Scientists estimate there are about 86 billion neurons in the human brain. That’s not quite the number of stars estimated to be in the Milky Way (somewhere between 200-400 billion) but the analogy remains a useful one. Just as it would be absurd, given the trillions of potential variations, to think two galaxies could be identical, so too is it ludicrous to think any two brains are completely alike, or that there is such a thing as an entirely ‘normal’ brain. Instead our brains – to greater and lesser degrees – are mixtures of commonality and variation, the consequence of genetic code and environmental conditions.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ is attributed to Judy Singer, an Australian social scientist who was also autistic, and it was first used in the context of autism to question the framing of the condition as ‘abnormal’. ‘Abnormal’ is a socially coercive term that implies some perfected physiological state to which we must all aspire and conform. With the concept of neurodiversity, there is no ‘normal’. Autism is just a different way of being and one of the many variations expressed by the human race. This encompasses dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia, as well as people’s preference for socialising with others, for example whether someone has a tendency to be more of an introvert or an extrovert. Seen in this way, it is argued that neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life on this planet.
Neurodiversity in technology
Autism is common in the tech industry, much more so than people might expect. In fact, some studies suggest as much as a third of software engineers and technical programmers may be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, with certain types of autism characterised by a highly-analytical and detail-oriented approach to tasks that’s uniquely suited to such roles. It’s also an illustration of the way in which an acceptance of neurodiversity – and diversity in general – can be hugely beneficial to the workplace.
Because of this, some tech companies are now actively engaged in encouraging even more (neuro)diversity, recognising its positive impact not only for the working environment itself, but also on innovation and creativity and the products that emerge from this. Mariangel Maldonado is the Global Manager of Inclusion, Diversity and Belonging (IDB) at Booking.com says, “Our development teams in the technology department are really mixed so you get a lot of different people working together, and that means that the products they’re creating also have a lot of diversity in them.”
But why is such diversity important? Essentially, it comes down the nature of bias, and the way in which bias is transferred from the creator of a product to the product itself. Say, for example, your development team is all white, all male, all American, all right-handed – the product they produce will invariably reflect the (often unconscious) bias in such a homogenous group. The tech industry is one of the worst when it comes to gender bias, with 80% of its workforce made up of men, while biases in algorithms and search engines are well-known: type in ‘female’ to Google and the first suggestion is ‘reproductive system’; type in ‘engineer’ and most of the images are of men – this is essentially a restatement of the pernicious old prejudice that a woman’s primary function is to produce babies and a man’s is to build things.
Bucking the trends
Chuck Stephens is Global Head of IDB at Booking.com, and he feels the company is uniquely placed to make significant strides when it comes to neurodiversity. “We’re 17,500 employees from over 140 different nationalities , so we’ve got international diversity pretty well covered,” he says. “But that’s just one aspect. We take a very wide view of diversity, which includes all the characteristics a colleague might use to define themselves, such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender-identity, physical ability, age, language skills, socio-economic status, religion – as well as introversion, extroversion and thinking styles. There are lots of factors to consider, but if we’re able to understand the world better – people better – we’re going to be able to create more robust solutions in the products we design.”
According to Mariangel Maldonado, this means creating an environment where people feel safe and comfortable with their identity and where their dignity is respected. “It’s really important that this feels authentic for individual employees, that it’s not a ‘top-down’ approach but a collaboration. Here at Booking.com, we’re recognizing the importance of fostering inclusion from a more holistic approach and together with employees exploring the relevance of neurodiversity in the workplace. We are trying to build communities where there is peer-to-peer support, so it’s about listening, taking on a lot of feedback and finding ways to connect people with similar needs.”
Creating a more diverse workplace
In practical terms, fostering an inclusive environment requires a multi-pronged approach. It could be that some employees feel their productivity and creativity are stifled by being in an open-plan office with lots of noise and people around them, whereas others thrive in such circumstances. Similarly, large brainstorming meetings are not for everyone, especially those with more introverted personalities or specific conditions, so the key lies in providing lots of different approaches to getting ideas in order that everyone’s voice gets heard.
This is also true of company events. Booking.com has a networking and social event once a month called ‘Freaky Fridays’. While the traditional after-work drinks and networking can be fun for some, the company realised that it needed to evolve its approach to appeal to a broader range of employee needs. Now in addition to a DJ and drinks before the weekend, employees also have multiple options to connect on their own terms and form groups that express their particular interests, whether it’s a ‘game night’, a ‘movie night’, going to a concert, quizzes or bowling.
“Through this process there may be results that we’re not yet aware of, and that might have profound effects on our business in ways we don’t even know yet,” says Mariangel Maldonado. Or as Chuck Stephens puts it, “The creation of new technology is in some ways more an art than a science. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into it, so the question is ‘how do we go about making things so that each individual is able to be at their creative best?’”
While acknowledging and celebrating neurodiversity may not be the whole answer, tech companies like Booking.com increasingly recognise that without it, they are missing out on vast untapped potential in their employees, and are increasingly determined to harness it. Vive la difference as the saying goes.
Promotional video from Booking.com
If you like the idea of challenging yourself to shape the way people travel, explore a career at Booking.com.