Dyslexia is a learning condition characterised by cognitive issues with short-term memory and information processing.
In 2001 research from Julie Logan at the University of Bristol reported 1 in 5 of the UK entrepreneurs they surveyed was dyslexic. This was twice the expected rate for adults in the UK population of 1 in 10. The Office for National Statistics estimates 1,260,000 self-employed women in the UK, which suggests up to 252,000 female dyslexic entrepreneurs at work (depending on how the term ‘entrepreneur’ is applied).
Professor Julie Logan followed up her research in 2008, at Cass Business School in London, where she then reported that, in two key respects, entrepreneurs with dyslexia make different decisions compared to non-dyslexic entrepreneurs:
- dyslexic entrepreneurs set up more businesses
- dyslexic entrepreneurs employ more people
Dyslexic entrepreneurs did statistically significantly more of both activities. This classes the actions of this group as vital for economic growth.
For the economy to harness the high value innovation and problem-solving skills possessed by this group, action is required in two areas:
- recognition of the role of dyslexia in business
- a process of learning how to compensate for dyslexia’s challenges, and capitalise on the creative and problem-solving strengths it can offer at work
These are challenging steps to take in a business context: dyslexia is under-assessed at school, so many women in business are not even aware that they are dyslexic, and therefore unaware of how dyslexia interacts with their business and its support network.
Many studies identify low early identification of dyslexia in UK schools. Because the signs are not addressed early on, many women adapt and cope with dyslexia into adulthood without understanding it, or learning how to take advantage of the creative insights and personal skills which characterise dyslexic thinking. Research into higher education students with dyslexia found that nearly half were identified as dyslexic only after leaving school. There are far reaching consequences of this under-recording in the school system: many dyslexics, as adults, have not obtained full understanding of their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Scottish lingerie entrepreneur Michelle Mone says:
“I felt something was wrong before I was tested…as over the years I have struggled with reading, but as I didn’t realise I was dyslexic, I didn’t get any support at school.”
Michelle Mone’s dyslexia was discovered only by accident. This is the experience of many other adults. Dyslexia is now understood to be hereditary, and some people have their dyslexia spotted in adulthood because of tests on other family members. One third of dyslexic entrepreneurs interviewed by Cass Business School shared Michelle Mone’s experience, as she discovered her dyslexia only when her son was tested.
This example highlights one of the intrinsic challenges in engaging with dyslexia; its presence cannot always be assumed and is not always obvious. Not all dyslexics struggle with reading in the way Michelle Mone does, which makes recognition of difficulties even more challenging for them, their family and specialists. Learning specialists Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide say:
“A few, whom we’ve called stealth dyslexics, have problems so subtle or “stealthy” that they evade early detection and often only come to attention later for problems with writing or underperformance.”
The majority of “stealth dyslexics” may be female. Some studies show that the general incidence of dyslexia has no significant gender bias, yet schools have been seen to spot significantly more boys than girls as dyslexic in early years. There are suggestions that this could be linked with the different interaction patterns boys and girls have with teachers. School environments tend to engage attention and support when difficulties are presented to teachers in an overt manner, this communication style being more commonly adopted by boys compared to girls, who tend to employ more private coping strategies and draw less formal attention to their needs. A long-term consequence for business is that more dyslexic girls than boys remain outside the education support framework and develop into adults who are unlikely to have been assessed or supported, but still have to deal with dyslexia every time they process information.
As well as the quarter of a million dyslexic women entrepreneurs in the UK there are around 1,200,000 dyslexic female employees, too. They are helped by thousands of employment support organisations, but at present these offer little formal support specifically for dyslexia. Evidence from the higher education sector has highlighted the benefits of engaging with this group of adults in ways that support their different way of processing information.
The need for investing in this process in the business sector is well-founded: more than four out of five dyslexics surveyed by Business Link in 2007 thought dyslexia created barriers to starting a company. Five years later, the UK government’s Access To Work scheme was supporting just one in every one thousand dyslexic workers across the UK, keeping no record of how many dyslexic self-employed people were on the scheme.
Discovering dyslexia can bring new-found self-awareness. It can lead to the adjustment towards more dyslexia-friendly ways of working, from which colleagues and wider society can benefit. A system of support in higher education is emerging, but in the business world far fewer opportunities exist for identifying and supporting dyslexia. This means that current and potential entrepreneurs are still waiting to have one of their strongest personal assets recognised and developed.
Many women are still unaware of how even slight adjustments to how they work and think about their work can yield boosts in self-esteem, confidence and productivity. Others do not become aware that self-employment presents a career structure which might suit the innovative problem-solving skills they may possess, and so do not develop their talents fully.
With professional input on dyslexia through consultancy, training and mentoring, all businesses and their support organisations can look forward to capitalising on new opportunities to develop their enterprises, while in the process developing their workforce’s skills and knowledge in this important area for commerce.
Jan Halfpenny is a qualified specialist in dyslexia in business, and is dyslexic. She owns Halfpenny Development Ltd, a consultancy working to improve industry by creating a ‘frictionless environment’ where dyslexic business owners are able to take full advantage of their innovative and creative talents to help their businesses grow and prosper. The company delivers services to businesses and support organisations which raise awareness of dyslexia in the workplace, and offer practical support on its effects and potential benefits to employees and businesses.