Why Identifying Dyslexia in Enterprising Women is Important for Growth
Professor Julie Logan’s research at the University of Bristol in 2001 reported that 1 in 5 of the UK’s entrepreneurs she surveyed was dyslexic (1), twice the rate expected for adults in the UK (2). Women’s Enterprise Scotland estimate that 60,000 women are registered as business owners in Scotland (3), which could equate to as many as 12,000 female dyslexic entrepreneurs, depending on how the term ‘entrepreneur’ is applied.
In 2008 Prof. Logan’s research at Cass Business School in London made business headlines when she reported that entrepreneurs with dyslexia make significantly different decisions compared to non-dyslexic entrepreneurs in two key respects: the number of businesses they choose to set up, and how many people they employ (4). Dyslexic entrepreneurs did significantly more of both. This means that the actions of this group are important for economic growth.
For the economy to harness high value problem-solving skills that dyslexic adults reportedly possess, it has to be possible to approach businesses and professional networks and ask “who is dyslexic, and how can we support you?” But it is at this point that the challenges begin: many women in business will be unaware that they are dyslexic due to under-assessment at school, and therefore unaware of how dyslexia interacts with their business and their support providers.
Findings from a number of studies point to a lack of early identification of dyslexia in UK schools (5). In a study of dyslexic higher education students in1999 nearly half were identified as dyslexic only after they had left school and gone on to university (6). This lack of identification of dyslexia in the school system has far reaching consequences: many dyslexics in adulthood lack a full understanding of their particular weaknesses and strengths. Scottish entrepreneur Michelle Mone commented:
“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.” (7)
Like many other adults, Michelle Mone’s dyslexia was discovered only by accident. Dyslexia is now understood to be hereditary (8), and has led to some people being spotted in adulthood as a result of tests done on other family members. Cass Business School (9)found that one third of the dyslexic entrepreneurs they interviewed shared the same experience as Michelle Mone, who only discovered her dyslexia when her son was tested (10).
This example illustrates another of the inherent challenges in engaging with dyslexia – its presence is not always obvious or able to be assumed. Not all dyslexics overtly struggle with reading in the way Michelle Mone does, making their recognition even more challenging for themselves, their family and specialists. Learning specialists Dr. Brock Eide and Dr. Fernette Eide suggest that:
“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.”(11)
It is possible that the majority of “stealth dyslexics” are female. Some studies show no significant gender difference in the general incidence of dyslexia (12), yet schools have been shown to identify significantly more boys than girls as dyslexic at a young age (13). Researchers suggest this may be connected with the different ways young boys and girls tend to interact with teachers at school. In this environment attention and support tends to be engaged when difficulties are presented overtly to teachers, which is more how boys communicate compared to girls, who tend to adopt more private coping strategies and draw less formal attention to their needs (14). A consequence for business is that more dyslexic girls than boys remain outside the support framework at school, and grow in to adults who are unlikely to have been assessed or supported, but still deal with dyslexia every time they process information.
So standing at your networking meeting and getting an answer to your question “who is dyslexic, and how can we support you?” is not going to yield widespread reliable results with present business arrangements. Signs are not recognised at an early enough age and many women learn to cope with dyslexia in adulthood without understanding it or knowing how to take advantage of the creative insights and skills associated with dyslexic thinking. Yet Scotland’s economy needs a full contribution from these entrepreneurs.
Evidence from higher education shows the importance of nurturing and engaging with this group in ways that support their different way of processing information. It is clear that there is a history of under-investment in this area: four years ago 88% of dyslexics surveyed by Business Link said they thought that dyslexia presented barriers to starting a business (15), yet last year the UK government’s Access To Work scheme delivered employment support to approximately just one in every one thousand dyslexic workers in the UK (16). They did not even keep figures on how many dyslexic self-employed people the scheme had helped (17).
Identification of dyslexia can bring a self-awareness otherwise denied. It also leads to the introduction of more dyslexia-friendly ways of working, from which wider society benefits. In higher education a system of support is beginning to be established, but in the business world there are far fewer opportunities for identification and support for dyslexia. This inevitably means that dyslexia in current and potential entrepreneurs is being overlooked instead of recognised and developed. Many women remain unaware of how slight adjustments to their work or perspective can improve their productivity. Others miss knowing that entrepreneurship presents a career structure where their innovative problem-solving skills have been reported to bring significant advantages. The sooner we can ask “who is dyslexic, and how can we support you?” and receive an informed answer, the better for everyone.
© Jan Halfpenny 2012
This article was originally written for Women's Enterprise Scotland. Thanks to all at WES for your support.
Jan Halfpenny writes, speaks andtrains organisations and individuals online and in person on dyslexia and business.
Find out more about Halfpenny Development's online dyslexia training course.
1. Logan, J., 2001, Entrepreneurial success: A study of the incidence of dyslexia in the entrepreneurial population and the influence of dyslexia on success, University of Bristol
2. British Dyslexia Association, 2012, http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-us/
3. Women’s Enterprise Scotland, 2012, www.wescotland.co.uk/about-us
4. Logan, J., 2008, Are We Teaching Potential Entrepreneurs in the Best Way to Enhance Their Career Success?, Cass Business School London
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9. British Dyslexia Association, 2012,
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13. Shaywitz, S.E., Fletcher, J.M., et al. (1999) Persistence of Dyslexia: The Connecticut longitudinal study at adolescence, Paediatrics, 104; 1351- 9
14. Hales, T., (2005), How can you effectively target boys learning in the classroom? A small-scale enquiry focusing on how to help boys improve their achievement, Journal of the Cardiff School of Education, Volume 3, September 2005
15. Business Link, 2008, Dyslexia and Start-up Businesses, Business Link
16. DWP Employment Group, 2011, Access To Work Official Statistics July 2011, Department for Work and Pensions
17. DWP, 2012, Response to Access To Work Statistic Enquiry, Disability Employment Analysis Team