Many of us will be aware of the Glass Ceiling or the artificial barriers to the advancement of minority men and women into management and decision making positions. But could it also apply to dyslexics?
Not so much a glass ceiling as a word ceiling.
Of course, I can only refer to my own experience as a manager, entrepreneur, community leader and academic [The Dyslexic Professor no less!). But, in each role there came a moment when my dyslexia did indeed become a barrier. I’m not looking to blame anyone or any organisation and recognise I have constructed some artificial barriers of my own. However, I am looking to highlight the real challenges faced by dyslexics in every day life – more particularly, every day living in environments full of words!
I will illustrate this point with two examples. The first being more painful to recall than the second.
Firstly, I have been involved in many community projects from fundraising garden parties to chairing a medium sized charity through a change in Chief Executive [Foundation] and from helping set-up an organic food social enterprise [Growing with Grace] to chairing the governing body of a primary school and even President of my professional body [Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship]. Of course, I am constantly scanning my environment for threats that might expose me as a dyslexic but occasionally even I have dropped my guard.
It is good practice to involve parents and carers, in appropriate ways, to support young children’s learning in primary schools. This can range from after school clubs to individual support. What could be more natural for a teacher to ask the Chair of Governors to join the rota of one-to-one reading support for Year 1 and 2 children (5 to 7 year olds). Of course, I had a BSc, MSc and even a PhD – so, without thinking, I accepted.
The day duly came and I chose a suitable book from my own children’s collection and read it through several times to myself. Just as I was leaving to walk to the school, my wife kindly offered to hear me read the book aloud. Even I was surprised by the reality. As soon as I started to readout I made a simple error which I heard as a whisper in my head and then a roar as it was gentley pointed out. In an instant, I was teleported to standing in a classroom with “eyes going out of focus, words dancing on the page“! [Definitely my dyslexic Achilles’ heel] I completely lost my confidence and accepted the offer to be substituted at very short notice.
Secondly, now in my fourth career, as an academic (previously and concurrently as manager, entrepreneur and community leader), I am now enjoying being a Professor of Entrepreneurship and an Associate Dean at a leading business school. I was recently asked by a University Vice-Chancellor [I hasten to add, not my own] – What are your career ambitions? In an instant, I knew the answer was not, the very top of academia or even nearly the very top! I decided to disclose my dyslexia and listed the things I couldn’t do and that would make it difficult to carry out the full range of duties expected of a leader in modern academia.
Reflecting honestly on this conversation, I think there were in fact three specific things – two related to my dyslexia and one completely different.
- Names – Peoples names are difficult for me and new names in particular. This might seem very strange but working in a leading national and global university constantly brings me into contact with new people and more challengingly, new names. It just takes me longer to associate a familiar name to a new face and an embarrassingly long time to associate a new name to a new face and even longer to pronounce it with confidence. And there is one important event that takes place at least twice a year … graduation. The role of the Head of School (or Faculty) is to call (read out loud) the names of the graduates. Many times I have sat on the stage smiling as my students graduate and every time thought, I just couldn’t do that.
- Speeches – I have become more comfortable speaking in public. Helped by years of leadership roles which necessitated it and hours of classroom teaching. But I still remain fearful of making speeches. Of course, I’m referring to written speeches that senior leaders need to deliver as a normal part of their job. For very senior leaders these will have been drafted by someone else. I am always moved when I watch The King’s Speech, even through it is not directly related to dyslexia Again, I have watch many people deliver good speeches and every time thought, I just couldn’t do that.
- Admiration – Now, this might be the main reason! I have been fortunate to work a universities with strong and committed leadership teams. I see the long hours and the sacrifices made by these high performing individuals. Of course, I do appreciate for readers not familiar with the environment of a modern university this might seem strange. But, believe me when I say, we are fortunate to have some the world’s best universities in the UK and you simply don’t become the best through poor leadership. Universities contribute many things to our society.
So, there might be a Dyslexia Ceiling but, at least for me, there might just be a few other factors involved. Interestingly, Catherine Brennan, a distinguished Professor of Biology and Chemistry at MIT, doesn’t agree, “There is no a dyslexia ceiling, doesn’t exist, unless you create it in your own mind“. Watch 17:01 into her Dyslexia Advantage talk.