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Yassmin Abdel-Magied on How to Combat Unconscious Bias Within Your Teams

Yassmin Abdel-Magied on How to Combat Unconscious Bias Within Your Teams

Biases — whether we know it or not, we all have them. They’re shortcuts created by our brains to better handle the millions of pieces of information thrown at us at any given point. The problem is that these shortcuts can be based on faulty information, and it’s up to us to actively retrain our brains to combat that misinformation.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of unconscious bias. In her keynote, “Beating Your Bias”, she combines personal experience with research to illustrate the impacts of bias in the workplace and how to combat it to create safer, fairer, and more productive workplaces for all.

The first step, Yassmin says, is to acknowledge that we have biases in the first place. They are a result of shortcuts necessary to the functionality of our brain. Some of these shortcuts are helpful — like red means danger — and some are not because they reflect the harmful structural and systemic biases that surround us all.

Ask yourself, Yassmin says, are your assumptions based on qualitative or quantitative research you conducted yourself? Or are they based on something you read on social media, saw on a television show, or heard from a friend of a friend? Unfortunately, our personal identities don’t protect us from these types of biases because we all live in the same world, surrounding by the same misinformation.

Once we acknowledge our biases, and the fact that biases impact us all, we can stop being imprisoned by them, Yassmin says, and focus on rewiring those shortcuts to be based on reality vs. fiction.

The Impact of Bias in the Workplace

Yassmin has felt the impact of bias in the workplace firsthand. She is a mechanical engineer and her first job within her field was working on oil rigs. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like her on these rigs, but she did everything she could to fit in. She believed that if she acted like everyone else, emulated those who were successful in her field — largely old, white men — and worked hard to prove herself, she would find success.  

But after a few years, Yassmin couldn’t help but notice that there were differences between how she was treated compared to her male colleagues. They were given more money and more opportunities, even though Yassmin excelled at her job and held more senior roles.

Drawing from a study about women in engineering, Yasmin shares four ways people can be marginalized at work. While these examples were drawn from a specific group of people, they can easily be applied across industries and other minority groups.

1. Amplifying Differences

Although Yassmin never spoke about her differences from her colleagues, others did. She would walk into the lunchroom and hear, “no more swearing, there’s a female present.” This type of behaviour is a constant reminder not only to Yassmin but to everyone she works with that she is an outsider, that she’s not a part of the group, and that they can’t be themselves around her.

2. Imposing Stereotypical Expectations

An example of this is when tasks are delegated to women simply because they are a woman. For example, writing the minutes, organizing social events, ordering the birthday cake, etc. These are tasks outside of a typical job description but take up time. There’s an assumption, Yassmin says, that because someone’s a woman, they need to do “women’s work”, no matter how high up they are or how busy they are. It’s not something they get credit for, but if they don’t do it, she continued, it’s noticed.     

3. Tuning Out Certain Individuals.

This occurs when someone’s voice is given more credibility over someone else’s. Picture yourself in a meeting, Yassmin says, and a woman makes a suggestion that is largely passed over. But, a few minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and everyone acknowledges it. In this scenario, a woman is being tuned out, which can have serious consequences in the workplace because it’s often the voice with authority that gets promoted.  

4. Cause for Doubting Technical Abilities

In technical spaces, men are competent unless proven otherwise, while women are incompetent until proven otherwise, Yassmin says. Women, or people of colour, have to do so much more just to reach the base level of their male colleagues or of their colleagues of the dominant culture. Who we assume has competence has an enormous impact on the make-up of a workplace.

Over time, these are the reasons people leave their jobs. Yassmin left engineering after four years because the environment made her job more difficult. Most young women, she says, leave technical industries before the age of 25 because they look ahead and realize that fighting these biases will take everything out of them. As much as I love engineering, Yassmin said, I didn’t want to give up my voice and sense of self to continue in it; the price wasn’t worth it.

How to Beat Bias in the Workplace

Beating bias begins by challenging yourself to look beyond your first impression. As a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, Yassmin is well-versed in what people often think about her based on what she chooses to wear. She explores this in her ground-breaking TEDx Talk, “What Does My Headscarf Mean to You.”

Yassmin challenges leaders to stop using the words “culture fit” and instead use “culture add” when building their teams. See difference as an opportunity instead of something to change. Yassmin was once co-facilitating an event and she let her partner know that she needed a five-minute break to pray. Often, she said, this means slinking away to hide herself for a few minutes. This time, her co-facilitator announced to the room that taking a five-minute break would be good for all of us to engage in some quiet time, turning this “difference” into an opportunity for the whole group to do something different together.

Often, it’s a simple action that can yield huge results. Below are a few proven strategies for retention pulled from studies exploring why people stay at organizations.

1. Care and Peer Support

Knowing you have your team’s support can be the difference between staying and leaving, Yassmin says. For example, if you notice someone is being tuned out, acknowledge their input. If Nancy shares an idea in a meeting that is ignored, and then Joe shares that same idea five minutes later, thank Joe for bringing up Nancy’s point again, Yassmin says. Or, instead of waiting for Joe, amplify Nancy’s voice by calling out her idea and crediting her for it.

2. Feedback on Performance

This may seem simple, but feedback is key to progressing in one’s career. Often, it isn’t systemized, it’s casual and shared in conversation. If you aren’t a part of the dominant culture in your workplace, “an outsider”, Yassmin says, you can miss out on this kind of feedback because people behave and converse differently around you.

3. Higher Level Responsibilities

Take a chance on people. Even though women are breaking into different industries, Yassmin says, they often get stuck once they’re there because they don’t get promoted. By taking a chance on someone, you give them the opportunity to progress and show your confidence in them. They’re there for a reason and should be rewarded for that.

Combating bias requires us to make real structural change, Yassmin says, which can be uncomfortable because it puts you against the dominant culture. But each of us are having an impact, whether we realize it or not. Lean into the discomfort and see what difference it can make. It’s not about changing the world, Yassmin says, it’s about changing the world around you.

Watch Yassmin’s clip below to hear how one small action changed the world around her.

Contact us to learn more about Yassmin and what she can bring to your next event as an expert on inclusivity and transformative leadership.

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