worked in the diversity and inclusion space for several years and what I’ve noticed is people are often worried about saying the wrong thing or unintentionally causing offence. Help ensure voices from the disability community are engaged at all levels in your organization and as leaders, engage with curiosity.

People with disability bring a whole world of new perspectives and if you can effectively capture this, not only will you help people with disability thrive in their careers, but you will be opening a door to sharing news ideas with your clients and the broader community.”

Kylie_Pollock_nbn_Intersectionality_Pillar2_WORK180

Kylie Pollock | nbn

About eight years ago Kylie was diagnosed with chronic migraines and cluster headaches. It happened without warning and left Kylie seeing multiple neurologists to get a proper diagnosis and medication to manage the pain. 

“I suffer from chronic daily migraines. I think I’ve only had 8 days without one this year. I also have chronic cluster headaches. They’re sometimes called ‘suicide headaches’ because they’re incredibly painful. Apparently (and tragically) the suicide rate for cluster headache sufferers is twenty times national averages.

Having both chronic conditions is the perfect storm. It’s extremely rare to have both. It’s an invisible disability but sometimes it is visible because it looks like I’m having a stroke. I would lose control of one side of my body where I can’t move my legs or arms.”

Read more about Kylie’s journey
Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your workplace

“I’ve worked permanently from home for the last six years. I couldn’t manage my work the way I could if I worked in an office. Things like the fluorescent lights, and perfume [would trigger chronic migraines and headaches]. Initially, I would start work later to avoid peak hour trains. As things progressed, it was clear that it was a challenge to be in an office environment, so I started working permanently from home.

nbn_KyliePollock_WORK180Blog_Body3_June21

The moment of realization was when I attended a company-wide town hall event where the Chief Information Officer talked about the importance of being honest with ourselves and showing vulnerability.

She shared her own experience in overcoming adversity. She had a cancer scare. She was working in a very senior role at the time and was supported by her manager. She initially didn’t want people to know [about her cancer scare]. Her takeout was that you shouldn’t hide it and to talk about it. I admired her story because it was sincere and genuine.

Feeling inspired, I reached out to the CIO—it had been playing on my mind that I wasn’t being my true self at work. I decided to email her because our managers would benefit from disability awareness training to help support employees and customers with a disability. I mentioned that it was low cost and easy to complete. I sent it off and she responded almost immediately in full support.”

What could companies do to help people with disabilities thrive in their careers?

“To shift societal attitudes and inherent stigma and discrimination, companies need to make accessibility a priority. 

Also, small suggestions like the training I mentioned have big impacts on everyone and are instrumental to help ensure an inclusive environment for all, but those with disabilities.”

Is your workplace ready to join the conversation around intersectionality and disability support?

WORK180 doesn’t just promote great workplaces for women* — we help create them too! That’s why we have a range of free resources to help you implement progressive policies you can be proud of.

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Intersectionality and disability – what you need to know

People with a disability don’t need to adapt, organizations do. In a workplace setting, where an intersectional lens is not applied to employees with visible or invisible disabilities, it can lead to some individuals feeling excluded, isolated, misrepresented, and ultimately disengaged.

Get familiar with the basic definitions of intersectionality and disability to help to ignite the conversation and create awareness at your workplace.

Intersectionality - the basics

For many women* their race, age, religion, national origin  –among many other aspects of their identities– overlap with their physical and mental conditions, impacting their opportunities and experiences at the workplace. Intersectionality is a concept that helps to make sense of that interconnection and its implications. 

1. Intersectionality - concept definition

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe this convergence and its impact.

“We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status.

What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”

2. Intersectionality and radical feminism

Does intersectionality promote radical feminism? The elimination of structural inequality that Kimberlé Crenshaw coined with the term intersectionality does not have to do with the radical feminism some sectors are trying to link it to. Intersectionality is about civil rights…

“…Intersectionality it’s not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs. It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” – Read more in this article published by Time Magazine

Disabilities - the basics

The diversity of disability goes so far beyond the popular representations of it. There are disabilities that do not present themselves in a physical form. Many times, people with invisible disabilities are viewed as “strange” or “off” to others, but in fact they are dealing with a disability that makes them act the way that we do.

1. Visible vs. invisible disabilities

Invisible disabilities may not be easily discernible to the naked eye, but have side effects that may affect the way the individual thinks, hears, speaks or interacts with others. 

2. Invisible disabilities

These invisible disabilities may include: ADHD, Anxiety, Bipolar, Depression, OCD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, (ASD, sometimes referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome), Diabetes, Deafness, Other Chronic Illnesses.

3. Visible disabilities

Visible disabilities are more recognizable by just looking at the person. They may have facial features that easily identify their disability, they may have involuntary shaking through-out their body or they may not be physically able to move as the average individual does.

Common examples of visible disabilities are: Down Syndrome Blindness Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Tourette Syndrome Amputations Paralysis Cerebral Palsy Muscular Dystrophy (MD) Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Around 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability. This makes these individuals the world’s largest ‘minority’ and yet, according to Scope’s Guy Chaudoir, disabled people are four times as likely to be unemployed as others in the UK. What’s more, only 13% of the American companies have met the U.S. Department of Labor target of having 7% disability representation in the workforce. These facts are despite the fact that this untapped pool of candidates are proven to increase creativity and productivity. – Read more

*by women, we mean all who identify and/or experience oppression as a woman (including cis, trans, intersex, non-binary or gender non-conforming individuals).

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About the Author
Catalina Corrales is WORK180's Content and Retention Marketing Team Lead. As a migrant woman, Cata experienced first-hand the barriers women face to find quality jobs. As a journalist, she knows information is power. By creating and curating useful content for women to choose a truly supportive workplace, she seeks to help all women to make informed decisions about their careers.

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