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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

ADHD, Women, and Work: What it’s Like and Ways to Cope

Renee started to notice something wasn’t right when she was 16.

“Why was it that I was smart—but I couldn’t pull the grades off? I always understood what I was supposed to do [in school], but when I tried to produce something, it never came out that way. I never finished it. I’d burn out after the first attempt.”

Despite the fact that Renee felt “constantly behind and somewhat lost” in her senior year, her SATs were well above average and she secured a spot as an incoming freshman at UCLA.

But 500 miles away from home (and her mother’s highly organized household), college was “total bedlam” for Renee. “I started [partying]—I had zero self-control in college. You can do whatever you want, you don’t have to go to class… it was a disaster because I had no structure,” she recalls. Renee’s college roller coaster ride was as short as it was chaotic—she withdrew from all classes at age 19, pregnant with her first child.

And, although Renee wouldn’t recommend this difficult route to her students (she’s now taught 6th grade for over a decade), she feels that becoming a teen mom gave her the structure needed to cope with her then-undiagnosed ADHD.

“I learned the hard way how to function—you have no other choice when you have a child. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t [gotten pregnant],” she says. With that in mind, Renee has dedicated her life’s work to teaching kids with ADHD—hoping to help them early so they can avoid a later life struggle.

Women Like Renee

The most unsettling thing about Renee’s story is not just that her ADHD went undiagnosed as a child—it’s that ADHD is often undiagnosed in girls. In fact, the current diagnosis rate is 2.5 boys for every 1 girl.

Turns out, ADHD may slip under the radar for school-age girls, as they can be less rebellious and more eager to please than their male counterparts. In addition, a girl with ADHD may work even harder at school to “hide” or overcompensate for her hyperactivity (or inability to sit still) or inattention (often labeled as daydreaming). And, girls generally have more perfectionism and motivation to succeed academically than boys.

For some young women, like Renee, the cracks don’t start to show until they don their high school graduation gown or get their very own business card—often in situations where they are overwhelmed with tasks surrounding problem solving, prioritizing, and planning ahead.

So, today, I wanted to work out what ADHD looks like in a woman’s working life. And, for those of you who think this story sounds sort of familiar, I’ll outline how to find the right kind of help (for yourself, a co-worker, or a friend).

The 1, 2, and 3 of ADHD

To make it simple, there are three types of ADHD. The first is hyperactive/impulsive—which is the stereotypical, can’t-sit-for-more-than-a-second, squirming, running, talking-out-of turn type. The second type is inattentive—best defined by someone who’s distractible, who’s often forgetful, and who doesn’t pay attention to detail or seem to be listening. The third type is a combo of the first two—and it’s the most commonly diagnosed.

Symptoms are fairly similar in adults and children—but tend to “mature” somewhat with age. “Hyperactivity tends to get better,” says Dr. Patricia Quinn, a developmental pediatrician and ADHD expert. “It becomes an internal restlessness—people can certainly sit still, but they might jiggle their leg or become hyper-verbal. They talk a lot and can’t stop.”

With regard to impulsiveness, which Dr. Quinn defines as “acting without thinking”—symptoms may transform from off-roading your bike into your mom’s newly planted pansies into saying whatever comes to mind (a.k.a., open-mouth-insert-foot moments). And at the far end of the spectrum, they may encompass increasingly risky behaviors with sex and substance abuse.

ADHD Goes to Work

Now that we’ve got the definitions down, exactly how does ADHD “all-grown-up” play out in the workplace? Well, it depends on your diagnosis.

For example, if you’re distractible, you might have trouble meeting deadlines (as you can’t tune out your cubicle-mate recapping her holiday weekend). Or, it could be that you consistently “space out” and lose large chunks of pertinent information during meetings and conference calls (and may have been 10 minutes late to said calls—those with ADHD often have trouble keeping a schedule).

On the other hand, if you’re impulsive, you might find yourself texting up a storm, as the thought of sitting motionless in front of an expense report just seems—excruciating. Or, maybe you talk out of turn and sidetrack team meetings (or opt for a two-hour lunch even though you’re pressed for time).

And as far as the cumulative effect of distractibility or impulsivity goes? It’s often a negative effect on self-worth, says Dr. Sophie Duriez, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist specializing in ADHD. “If women [have ADHD but are not diagnosed], they can become confused and depressed. Often, they are very creative and very dynamic but have trouble being productive and completing a task or are overwhelmed with multi-tasking—and feel like they have shortcomings.”

The societal expectations of women (who are frequently in “organizational” roles for their boss or family) deepens this diminished sense of self-worth, says Dr. Kim Kensington, a clinical psychologist and ADHD specialist. “If a guy is super messy and his office is a disaster, people aren’t as judgmental. But for a woman, people might say, ‘What’s going on here?’”

What if the Above Sounds Familiar to Me?

If these symptoms sound like something you or a friend have dealt with, the first thing to do is a bit of research on reputable websites like CHADD (Children and Adults with Hyperactivity/Attention Deficit Disorder) or the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). If the information you’ve found resonates, Dr. Kensington says the next step is a good diagnostic workup. There’s no “test” per se, but a good interview with a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist can lead you to the correct diagnosis.

From that point, options for treatment may be a combination of drug therapy (stimulant medications are often prescribed to reduce symptoms) and various types of counseling.


Investigate the “ADHD Friendliness” of Your Chosen Career

The next step—and an utterly important one—is to see that mile-a-minute brain as a blessing. Dr. Kensington, who has ADHD, says it makes her an extremely efficient problem solver. “I can solve problems others can’t because [I am] so non-linear. [People with ADHD] have a whole bunch of information going on at the same time, so we can connect the dots that others might not necessarily connect.”

So, if you’ve been given this highly creative set of quick-thinking chops, consider working in an environment that appreciates your talent. Anecdotally, Dr. Quinn says she sees those with ADHD thriving in the creative arts and engineering professions, where they can work more independently and contribute out-of-the-box ideas. “When I talk with parents of little kids with ADHD, I always say, they are the ones who are going to find 32 uses for toothpaste. That’s the kind of brain we are talking about,” she explains.


But, What if I’m Already in My Dream Job?

If you’re already doing exactly what you want, but know that there are certain areas (like report writing or long-term projects with strict deadlines) where you know you struggle, Quinn recommends sitting down to assess your strengths and weaknesses.

For example, if you’re an “ideas” person, and you know that’s what makes you a company asset, go to your supervisor and be honest about the fact that you have trouble meeting deadlines. “Instead of pulling an all-nighter like you probably did in college, ask to meet every week and break the project into short-term goals,” she recommends.

Alternatively, if you’re a distractible type and “you’re working in a bullpen sort of situation, go to your supervisor ask if you can use the conference room. You don’t need to declare that you have ADHD—just say, ‘I want to do a good job, and I’m distracted by all the activity out there,’” Quinn adds. Kensington also advocates asking for a bit of assistance—for example, request to start work a little earlier when the phone isn’t ringing off the hook, or come in on a Saturday when there’s a bit less distraction.

And, lastly, to achieve your goals, give yourself permission to “do things that might not be terribly normal-looking on the outside,” says Dr. Kensington. Case in point?  Dr. Kensington’s client and her plastic picture frame:

“I had a client who had a plastic picture frame that [she placed colored index cards in]. [On the card, she wrote] the task she was working on at the moment. Because, as the phone rings, you don’t remember what you were trying to do before that happened.”

“I think we can be quite ingenious—to the MacGyver point—because so many things have gone wrong, that we’ve had to come up with alternatives,” Kensington explains. “We can steer our way around problems in a different way.”

Photo of woman stressed at work courtesy of Shutterstock.