This Is How To Create The Biggest Changes for Women With Disabilities In Years

Denise Brodey

Each year when Women’s History Month comes around, there’s an explosion of content online about women. This year, there are plenty of signs that corporate America is poised to create change for women with disabilities the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. Here’s my thinking: The fight for equal pay and the #metoo movement have jumpstarted awareness of the huge challenges women face in the workplace.

For the first time, the topic of inclusion took center stage at the World Economic Forum 2019. And then there’s renewed attention to the issue of web accessibility, which plays a part in general disability awareness. The dismal employment numbers for women with disabilities give also impart a sense of urgency.

In 2018 and thus far in 2019, only 30% of women with a disability in the U.S. have jobs. Then there’s the fact that disability of all kinds affects women disproportionally. Instead of stockpiling good intentions, here are three ways to start taking action to solve key problems for women in the workplace now:

The Problem: Women Tend To Avoid Risk At Work

Why exactly is it so difficult to determine the number of people who do not talk about their invisible disability, such as ADHD, depression or chronic pain? One reason is that many women avoid taking risks in the workplace and keep their disability hidden.

Some invisible illnesses hold more stigma than others. Yet, there is so much potential for change if women could talk openly about it. “The sad reality is that ADHD is a term steeped in stigma, and poorly understood by others. It’s not a question of appropriateness as much as a high risk of encountering negative preconceived notions that may further chip away at their self-esteem, says Ellen Littman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Mount Kisco, New York.

As for depression, it strikes nearly twice as many women as men and is often caused by pressures such as the stress of being the primary caretaker and working.

The prevalence of headache, abdominal and pelvic pain and musculoskeletal pain is higher in women than man, according to multiple studies done by the National Institutes of Health.

Creating Change Now

One of the biggest changes an employer can make is to understand that a manager (at leadership’s directive) must be more open to creating support systems that affect the daily lives of women. Instead of thinking big picture (an all-staff mental health education training program, for instance), put more effort into small things that tend to make a huge difference in the life of an employee with depression or other disability, say experts. If every manager took just 2.3% of their day (about 14 minutes) to talk with an employee requesting an informal accommodation, work-life for women would be a whole lot better.

Dr. Littman generally suggests that people not use the label and instead describe behaviors. “They can send up a trial balloon such as, I can’t believe it’s so late; sometimes I really lose track of the time, she explains. If there is a supportive response, acceptance is not ensured, but it may be the first step towards a greatly desired connection with a manager, who at some point you may want to approach to discuss accommodations.

The more upfront you are about your disability, the easier it will be for someone else with a learning disability to start their own conversation.

An employee’s suggestions might include a schedule change that allows time for therapy appointments or adjusted working hours that help workers avoid commuting at peak traffic times. More than dollars, these require a change in work culture and support from leadership.

The Problem: Disability Affects Women Disproportionally

In the past, due to discriminatory practices, the voices and lived experiences of women with disabilities have often been ignored by their communities, according to the Disability Rights Fund. Every person at work with a disability has a story to tell. But women, in particular, fear taking risks at work, according to a new study by KPMG, a global accounting firm. “When it comes to their careers, many women find themselves in a bit of a bind. They’re trying to preserve their gains, so instead of playing to win, they’re often playing not to lose, whether hesitating to take perceived big risks or feeling the need to take outsized chances,” said Michele Meyer-Shipp, KPMG’s chief diversity officer.

Creating Change Now:

Connecting with a group of people with a similar disability or who consider themselves allies to your cause can be one of the most effective forms of helping women advocate for change. One way to do this is through an Employee Resource Group (ERG). Women, in particular, seem to find these groups helpful, but there are plenty of men, too. In fact, 36% of Abilities in Motion participants identify as allies (of people with disabilities). In an effort to learn more about how ERG’s actual work, I sat down with members of Abilities in Motion (AIM). The group is just one of KPMG USA’s employee resource groups. AIM’s model, honed over the past 12 years, is impactful and wide reaching. It has 15 chapters that operate across KPMG and those participants are now rising through the ranks to act as mentors and shining a light on ability and inclusion.

While large corporations may understand the mechanics of setting up an ERG, many small and mid-size businesses don’t. Know the ground rules: It is important to note that they are organized with the approval of the company but exist outside of the organizational hierarchy. They receive support from the national diversity team and the Chief Diversity Officer, who reports to the C-suite level and board. Speaking to members of the group, they each had a different personal story to tell. But on some points, they agreed that “This group allows us to tell our story, practice it until we feel confident and then own the narrative in the workplace.” They see their most important role as being a support structure for fellow employees who need advice, whether that be mentorship, professional development or help navigating an accommodation request.

The Problem: Double Inequity In Wages

Two pay gapsdisability and gendermeanse more chances for double inequity. There has been a great deal of reporting on the gender wage gap. Less prominent are stories on the disability pay gap, which will be the focus of this post. In some states, it is still legal to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. The Department of Labor argues that “employment at less than the minimum wage is designed to prevent the loss of employment opportunities for these individuals.”That may be arguable, critics say, but this is not: A report by the American Institutes of Research shows that people with disabilities are paid an average of 37% less on the dollar than people without disabilities. Even at the highest levels of a company, employees still earn less than their peers who are not identified as disabled. The pay gap actually widens as the level of education increases.

Creating Change Now:

Ultimately, creating change is about how to protect human rights and banish implicit bias. Pay equity is both a substantive human rights entitlement in the labor market and a systemic human rights remedy for past and ongoing discrimination, according to one equal pay coalition, which outlines a plan for wage equity by 2025, here.)Given that women are the majority of workers in non-standard employment, according to the group, they recommend amending current law to ensure part-time, part-year, contract, temporary agency workers are paid the same rate as full-time workers. The first step is always education. Widen the number of people who understand the foundational elements of creating a fair pay environment. For example, do you know the three types of employee classifications and how to identify them? Are you clear on the basics of the minimum wage, overtime and record keeping? Thought so. There are dozens of webinars and training programs that are free, often organized by nonprofit organizations seeking to get the message out about fair pay now, so their equity can be baked into any new strategic planning as soon as possible.

Denise Brodey


I am a former editor-in-chief turned journalist (New York Times, Glamour and @HuffPost) I write about mental health and its effect on families and work. “The Elephant in…

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