Disabilities at work make life more difficult for women than men. And when the disability falls into the “nonvisible disability” category, women suffer even more.
That’s a key takeaway from a study of employees with disabilities by the Working Mother Research Institute. Consulting firm PwC sponsored the research. Findings come from interviews with nearly 1,400 working adults with disabilities.
While the full report contains information on individuals with visible disabilities as well as those who have nonvisible disabilities, the more compelling information from a human resources vantage point concerns the latter.
What is a nonvisible, or invisible, disability? The website invisibledisabilities.org describes it this way: “Invisible disabilities refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.”
The Working Mother research included case studies of women with such disabilities as Asperger’s and fibromyalgia. What distinguishes this group of disabled workers area, among other characteristics, the following:
They tend not to report their disability to management.
When they do report it, they often do not receive any accommodation.
They are less satisfied on the job than those with visible disabilities.
Nearly 1 in 4 who requested a flexible work schedule to accommodate their disability did not get one, compared to fewer than 3 in 10 of those with a visible disability who made the same request.
As with all disabilities, disabled women statistically fare worse at work than do men. And those with nonvisible disabilities fare even worse. Men are more likely to ask for and receive accommodation for a nonvisible disability, they face less “prejudice” during the recruitment phase, they advance in their careers faster, and they are paid more.
“Indeed, when we look at the workplace supports people with disabilities want versus what they get, we find women have ‘satisfaction gaps’ that are three-fold larger than men. In particular, women are significantly less likely to say their compensation is fair, their opinion counts, their coworkers respect them, and/or their supervisor supports them in work life balance,” the researchers write.
Encouraging employees with hidden disabilities to disclose them and discuss them can unlock vast hidden potential in these workers, the study said.
“The opportunity for employers is big when it comes to making nonvisible disabilities a greater part of the conversation at work: In our survey, only half (52 percent) of people with nonvisible disabilities say they are comfortable discussing their disability with their coworkers or human resources.”
Companies must win the trust of employees and ensure that they feel safe when they disclose. This may be happening already. The researchers cited other data that suggests employers are going to extra efforts to encourage people with nonvisible disabilities to disclose them. One study cited revealed that 90 percent of employers had encouraged disclosure compared to less than half of them in 2013.
“We find anecdotally that disclosing a disability at work can free up a huge amount of ‘emotional real estate.’ Energy that had been directed to not disclosing can be redirected toward productivity and innovation at work,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, told the researchers.