It’s no exaggeration to say that Yassmin Abdel-Magied has made a name for herself not by fitting in, but by standing out. She is a minority among minorities. Growing up near Brisbane as a Sudanese-Egyptian emigrant, black, Muslim woman presented her with obstacles, sure, but also opportunities to challenge what others think and take control of her narrative – one that is often told by others.
Her list of accolades and involvements is long: she was a National Finalist Young Australian of the Year, a Westpac 100 Women of Influence, founded Youth Without Borders when she was 16, and has held positions with organisations such as Australian Multicultural Council and the G20 Youth Summit, to name a few.
She wears many hats, just one of which is a hijab. She is an activist, a racing enthusiast, an engineer and, most recently, an author. Her book Yassmin’s Story: Who do you think I am? was released in February. We spoke with Yassmin Abdel-Magied to learn her story and the insights she has gleaned along the way.
HRMonline: People often tiptoe around topics such as discrimination or gender inequality. Is it better to face these ‘uncomfortable’ issues head-on?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: If we don’t talk about things, they just fester. I’ve really encouraged people to talk about things openly; I’ve always said I am willing to be asked anything. You can’t learn about something through reading alone, so having those ‘uncomfortable’ conversations can really break down barriers. It creates a personal connection and helps you understand why the difference is there. It doesn’t always come from a bad place, but it does need to be respectful because you need to gauge a person’s comfort level first – some are more open to questions than others. For example, some people might be offended by a question like “Where are you from?” because they see it as you saying, “You don’t look like you belong here.” You’ll only find some things out by asking, so ask and start that conversation, but respect people’s boundaries.
HRM: One of your biggest focuses is gender equality. Why is it easier for people to condemn discriminatory behaviour elsewhere but ignore it in their own backyards?
YAM: There are definitely double standards and it’s so much easier to point fingers than look at yourself. And it’s incredibly frustrating. Yes, other countries can be bad, but in some ways it’s easier to tackle those issues elsewhere than at home because it requires not just legislative change but social change. Here, we have high rates of domestic violence and gender bias, so people have to be honest about whether they actually care. If they do, then great, but we can’t just challenge it without offering alternatives.
I think this fits into a larger conversation about getting more men involved and having them drive change as well. Focusing on women is great, but I think we need to have a broader conversation about what it means to be a man, and I think that’s creating a whole generation of lost boys.
HRM: Your parents were big influences on your life and encouraged you to speak up if you feel something isn’t right. Do you think that call to action is missing in Australia?
YAM: Australia is still a very young country; we are still figuring out how we deal with stuff we don’t like. We haven’t really had to fight for things, so we don’t have this history or mentality of struggle and survival. And we are incredibly lucky here as well. I think people here have a very laid-back approach to things. It’s the whole “She’ll be right” approach. People will feel a certain way, but they won’t necessarily act on those feelings or fight against the system. However, I think we do have a responsibility to hold people responsible for their actions, especially when they affect an entire group or country, so this needs to change here.
HRM: You have not only founded many organisations, but leant your voice to a variety of causes. How do you find what you are passionate about, or where you think you can create the most change?
YAM: Early on, I wanted to get involved in everything, but overtime I learned that you have to be discerning. There’s no real harm in getting involved in things, but if you want to have impact, you have to focus. Ask, “How can I add value?”. Passion opens the door, but it has to be backed up by effort, so how you can and will apply yourself to a cause is equally important.
I think I’m most proud of the fact that I have started a conversation about a narrative that hasn’t been told in Australia, and that I have encouraged others to speak up and lend their voice to something. To get there, support networks are everything! Invest in them. Society often supports individualism, but no one gets where they are alone. When you succeed, you need to pull others through the door behind you. Or if you are just cruising along, reach out to someone to help you find your passions.
HRM: You describe yourself as a very curious person. What is the value of curiosity, and do you think it doesn’t get enough credit?
YAM: Curiosity makes everything about life more interesting – it lets you squeeze the juice out of life. We get so wrapped up in ourselves, but there is so much else out there. There have been billions of people before us, and that’s amazing. Curiosity and being curious gives you a real chance to learn and ask questions about why things are the way they are and how they got that way.
A lot of the drama in the world is based on fear. If you are fearful or mistrustful, you close yourself off. My mum said that we need to combat fear with trust, and we need to have more faith and trust and make conscious decisions to give people a chance. I like to say that I tried out fear and it didn’t suit me.
HRM: You have a very famous TED Talk about unconscious bias, and you say that unconscious biases are not necessarily a bad thing. Where is the line when unconscious biases become harmful?
YAM: Unconscious bias becomes harmful when it doesn’t allow us to change our mind or our behaviours become fixed. You have to be aware of what is happening cognitively and acknowledge that you might have biases. I know I make snap judgements, but I am also open to acknowledging that and changing my behaviour. It’s about being self-aware and getting to the root of why you are making that judgement. I think if you can’t do that, then that’s where the line starts to get crossed.
HRM: How do you be brave enough to stop feeling like you need to constantly prove yourself?
YAM: You can’t be what you can’t see, so for any type of minority in a group you feel like you need to sound like everyone else in the room to be accepted or taken seriously. I experienced this when I was first asked to sit on a board; I felt like they would only take me seriously if I thought and talked and acted like them. But then I realised that I wasn’t there because I’m like them – I’m there because I can give a perspective or draw on experiences that they lack.
You don’t have to please everybody, so ask yourself whose opinion you care about. I’ve found that the one thing you have control over is how you spend your time. Look after yourself: is the time to prove yourself worth it? If you are comfortable and proud with how you present yourself and what you have to say, then the only opinions that matter are those from people you care about.
HRM: What is one thought or thing you have learned over the years that you would like to share?
YAM: Be kinder to yourself. We get so stressed and wrapped up in everything going on, and we are all so tough on ourselves. We are great at being nice and comforting to friends when they are going through something, but I think we are really bad at following our own advice. I remember once when I was talking about something with a friend and I was just blaming myself. My friend asked, “What would you say to me in this situation?”. I think that’s a great reminder that we need to be nicer and treat ourselves like we would a friend.