Yenn Purkis talks about their lived experience of diversity in the workplace and how employers should think about intersectional D&I strategies.
Yenn Purkis jokes that they’ve built a career on “over-sharing”. And it’s a winning strategy for the public servant and intersectional D&I and neurodiversity advocate.
“I’m very open about who I am and my personal history, including the fact that I have a mental illness, that I’m autistic and that I’m non-binary. I don’t hide things,” says Purkis.
“It’s hard to discriminate against somebody who’s totally open, honest and happy about all their different quirks and foibles.”
Purkis was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 20 in 1994 – they were one of the first adults in Australia to receive the diagnosis.
For the past 15 years, Purkis has been a passionate advocate for autistic and neurodiverse people, keeping busy as a speaker, author and podcaster. Their lived experience also helps them in their current role as the diversity and inclusion officer at an Australian government department.
While Purkis embraces the unique elements that make them who they are, they’re aware others aren’t always as comfortable in their own skin, be that at home, work or in society in general.
And so Purkis believes it’s important for employers to be well-equipped to have conversations not just about various diverse groups, but also about intersectional diversity.
Hear more from Yen Purkis and other intersectional D&I experts at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference on 21 May in Sydney.
Work and life: an intersectional approach
In 2007, Purkis applied for a job in the Australian public service on a whim.
“It changed my life joining the public service. At the time, I was living in public housing and had a part-time job, but not much else,” says Purkis.
“I applied with no expectation I’d get it, but I was successful and [got a graduate-level position]. I’ve been there ever since.”
Purkis says they’ve been lucky to feel supported throughout their professional life, but a lot of neurodiverse employees still face stigmas in the workforce.
“A lot of people struggle with knowing whether, when and what to tell their managers about their autism or mental health issues. This needs to be considered because there is a lot of discrimination in some workplaces.”
Purkis says the recruitment process is still a huge barrier for neurodiverse people, and job interviews can be exclusionary.
“It’s very easy for hiring managers to discriminate against someone and say they weren’t the best candidate for the job. [But] you can’t prove it,” says Purkis. “No manager is ever going to say, ‘I’m not employing you because you have a disability.’
“I know [autistic] people who’ve been to hundreds of job interviews and not been successful in any, despite having a whole load of useful qualifications.”
Thankfully, public awareness of autism has grown significantly since Purkis first started advocacy work 15 years ago.
“It has gone from people having no idea what it is, to people having quite a nuanced understanding,” says Purkis.
But prejudice and microaggressions still occur. At their own book launch, an audience member said to Purkis: “You shouldn’t say you’re autistic – you can pass as normal.”
This was a “really invalidating” experience for Purkis and also illustrates exactly where a lot of D&I issues stem from in the workplace; people assume individuals who are different to them want to learn how to ‘fix’ or ‘mask’ their behaviour so they can match the status quo.
More often than not, those belonging to a minority group just want an invitation from the majority to bring their own unique perspective and skillset to the table. That’s when the true value of intersectional diversity is realised – when diverse groups don’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not.
Loud and proud
In 2018, Purkis came out as non-binary.
They recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of their name change. While Purkis has felt comfortable in their own workplace, they say more can be done to help gender-diverse employees to feel safe at work.
“It’s really important for employers to be really clear, vocal and upfront about their support for gender-divergent people, and other queer people too. Be really clear at the outset by saying: we support you.” Then follow up on those words with supportive actions.
While they have witnessed a lot of positive change, Purkis says there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
They recommend creating an active pride network, and having transitioning guidelines, as well as gender-neutral toilets and title options such as ‘Mx’ for HR systems, like employment contracts and employee records.
Encouraging people to put their pronouns on signature blocks can also be valuable.
“As a non-binary person, when I see people have done that, it makes me feel included.”
Preventative mental health
Purkis also experiences mental illness, and says conversations about mental health have become much more mainstream since they first entered the workforce.
“There’s a lot more understanding about mental health issues and the importance of preventative measures to support staff to manage their health better – rather than picking up the pieces after everything goes wrong,” says Purkis.
“In the department I’m in, we have a mental health awareness network. That wouldn’t have even been imagined 20 or 30 years ago.”
“It’s hard to discriminate against somebody who’s totally open, honest and happy about all their different quirks and foibles.” Yenn Purkis
Biggest barrier? Getting a go
Due to their own experiences with the intersection of neuro, gender and mental diversity, Purkis is ideally placed as a leader in the D&I space – someone to learn from.
They say some employers are starting to recognise the distinct skills that neurodiverse employees can bring to the table.
“[This includes] things such as attention to detail. Autistic people are famous for attention to detail; noticing errors and having a low tolerance to errors; and spotting things that other people miss.
“And we tend to be very honest. In fact, we’re honest by default. We also tend to have a high work ethic and wish to do the best job possible. We have a lot of loyalty to organisations.
“I’m an extremely loyal public servant, and it translates to the way I work and the level of effort I put in.”
So what’s the biggest way to support neurodiverse people in the workforce? Purkis has just two words: “Employ us.”
“Getting your foot in the door is one of the most difficult things for neurodivergent people in the workplace, just getting a go.”
But this shouldn’t be the case – and it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s continue this important conversation and hear more from Purkis and other fantastic speakers – such as refugee advocate Craig Foster – at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Sydney on 21 May.