Invisible Disabilities: Women in the Workforce

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Research was performed during the fall of 2017 by Jes Osrow, an HR professional with a focus on Diversity and Inclusion. She is an expert in coaching, mentoring and tech recruitment and has worked her entire career with two Invisible Disabilities (ID): depression and anxiety.

The goal is to expand the pool of input from professional women who are forging forward with their successful, albeit challenged, careers while managing their IDs. The primary step for individuals is to self-identify their ID (though most will not have used this term, and many may not have yet seen themselves as part of this group).

Invisible Disabilities: What Does the Research Tell Us?

Invisible Disabilities have been explored by researchers on a limited basis with literature reviews in psychology, medicine, education, business and other areas revealing scarce study and insight. Matthews & Harrington (2000) defined IDs as. “…both mental and physical conditions that are not immediately noticeable by an observer…” (p. 405). Regarding IDs in the workplace, as recently as 2014, Santuzzi, Waltz, Finkelstein & Rupp noted that, “Workers with IDs encounter unique challenges compared to [all] workers…and even workers with visible disabilities.” (Abstract)

Educational institutions have been most active in supporting students with disabilities in an effort to enhance success in various settings. Still, IDs are rarely mentioned and akin to many learning disabilities, remain the responsibility of the afflicted person. They are challenged to communicate with staff in environments like Disability Offices in higher education or to the workplace HR. According to the CDC “In 2014 [it was] found that 27.4% of women ages 18–64 identified with a disability in some form (compared to 20.8% of men in the same age range).” While the rest of society has visible cues to indicate (some) disabilities, there is a large faction (sometimes estimated as high as 74% of all disabilities) that are unseen. These IDs are a compelling subject that necessitates study. Limited research, or even professional conversation about IDs, suggests possible challenges in awareness of their existence, understanding of the demographics and implications for both the workforce and workplace.

Invisible Disabilities Today

One industry struggling publicly with issues of D&I is the tech industry. In 2017, Jes Osrow submitted a proposal to speak about preliminary research on IDs at the Anita Borg Institute Grace Hopper Conference (the pre-eminent conference for women in tech). While the anonymous reviewers of the proposal had positive comments, their main constructive feedback was:

“Before reading this submission, I was not familiar with the term ID and would guess other attendees would also need more insight into what it is and more details on the mental illnesses that might be considered IDs.”

A complete lack of awareness and understanding of the term “ID” indicates challenges present among reviewers (highly placed and experienced women in tech) in understanding the definition, reach and workplace implications of women in the tech industry. These comments reveal a glaring need to expand the conversation and the need for current research into this topic. The research conducted focused on women in business but is not solely applicable to the industry; working women in all industries are affected by the challenges of IDs.

Invisible Disabilities & Working Women: Qualitative Research 2017

Challenged by her own IDs, Jes Osrow began with the goal of more clearly defining the issue of IDs among working women. She created and administered a survey reviewed by experts in education and market research fields. The survey was then distributed through a network of professional women via networks like Dreamers & Doers, Tech Ladies, WIT PDX, and other communities. It quickly became clear there were gaps in understanding about the breadth and depth of IDs among women previously or currently in the workplace. The goal was to collect data on 100 participants.

The response was swift and overwhelming with 102 comprehensive survey submissions within five weeks. The survey collected data on the demographic areas of age, gender identity, sexual orientation, industry with commentary about their IDs and work situations. The authors intend to publish the findings and data collected in multiple articles to help move the conversation forward and implement change.

Invisible Disabilities among Working Women: Demographics

Data from the 102 respondents shows the average age is 35 years old within the range 18–53 years. All women were working either full or part-time and many were entrepreneurs. Data indicated seven clear career areas with positions in technology being noted as the predominant industry represented.

Most respondents noted they were working with one or more health care providers for both diagnosis and intervention regarding their ID. Some also noted self-diagnosis, treatment and ongoing self-management. Despite self-awareness of IDs, the main area of concern is responsibility in terms of disclosure with employers and coworkers. Thoughts were shared around stigma, shame, and possible changes in work expectations and trajectory. These matters echoed previous research (2014, Santuzzi, Waltz, Finkelstein & Rupp) noting that, “…current legislation and policies might not be sensitive to the unique experiences and disclosure decisions faced by workers with IDs” (Abstract).

The article is originally written by Jes Osrow, Casey Sweet, and Pamela Smith EDD, LD, RD on and is republished with the author’s permission.

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