Yassmin Abdel-Magied: What does my headscarf mean to you? May 2015
Someone who looks like me walks past you in the street. Do you think they're a mother, a refugee or a victim of oppression? Or do you think they're a cardiologist, a barrister or maybe your local politician? Do you look me up and down, wondering how hot I must get or if my husband has forced me to wear this outfit? What if I wore my scarf like this?
I can walk down the street in the exact same outfit and what the world expects of me and the way I'm treated depends on the arrangement of this piece of cloth. But this isn't going to be another monologue about the hijab because Lord knows, Muslim women are so much more than the piece of cloth they choose, or not, to wrap their head in. This is about looking beyond your bias.
What if I walked past you and later on you'd found out that actually I was a race car engineer, and that I designed my own race car and I ran my university's race team, because it's true. What if I told you that I was actually trained as a boxer for five years, because that's true, too. Would it surprise you? Why?
Ladies and gentlemen, ultimately, that surprise and the behaviors associated with it are the product of something called unconscious bias, or implicit prejudice. And that results in the ridiculously detrimental lack of diversity in our workforce, particularly in areas of influence. Hello, Australian Federal Cabinet. (Applause)
Let me just set something out from the outset: Unconscious bias is not the same as conscious discrimination. I'm not saying that in all of you, there's a secret sexist or racist or ageist lurking within, waiting to get out. That's not what I'm saying. We all have our biases. They're the filters through which we see the world around us. I'm not accusing anyone, bias is not an accusation. Rather, it's something that has to be identified, acknowledged and mitigated against. Bias can be about race, it can be about gender. It can also be about class, education, disability. The fact is, we all have biases against what's different, what's different to our social norms.
The thing is, if we want to live in a world where the circumstances of your birth do not dictate your future and where equal opportunity is ubiquitous, then each and every one of us has a role to play in making sure unconscious bias does not determine our lives.
There's this really famous experiment in the space of unconscious bias and that's in the space of gender in the 1970s and 1980s. So orchestras, back in the day, were made up mostly of dudes, up to only five percent were female. And apparently, that was because men played it differently, presumably better, presumably. But in 1952, The Boston Symphony Orchestra started an experiment. They started blind auditions. So rather than face-to-face auditions, you would have to play behind a screen. Now funnily enough, no immediate change was registered until they asked the audition-ers to take their shoes off before they entered the room. because the clickity-clack of the heels against the hardwood floors was enough to give the ladies away. Now get this, there results of the audition showed that there was a 50 percent increased chance a woman would progress past the preliminary stage. And it almost tripled their chances of getting in. What does that tell us? Well, unfortunately for the guys, men actually didn't play differently, but there was the perception that they did. And it was that bias that was determining their outcome.
So what we're doing here is identifying and acknowledging that a bias exists. And look, we all do it. Let me give you an example. A son and his father are in a horrible car accident. The father dies on impact and the son, who's severely injured, is rushed to hospital. The surgeon looks at the son when they arrive and is like, "I can't operate." Why? "The boy is my son." How can that be? Ladies and gentlemen, the surgeon is his mother. Now hands up -- and it's okay -- but hands up if you initially assumed the surgeon was a guy? There's evidence that that unconscious bias exists, but we all just have to acknowledge that it's there and then look at ways that we can move past it so that we can look at solutions.
Now one of the interesting things around the space of unconscious bias is the topic of quotas. And this something that's often brought up. And of of the criticisms is this idea of merit. Look, I don't want to be picked because I'm a chick, I want to be picked because I have merit, because I'm the best person for the job. It's a sentiment that's pretty common among female engineers that I work with and that I know. And yeah, I get it, I've been there. But, if the merit idea was true, why would identical resumes, in an experiment done in 2012 by Yale, identical resumes sent out for a lab technician, why would Jennifers be deemed less competent, be less likely to be offered the job, and be paid less than Johns. The unconscious bias is there, but we just have to look at how we can move past it.
And, you know, it's interesting, there's some research that talks about why this is the case and it's called the merit paradox. And in organizations -- and this is kind of ironic -- in organizations that talk about merit being their primary value-driver in terms of who they hire, they were more likely to hire dudes and more likely to pay the guys more because apparently merit is a masculine quality. But, hey.
So you guys think you've got a good read on me, you kinda think you know what's up. Can you imagine me running one of these? Can you imagine me walking in and being like, "Hey boys, this is what's up. This is how it's done." Well, I'm glad you can. (Applause) Because ladies and gentlemen, that's my day job. And the cool thing about it is that it's pretty entertaining. Actually, in places like Malaysia, Muslim women on rigs isn't even comment-worthy. There are that many of them. But, it is entertaining.
I remember, I was telling one of the guys, "Hey, mate, look, I really want to learn how to surf." And he's like, "Yassmin, I don't know how you can surf with all that gear you've got on, and I don't know any women-only beaches." And then, the guy came up with a brilliant idea, he was like, "I know, you run that organization Youth Without Borders, right? Why don't you start a clothing line for Muslim chicks in beaches. You can call it Youth Without Boardshorts." (Laughter) And I was like, "Thanks, guys." And I remember another bloke telling me that I should eat all the yogurt I could because that was the only culture I was going to get around there.
