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Looking beyond bias with Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Inspiration from a rising star
June 2016

It isn’t often that a 25 year-old gets a standing ovation from leading executives while on the stage of IMD. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a keynote speaker at the Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program gave a talk on “Beating your bias.” And as a young woman, a Muslim and a mechanical engineer working in a man’s world, bias is something she knows about.

To challenge the audience’s perception, she walked on stage clad in a garment adopted by many women of her faith, a full-length coat, her head wrapped up in a swath of material.

“Do you think of me as a mother, a refugee, a victim of oppression? Do think my husband imposed this garment upon me. Or do you think of me as a cardiologist, a barrister, a local politician? Do you simply think I am just too hot with this on,” she asked. “When I walk down the street, what the world thinks of me and the way I’m treated depends on the arrangement of pieces of cloth.”

She unwrapped her head to reveal a lighter head-scarf, which she then covered with a construction helmet. She shed her ankle length coat to reveal the uniform of her profession: a fluorescent orange overall. Abdel-Magied, by profession, is an engineer on an oil rig.

Since graduating in mechanical engineering with First Class Honours from the University of Queensland in 2011, Abdel-Magied has also designed her own race car, carried on the advocacy work initiated by the foundation she created at the age of 16, ‘Youth without Borders’ and written a book to critical acclaim, Yassmin’s Story. She was born in Sudan, but her parents moved to Australia when she was two.

Tackling bias

In Lausanne, Abdel-Magied asked a few important questions as she bounced good-humoredly around the stage: Why should we care about bias, how does it work in our brains and what can we do about it?

She mentioned the story of John and Jerome in her homeland, Australia. They both go to an emergency ward in pain. John, who is white gets tended to immediately, a full knee replacement is decided and off he goes, content that a solution has been found that he can look forward to.

Jerome is an Aborigine and nobody in the hospital really knows how to deal with Aborigines. He is kept waiting because the personnel functions on the premise that blacks suffer less than whites, a form of bias that Abdel-Magied calls ‘super-humanization.’ There is also the suspicion that he might already be on drugs. Although his pain is similar to John’s he is dismissed with the recommendation to lose weight and exercise. He doesn’t follow the advice (how can he if he is in pain?) and falls into depression and is reprimanded for not doing as he was told. He still doesn’t get the knee replacement.

The point that Yassmin is making is not about racism, it’s about our way of putting labels on people without really knowing who they are. Just because Jerome is an Aborigine doesn’t make him a drug addict. Just because she is wearing a long coat doesn’t make her super-religious, maybe it’s just a ‘fat-day’ and she wanted to conceal an exaggerated waistline.

Abdel-Magied then shared a graphic chart that revealed how the corporate world frequently attributes greater leadership qualities to tall men: a majority of CEOs are six feet or taller. “Maybe that was true when we needed to be protected from the attack of a moose,” she quipped. She also debunks the belief that those who think they are making ethical decisions, actually do.

Understanding where our biases come from

Biases set in at a very early stage of our development, she warned, and they can also lie in the 90% unconscious part of our brain, which makes them difficult to remove. She gave as an example the gender bias engrained in children when they watch cartoons where all the females wear sexually explicit dresses. “Why don’t little girls get Tonka trucks,” Abdel-Magied asked.

She then explained that biases can take different forms and enumerated the following categories: in-group bias (the exclusion of those outside the group), anchoring bias (when we generalize our biases by extension), affinity bias (when we seek those who resemble us) and confirmation bias (backing-up what we already believe).

“The playing field is not level and the smallest of biases can lead to great inequality and so we have to ask ourselves why we are biased.”

Little blind spots can paralyze our attempts to overcome prejudices (“Women are less competent until proven otherwise”), but they can also get in the way of objectivity (“Guys are more competent, until they really screw up”).

She also mentioned how job candidates with Chinese names must supply 68% more résumés compared to those with western names.

Overcoming biases

Transparency is an essential ingredient to mitigate the negative effects of implicit bias, she assured. If people can express their fears and angers, “maybe I won’t agree, but perhaps I can better understand.” Some people will never change their minds, she added, they legitimize hatred. But she also invites us to examine the underlying causes, such as hardship and unemployment.

“We have to challenge ourselves, try to condition ourselves out of biases, give opportunities to those who don’t even know that a door exists.” Diversity can be uncomfortable, she conceded, less performance-oriented, but, in fact, it’s better.

Never underestimate the capacity for each and every one of us to make a difference, Abdel-Magied repeated. “Don’t let anyone else’s expectations tell you what is possible. You can change the world around you.”

She was just 16 when she became an activist and pays tribute to her parents who have always given her the belief that she can have an impact. “That is something to be treasured.”

In answer to a question regarding her next challenge, she answered that something is wrong with the world when inequalities are getting greater. “A lot of decisions are being made that will affect the lives of young people. We need to challenge the system.”

Her closing words joined those of Kofi Annan, another keynote at OWP: “Learn to listen, there’s a huge difference between what we think, and what’s really going on when on the ground.”

Learn more about IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance program, offered November 2016 in Singapore.