Defence by diversity: Let’s fight with everything we have

Seán Fay from the Context Factory recalls how diversity played a decisive role in resolving past crises and emphasises how embracing diversity of all kinds, including those with neurodiversity, may prove key as the world battles Coronvirus/Covid-19.

The last time the human race was challenged as much as it is right now was 81 years ago, when many countries mobilised to fight each other all over the world.

As we prepare to fight together, we are now facing what Bill Gates called in his March 2015 Ted Talk the battle “not against missiles, but microbes.”

So we were told that the greatest risk to our species was not a war, but a virus. We were told we were not ready to fight a virus that would spread so easily like the Spanish Flu, but we did not really take action.

“Is there a role for the State in engaging with neurodiverse talent, not as a responsibility but as a resource?”

This is because as a species we are primed to react, but less disposed to prevent. Do we have a recurring, hardwired fault in who we listen to? Who makes the calls on what we do, as a society, as a company, as a community or even as a species?

We are celebrating #Neurodiversityweek this week (16 to 20 March). It has a core focus on addressing the stigma of ‘your label,’ as 75pc of autistic students in the UK report being bullied at school. Does that experience prepare them for responding to adverts from companies seeking innovators?

When your programme, country, species is making an open call for the ideas that might solve the pressing issue we all face now, how do we ensure that we are locked and loaded with all of the potential problem solvers?

Neurodiversity in business

Three years after the mobilisation of World War II, The Daily Telegraph ran a cryptic crossword puzzle on January 13th 1942, it played a crucial role in saving a projected additional 14m lives in the war.

Historical crossword used to recruit cryptologists in 1942.

Historical crossword used to recruit cryptologists in 1942.

You have already heard about and seen the film about famous recruits to Bletchley Park. The ‘professor types’ from Oxford or Cambridge universities like Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Bill Tutte etc. However, by 1945, 75pc of the staff of Bletchley Park were women.

Its veteran ‘Role of Honour’ data holds twice as many accounts for women than it does for men.

There would have been no success without the much less accounted for achievement of women like, Pamela Rose (née Gibson) head of Naval Indexing, a section that has subsequently been hailed as a precursor of the Information Age. Pat Davies (née Owtram) who was the first woman to go on to study at St Andrews, Oxford and Harvard and Charlotte Webb (née Vine-Stevens) who went from Bletchley to the Pentagon.

The point being made here, is when the stakes are high, we cannot afford to only harness parts of the ingenuity of our species, we need to access and use all of it.

If we are loading a gun for a fight, we ensure we have all bullets loaded, not just one bullet in the chamber. Better still, lets plan to avoid the fight?

The business case to get more diversity to fix things, rather than to better avoid them, can also be seen in the 2007 financial meltdown that saw the global equity markets lose $10trn in market capitalisation.

That crisis has a neurodiverse angle in that Michael Burry’s place on the spectrum brought him well outside the group think of the ‘established leaders’ like the 13 men who ran Lehman Brothers. The more interesting point to me, was that in their 157th year of existence, Lehmans made their first female appointment onto their leadership team, but only a few months before all the lights went out. We need to see greater diversity of all types as not just how best to react, but better still to prevent.

Are important calls such as Startup Weekend COVID-19 Remote Edition being run by Gene Murphy of Startup Boost the Telegraph advert of our times? How do we know that today’s versions of individuals like Alan, Pamela, Pat and Charlotte might not show up in the mix?

Is there a role for the State in engaging with neurodiverse talent, not as a responsibility but as a resource? The European Social Fund (ESF) and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) fund programmes to assist those with autism to find and retain meaningful employment.

The US Federal Government has adopted the First Step Act, it requires federal prisons to screen for neurodiversity in order to break the cycle of being locked out of opportunities of an economy even when at a 50-year low for unemployment. However, while neurodiversity is present in levels many times over the general population in any prison, it is also the same in any rich list, particularly when looking at self-made wealth.

Enterprise Ireland is doing much to encourage more female entrepreneurs. However, the $1bn-plus Irish exit I know of was achieved by Rosaleen Blair who sold her company Alexander Mann Solutions two years ago in a deal worth $1.1bn (€921m). Other inspiring female entrepreneurs to watch include Jayne Ronayne of Talivest.

How long have we been in this loop? Dr Helen Taylor has spent the last ten years creating “The Evolution of Complementary Cognition” at the University of Cambridge as a researcher affiliated with the McDonald Institute. This new evolutionary theory puts ‘disability’ at the core of what brought us through many of the challenges our species has had on this planet.

As we are now tasked with a problem that does not discriminate against colour, sex, gender, mobility, who you love, how you think or who you worship, how much depends on us doing the same?

Author Seán Fay is CEO of The Context Factory (@ContextFactory) – Technology for diversity in hiring, not to lower the bar, but to widen the gate

Published: 20 March 2020