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#BreakTheBias: International women’s day

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

At Business Disability Forum, our focus is on disability (it does what it says on the tin). But within the field of “disability” is a richness and diversity of human experience that too often we fail to explore. We are increasingly focusing on intersectionality – a fancy word encapsulating being human and reflecting the fact that we are all multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. “Disabled people” can be women too, and so I wanted to write a blog for International Women’s Day to shine a light on some of the issues that uniquely affect disabled women.

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Not either or

Both gender and disability are under the Equality Act – and many of the issues in the different strands are the same. Do I see role models that I can aspire to, does this organisation reflect and welcome “someone like me”, will I belong? Yet too often, different characteristics or strands of diversity are seen as entirely separate – I recall some years ago when we were planning career development courses for disabled employees hearing a story about a woman who used a wheelchair who was told she could either go on a development course for disabled people OR one for women! This single-strand approach is embedded in the Equality Act itself of course, where a claim can only be made on the basis of one protected characteristic, not a combination. And yet often the intersections are critical.


This month, the Home Office launched the ‘“Enough” campaign to end Violence Against Women and Girls’. Business Disability Forum worked alongside the Home Office to support this vital campaign to ensure that it is inclusive and accessible to all women and girls – including women and girls with disabilities. We shared our best practice resources on inclusive communications and encouraged the team to evaluate the accessibility of their campaign website, to create a British Sign Language video to share the key campaign messages with d/Deaf women and girls and ensure all campaign videos are captioned.

Lived experience

One example of where the narrative is often very single track is neurodiversity. Particularly when thinking about autism, the narrative we (perhaps unconsciously) use is too often a male narrative which may bear little or no relevance to the experience of an autistic girl or woman. Autistic girls and women present differently from boys and men and are often better at “masking” or hiding their autism – and often struggle to get a diagnosis as result. Diagnosis must be a choice but too often it is a privilege too – a topic I discuss with Dr Nancy Doyle in our Neurodiversity podcast series. Also in that series, you can also hear from other brilliant and neurodiverse women, Nicola James of Lexxic, Lyn Lee at Shell and Professor Amanda Kirby, who has also written a blog on the topic. Our understanding of neurodiversity is relatively new – the term itself was coined by Judy Singer as recently as 1998 – and we are still learning. But we must make sure that as we develop our knowledge and understanding, we do so in a way that includes all lived experience.

One “condition” or more accurately, life stage, which is highly relevant to International Women’s Day, is menopause. In 2019, Business Disability Forum ran a session at our annual conference on “talking taboos” – discussing the conditions and issues that were seldom talked about – and menopause was one of them. This choice turned out to be controversial with fears from some that including a life event that affects half the population in a panel about disability was turning back the clock on gender equality. Then, a judge had found that in a particular case, menopause was ruled to be a disability because of the significance and length of its impact. However, we label it, in a society that is obsessed with (not) ageing, we need to remember that growing older is a privilege. I am convinced that it is only because we are the first generation of women – from all backgrounds – to be employed in significant numbers and crucially, in positions of seniority, that this topic is finally on the table. And we are still learning. Now, menopause is one of the top topics for our advice service and we have created a factsheet on menopause and other gynaecological conditions which you might find helpful for further reading.

But each woman’s experience is different. So as a line manager, you need to be prepared to talk to people. Listen to what they tell you. Focus on the barriers they are experiencing and together work out how you can remove them. It’s not about being an expert but about knowing and understanding the people you work with; asking everyone “what do you need to do your job well”, noticing if they don’t seem to be themselves and asking how you can help.

Disabled women are telling their own stories and it was my privilege to be part of our podcast series “Who are we? The people behind the job title” which also featured guests Steph Cutler, Caroline Eglinton and our very own Lucy Ruck and Katherine Beavis. So, this International Women’s Day, let’s challenge the one-dimensional narrative by sharing our rich and unique experiences of disability, difference, ageing and more. It is only by getting our voices out there that we can change the story and #BreakTheBias.

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