Understanding the barriers to fair career and work opportunities is a difficult task. The issues are complex and every individual’s experience is different. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, social advocate, engineer, author and Guest Editor for this Breaking Barriers Spotlight series, has come up against more than her fair share of barriers when pursuing careers in industries such as motorsport and engineering. Here, Yassmin explains what her experiences have taught her and what we can all do to help create truly inclusive work environments.
Business leaders will often talk about wanting to attract, hire and retain the 'best and brightest' talent. With top recruiters on the lookout, incentive schemes developed, and high potential streams implemented, one could make the argument that all the pieces are in place to achieve that lofty goal. Unfortunately however, things are not always so simple.
We often frame talent in terms of human 'capital', or a class of 'asset' that is valuable to a company in a particular manner. What these terms omit is the significant difference between an inanimate asset, like a factory, and a human being - one who comes with a wealth of lived experience, expectations and understanding of the world. An individual does not arrive in a company as a freshly minted human, they arrive as a fully formed adult, with years of being told (implicitly or explicitly) that they either deserve their position, power and privilege, or that they do not. Companies do not exist in a vacuum, they reflect the cultural power structures that exist in the broader society. This all has an impact on the business.
Where does that leave us? It means, for example, that a company might assume it is hiring the 'best and brightest', while actually not realising it has been operating within and reinforcing norms that reflect historical prejudices and inequalities.
Now - before the defences start kicking in, followed by the typical knee jerk reaction of "oh, but that doesn’t happen here", hear me out. I’m a Sudanese born, hijab wearing female mechanical engineer, who grew up in Brisbane, Australia. My family was (according to my father) only the second Sudanese family in the Queensland capital, and so my experience was shaped by always existing outside what was considered 'the norm'.
I was fortunate to have parents who framed our differences not as disadvantages, but rather through the lens of opportunity. The only hijabi in the school? Great, they said, it means people will know who you are. Nobody listens to you for some reason? Okay, they said, let’s teach you to debate articulately. No woman has ever topped the class? Well, there’s got to be a first!
That personal framing was powerful in providing the rocket fuel to propel me into spaces where people may not have expected me to be, like running my university’s race car team, competing in a boxing ring, and working as a department’s first female field specialist on oil and gas rigs.
For some time, I believed that was sufficient: personal framing and attitude towards challenges was all I needed to succeed in a world where I was outside the norm. As my career progressed however, I began to learn that there were inequalities that I couldn’t necessarily outperform. There was something deeper and more entrenched that I was pushing up against.
Once I started digging, it started to become fairly obvious. At the core of it, our understanding of competence, suitability and power comes from a long history of straight, white, able-bodied (and typically hyper-masculine) men in positions of leadership. Although in many ways that has been legislated out, the culture that has created still exists. More importantly, the working world has been built for the straight, white man. Everybody else has to work around that structure, adjusting themselves for a world that was not designed to support, sustain or value them.
But the world has changed, increasingly recognising that bias in favour of a particular demographic is neither fair, right, nor the best business sense. Workplace cultures, practices and approaches will need to change as well, if they want to survive. In a world where the voices of those previously marginalised are finding new and larger platforms, complacency and the arrogance that comes with privilege will lead to the fall of titans. Yes, these are challenging conversations. Yes, changes will be difficult. There is no doubting that at all. But what business growth isn’t challenging, or difficult? Businesses are routinely setting goals and targets that are ambitious, setting bold visions and shooting for the stars. The same approach can apply to this type of growth and change as well.
However, in order for companies to genuinely immunise themselves against discrimination, bias and prejudice, in order to create truly inclusive environment and culture, the growth in this space needs to be taken just as seriously as any other business growth. Inclusion cannot simply be a nice add on, a 'perk'. It needs to be seen as something that is a core value, a non-negotiable, the way you do business. That means training budgets for employees to learn how to mitigate their biases, or to have uncomfortable conversations about racism and sexism in the workplace. It means tying hiring targets to managers’ bonuses. It means committing to an internship program focused on hiring young people from a low socio-economic background, even if they don’t look like the 'right fit' on paper. The 'right fit' often means 'just like me'. We can do better than that.