But, the problem is, it's kind of true because there's an intense lack of diversity in our workforce, particularly in places of influence. Now, in 2010, The Australian National University did an experiment where they sent out 4,000 identical applications to entry level jobs, essentially. To get the same number of interviews as someone with an Anglo-Saxon name, if you were Chinese, you had to send out 68 percent more applications. If you were Middle Eastern -- Abdel-Magied -- you had to send out 64 percent, and if you're Italian, you're pretty lucky, you only have to send out 12 percent more. In places like Silicon Valley, it's not that much better. In Google, they put out some diversity results and 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian and nine, a bunch of blacks, Hispanics, all that kind of thing. And the rest of the tech world is not that much better and they've acknowledged it, but I'm not really sure what they're doing about it.
The thing is, it doesn't trickle up. In a study done by Green Park, who are a British senior exec supplier, they said that over half of the FTSE 100 companies don't have a nonwhite leader at their board level, executive or non-executive. And two out of every three don't have an executive who's from a minority. And most of the minorities that are at that sort of level are non-executive board directors. So their influence isn't that great.
I've told you a bunch of terrible things. You're like, "Oh my god, how bad is that? What can I do about it?" Well, fortunately, we've identified that there's a problem. There's a lack of opportunity, and that's due to unconscious bias. But you might be sitting there thinking, "I ain't brown. What's that got to do with me?" Let me offer you a solution. And as I've said before, we live in a world where we're looking for an ideal. And if we want to create a world where the circumstances of your birth don't matter, we all have to be part of the solution. And interestingly, the author of the lab resume experiment offered some sort of a solution. She said the one thing that brought the successful women together, the one thing that they had in common, was the fact that they had good mentors.
So mentoring, we've all kind of heard that before, it's in the vernacular. Here's another challenge for you. I challenge each and every one of you to mentor someone different. Think about it. Everyone wants to mentor someone who kind of is familiar, who looks like us, we have shared experiences. If I see a Muslim chick who's got a bit of attitude, I'm like, "What's up? We can hang out." You walk into a room and there's someone who went to the same school, you play the same sports, there's a high chance that you're going to want to help that person out. But for the person in the room who has no shared experiences with you it becomes extremely difficult to find that connection.
The idea of finding someone different to mentor, someone who doesn't come from the same background as you, whatever that background is, is about opening doors for people who couldn't even get to the damn hallway.
Because ladies and gentlemen, the world is not just. People are not born with equal opportunity. I was born in one of the poorest cities in the world, Khartoum. I was born brown, I was born female, and I was born Muslim in a world that is pretty suspicious of us for reasons I can't control. However, I also acknowledge the fact that I was born with privilege. I was born with amazing parents, I was given an education and had the blessing of migrating to Australia. But also, I've been blessed with amazing mentors who've opened doors for me that I didn't even know were there. A mentor who said to me, "Hey, your story's interesting. Let's write something about it so that I can share it with people." A mentor who said, "I know you're all those things that don't belong on an Australian rig, but come on anyway." And here I am, talking to you.
And I'm not the only one. There's all sorts of people in my communities that I see have been helped out by mentors. A young Muslim man in Sydney who ended up using his mentor's help to start up a poetry slam in Bankstown and now it's a huge thing. And he's able to change the lives of so many other young people. Or a lady here in Brisbane, an Afghan lady who's a refugee, who could barely speak English when she came to Australia, her mentors helped her become a doctor and she took our Young Queenslander of the Year Award in 2008. She's an inspiration. This is so not smooth.
This is me. But I'm also the woman in the rig clothes, and I'm also the woman who was in the abaya at the beginning. Would you have chosen to mentor me if you had seen me in one of those other versions of who I am? Because I'm that same person. We have to look past our unconscious bias, find someone to mentor who's at the opposite end of your spectrum because structural change takes time, and I don't have that level of patience. So if we're going to create a change, if we're going to create a world where we all have those kinds of opportunities, then choose to open doors for people. Because you might think that diversity has nothing to do with you, but we are all part of this system and we can all be part of that solution.
And if you don't know where to find someone different, go to the places you wouldn't usually go. If you enroll in private high school tutoring, go to your local state school or maybe just drop into your local refugee tutoring center. Or perhaps you work at an office. Take out that new grad who looks totally out of place -- 'cause that was me -- and open doors for them, not in a tokenistic way, because we're not victims, but show them the opportunities because opening up your world will make you realize that you have access to doors that they didn't even know existed and you didn't even know they didn't have.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a problem in our community with lack of opportunity, especially due to unconscious bias. But each and every one one of you has the potential to change that. I know you've been given a lot of challenges today, but if you can take this one piece and think about it a little differently, because diversity is magic. And I encourage you to look past your initial perceptions because I bet you, they're probably wrong.