(Reuters) — Caroline Ashrafi, who built a successful career as a manager at KPMG in Britain while privately struggling with mental health problems, recalls being sent on a management training course on how to retain talented women.
She found that discussions — ostensibly intended to increase diversity in the workplace — had little to do with her.
"Most people were talking about childcare, working part-time, being a woman. And I just sat there and thought none of them apply to me," she said. "What struck me then was that my biggest barrier is my depression."
Companies are working harder than ever to make their workplaces diverse. But in their efforts to reach out to women and members of ethnic minorities, many may be overlooking one of the biggest groups of under-represented talent in their midst: Those living with disabilities.
The disabled are rarely covered in company reports into diversity, despite being the world's largest minority group, numbering more than one billion, according to the World Health Organization.
The debate around corporate diversity tends to be framed as a way of making workplaces less "pale, male and stale". If the problem is that women and members of ethnic minorities are under-represented, then the solution is to hire, retain and promote more of them.
But some advocates say that reduces diversity to a narrow conversation about ticking gender and race boxes, rather than looking more broadly at the ways people are different.
"Sometimes when I talk to firms about working with them you often get the 'Oh, we're not doing disability, we're doing women, we're doing women and black people at the moment,'" said Helen Cooke, who advises companies on how to recruit and retain disabled graduates in Britain.
"That is the approach a lot of them will take rather than, 'let's be inclusive for everybody.'"
A senior headhunter in London recalls looking for candidates for a top executive role at a major financial services firm which had been at pains to express its interest in "diversity".
His list of candidates included people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation and physical disability.
"After our shortlist review meeting, the head of HR called me and said rather sheepishly, 'What we were really wondering was...do you have any middle-aged white women?'," said the headhunter, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The fear factor
The business case for having a diverse workforce and leadership is well understood. Different backgrounds and experience encourage people to think differently, helping organizations to compete. Recruiting from wider groups broadens the talent pool.
Both of those arguments apply to people living with disabilities as surely as they apply to women or those from ethnic minorities.
Cooke, the consultant, says many companies are well-intentioned, but don't know how to target talented disabled individuals.
"There is a huge fear factor around disability and we are afraid of getting it wrong and we are afraid of what to do and what to say and embarrassing somebody," said Cooke, who has used a wheelchair all her life after suffering a spinal tumour as a baby.
Richard Priestley believes it is up to him to put people at ease. Head of retirement income at Canada Life in the UK, Priestley broke his neck in what he describes as a "really dull" cycling accident, two weeks before he was due to get married in 1998.
He was working with Dutch insurer Aegon in Edinburgh when he came off his bike, paralyzing him from the chest down and leaving him with limited mobility in one hand. He has since worked for Lloyds Banking Group and now Canada Life in London.
"As I have moved through various employers it is all about the people around you who make it either easy or hard to do the job in a wheelchair. The biggest challenge is that first time when people are almost tiptoeing around it."
Priestley said his injury has not had a major impact on his career. He can travel for work and doesn't require much in the way of adjustments to his office. He is upfront about needing assistance when required.
"Occasionally, there might be a couple of steps up to a building but it's relatively easy to find a couple of hefty passersby and say, 'Would you mind giving me a hand?"
One problem in encouraging companies to hire people with disabilities is that many are not as visible as Priestley's. People who have disabilities that can be concealed may choose to hide them at the workplace for fear of being stigmatized.
Around 10 per cent of university students in Britain are open about being disabled, but people with declared disabilities only made up around 2 per cent of applicants for graduate jobs in 2011-2012 according to a study of 70,000 applications from GradWeb, a recruitment group.
Ashrafi spent years hiding her depression from colleagues at KPMG until she realized the subterfuge was draining her of energy and hampering her career.
She "came out" and was staggered by the positive response.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, if I had known I was going to get this much positive reaction, I would have done it years ago'," she said. "The attitude is definitely changing in favour of disabled people."
It's easier to be open about your mental health if you already have a well-established career. Those starting out on the career ladder may be afraid to expose a disability to recruiters.
"You can tell an awful lot by their facial reaction and quite often I will get a, 'How did you get into university' or a, 'How are you even in front of me,' kind of face," said a masters student in London, describing his experience with corporate recruiters during a search for a banking job.
Hospitalized for two years at 17 for depression, the student, now 31, does not lie about the gap in his resume or why he didn't sit his secondary school exams.
He hasn't had depression for five years and hasn't taken a day off work or university in seven, but says companies seemed to overlook his academic achievements.
"In my experience, very few companies follow through on diversity. It is largely lip service," said the student, who asked not to be identified for fear of hurting his job prospects further.
Dennis Stevenson, one of the few members of Britain's corporate elite to come out about mental illness, agrees with the glum assessment of firms' understanding.
"The world is changing but there are only a small minority of corporations that are quite enlightened," he said.
Stevenson, who founded a successful management consultancy and has held directorships across British industry, opened up about suffering from depression more than 15 years ago while in his fifties and serving as chairman of media group Pearson.
He doubts whether he would have been as frank if he had been a career man rather than a wealthy entrepreneur, and advises fellow sufferers to be cautious about going public if they are mid-career or starting out.
Stevenson, who was also chairman of UK bank HBOS, believes companies' attitudes to mental illness will only change when top executives open up about their own experience of it.
"A big proportion of top business leaders have clinical illnesses," he said. "The culture of doublethink and denial is absolutely extraordinary."
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