“ADHD Masking Is Another Undue Burden for Women at Work”
“Masking is a survival strategy that neurodivergent individuals use to navigate and thrive in a workforce not designed for them. And it is completely and utterly exhausting, contributing to fatigue, burnout, and feelings of self-deprecation.”
When it comes to women, work, and ADHD, it’s impossible to really dig deep without understanding the lingering biases that women and other underrepresented groups face. These biases, combined with the experience of being neurodivergent in a working world not made for them, create a perfect storm for masking, exhaustion, and burnout.
Masking, specifically ADHD masking, is a burden for people with ADHD. For women, it’s even more intense because many may have already adjusted themselves to fit an outdated definition of feminine success.
Creating a more inclusive professional environment for neurodivergent women — one where companies can leverage the very unique and needed strengths neurodivergent talent brings to the table — depends on having an accurate view of the obstacles tripping up women with ADHD.
Missing this perspective often leads to well-meaning but harmful advice such as, “Just be yourself, and success will follow.”
What is ADHD Masking?
In general, ADHD masking is a concept and strategy that women with ADHD may intuitively understand before they hear the definition. Put simply; masking is intentionally shifting your behavior to hide your differences. For example, a woman with ADHD might smile and nod during a conversation even though she tuned out long ago, or she may secretly work late into the night to overcompensate for not staying on task for a deadline.
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Masking is often preceded by asking, “What would a ‘normal’ person do?” And then working hard to mimic that. It’s a survival strategy that neurodivergent individuals use to navigate and thrive in a workforce not designed for them.
And it is completely and utterly exhausting, contributing to fatigue, burnout, and feelings of self-deprecation. The emotional, cognitive, and even physical labor that comes with trying to fit a mold not built for women with ADHD can feel like holding down multiple jobs at once.
Women are More Likely to be Undiagnosed, Misdiagnosed for ADHD
Women are less likely to be accurately diagnosed with ADHD in childhood. 1 (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), boys are twice as likely as girls to get diagnosed with ADHD.) 2
Now we are seeing a fast-growing cohort of women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s getting diagnosed with ADHD for the first time. Their diagnoses aren’t benign. They occur after decades of being misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety or repeatedly being told to “get their act together.” Such sentiments often leave women wondering, “What is wrong with me?” and becoming extremely good at masking.
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When a neurodivergent woman lacks a diagnosis that could help her understand and accept her unique wiring, the impulse to hide oneself can arise. Masking may become unconscious and automatic, so much so it becomes ingrained in her brain and, nonetheless, exhausting.
Women in the Workplace Walk a Tightrope
In January 2023, Fortune reported that women, for the first time, lead more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies as CEOs. 3 Those numbers may mean progress, considering that in 2015, The New York Times famously reported, “Fewer women run big companies than men named John.” 4
But surely, it’s not enough. Gender disparities aren’t limited to the C-suite. For the eighth consecutive year, McKinsey and Company’s annual Women in the Workplace report found that women struggle to advance in the ranks, beginning with entry-level positions, thanks to “broken rungs” on the corporate ladder.5
And the disparity is much more significant for women of color and non-binary individuals.
Women must walk across a fragile tightrope at work, and neurodivergence makes this more challenging: One issue is that feminine traits are not the standard for leadership. But at the same time, women who don’t exhibit femininity are judged as less likable. Often, women in leadership positions are amazingly aware of their emotions — and the reactions of others when those emotions become visible. Knowing this compounds the fear neurodivergent women may carry that neurotypical people may notice the things they try and conceal.
Women in the Workplace: Expectation Bias
Unconscious bias causes people to unknowingly alter how they see the world to fit their expectations. Expectation bias occurs when people dismiss others who don’t fit their expectations.
Now, consider stereotypical expectations for women in the workplace — like note-taking, event planning, and saying “yes” to menial projects outside their role — against the backdrop of common ADHD symptoms and executive function weaknesses with planning, organization, and multitasking.
The cost of not conforming to expectations, even unreasonable ones, may involve a backlash that impacts a neurodivergent woman’s standing or security at work.
Let’s Stop Failing Women: How to Navigate the Journey Together
Neurodivergent women can work to cease and desist unhelpful masking behaviors. But until workplaces move the needle on bias in general, this leaves a disproportionate burden on women’s shoulders.
While unmasking has tremendous benefits, it also carries a risk. The American Disability Act (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities; however, unconscious bias is real. There is no shortage of stories about individuals who experienced career consequences after revealing their neurodivergence to employers and colleagues.
For women, gender bias at work makes unmasking more complicated. However, there are plenty of good reasons to show up more fully. One safe place to start could be discussing work preferences and needs with one or two close colleagues. For example, a woman could say, “The back-to-back Zoom meetings really wear me out and prevent me from being fully productive. Do you mind if we make our weekly check-in a phone meeting?”
As neurodivergent women navigate their journeys in the workplace, one thing we know for sure is that ADHD masking is not simply an individual issue.
Sarah Greenberg, MFT, MA, M.Ed., BCC, is a psychotherapist, board-certified coach, and Executive Director of Behavior Change & Expertise at Understood.org.
Neurodivergent Women in the Workplace: Next Steps
- Free Download: Use This ADHD Blueprint to Find Your Passion
- Read: The Real-Life Risks and Rewards of Disclosing ADHD at Work
- Learn: How to Help Your Boss Help You
- Blog: “I’m Not Hiding My ADHD Anymore”
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View Article Sources
1Glasofer, A., Dingley, C., Kim, J., Colosimo, R., & Gordon, H. R. D. (2023). Medication Decision Making in Low-Income Families of Black Children With ADHD: A Mixed Methods Study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547231158382
1Young, S., Adamo, N., Ásgeirsdóttir, B.B., Branney, P., Beckett, M., Colley, W., Cubbin, S., Deeley, Q., et al. (2020) Females with ADHD: An Expert Consensus Statement Taking a Lifespan Approach Providing Guidance for the Identification and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Girls and Women. BMC Psychiatry. 20(1):404. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02707-9
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and Statistics About ADHD. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html
3Hinchliffe, Emma. (January 12, 2023) Women CEOs Run More Than 10% of Fortune 500 Companies for the First Time in History. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2023/01/12/fortune-500-companies-ceos-women-10-percent/
4Wolfers, Justin. (March 2, 2015). Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/upshot/fewer-women-run-big-companies-than-men-named-john.html
5McKinsey & Company. Women in the Workplace 2022. (October 18, 2022). https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace