21 June 2024

Fathia joins Life Without Barriers as a Board Observer, as part of the Observership Program.

Fathia Tayib grew up in Brisbane and began her career in administration. Later she worked as a Market Operations Officer in banking, then a Commercial Risk Analyst in the energy sector before moving into a privacy role for a big retailer.

The 34-year-old first-generation Somali Australian shares her experiences as a brown-skinned Muslim woman working in Australia.

Image: Fathia wears a dark jacket, an orange hijab and glasses.

“You can tell when people have never really interacted with Muslims on a day-to-day basis – it’s the microaggressions," said Fathia.

"For me, I’ve felt more racism when it comes to my skin colour and name discrimination."

“It took me a while to reclaim my name. I started my career with Faye. I anglicised my name because I was not getting calls with my full name on my CV. Recruiters were looking at my name and thinking, ‘oh, she must be a foreigner’ even though I'm Australian as can be."

"It was only when I moved into my energy sector role that I took back my name and I said I'm going to apply with my full name. I'm going to reclaim it. I don't want to be known as Faye anymore.”

When Fathia moved to Melbourne five years ago, she started attending tech meetups to expand her professional network.

“I’d go to networking events and I'd be like a wallflower. Some evenings, I wouldn't talk to a single person. But I'm so glad I persevered and pushed through my discomfort because at one of these events I met a referral for my first role in Melbourne,” she said.

“I think I struggled a lot because I'd be the only Muslim woman or black person there."

"I didn't realise the power and importance of networking until I started talking to more people who looked like me and listening to their stories about how they got into their careers. I’m now part of the Committee for Blacks in Technology Australia."

"There’s a famous African proverb: If you want to go far, go together. I wanted to be surrounded by fellow African Australians who are interested in empowering African Australian professionals."

"People want to support you, people want to see you win. And I always feel so happy when I see someone in my network that's doing great work.”

Her connections were to bear another fruit for Fathia. Someone in Fathia’s network told her about the Board Observership Program, which provides young individuals training and practical experience in not-for-profit and government appointed board leadership and ongoing networking opportunities. The program aims to make long-term change by fostering a diverse, passionate, and motivated community of future leaders.

“I like the way you are supported by the Board Observership Program, so it’s not just you on your own,” said Fathia.

Fathia’s application was successful and she was paired with Life Without Barriers.

“I attend all board meetings for the year. My whole role is to observe the inner workings of a board. What’s on the agenda? What is on the Chief Executive Officer's radar? What issues and concerns require Life Without Barriers’ attention? What are we tracking in terms of metrics and how are we doing? What is the pulse or the health of the organisation? And then there are subcommittees that focus on different aspects, so like risk, finance, and technology," Fathia explained.

"I observe and listen to all the different speakers like the CEO, the other executives, and any guests who may come in."

“In my previous job, I drafted privacy and data governance papers for board and audit risk committees and would get one or two lines of feedback. It was good to see how the papers are being received and the questions that the board asks – a nice perspective to have.”

Image: Life Without Barriers Board and Executive visit Rocherlea Tasmania.

Fathia is grateful that Greg Ridder, Chair of the Board, invited her to talk and ask questions during the board meetings, though she mainly reserves her questions for her regular debriefing sessions with the Chief of Strategy and Governance, Paula Head. Paula is Fathia’s Life Without Barriers mentor who supports her during her 12-month tenure.

“I have regular 30 minute meetings with Paula in the weeks following a board meeting. I usually have a lot of questions that I don't want to ask in front of the board. Paula will also give me context about Life Without Barriers’ history or things at play in the background that I may not be aware of. I've also had a couple of meetings with the Board Chair to check in, which was nice,” said Fathia.

Some of Fathia’s favourite experiences of her Observership Program so far are the board strategy days and meeting the people we support.

“Strategy days are definitely the biggest highlights for me. At one of them, I got to meet the people we support and the staff who work with them. I read board papers about all these programs that are helping clients, and on that day, I got to talk to people we support and find out how Life Without Barriers positively impacts their lives and what we can do better. It’s like bringing a theory to life. Getting to meet the disability network members was also fantastic.”

Fathia talked about one particular eye-opening experience that has given her the most food for thought.

“I was invited to a disability immersion session and before then, I didn’t really know about the term ‘lived experience’. I saw that practised at Life Without Barriers - where people with lived experience are the leads of programs. They are involved in the program – they’re setting it up and facilitating it," Fathia shared.

"From that day I started to learn what I could about Lived Experience.”

Image: The Life Without Barriers DAWN committee, Executive team and Board members standing together smiling after being immersed in a theatre-based training and exploration session that focused on the lived experiences of people with disability.

Fathia also appreciates members of the Life Without Barriers Board itself.

“I'm lucky that everybody has been very friendly. I've had good in-depth conversations with a lot of the board members. What I noticed is the importance of chemistry, and the Life Without Barriers Board certainly has that. You don't want everyone on the board to be ‘yes’ people. You want to have people who'll say, ‘I agree with you on this bit but I think this bit needs to change’“

One of Life Without Barriers’ Strategy 2025 goals is to create positive impacts for future generations. Fathia shared what she would like to see in the future.

“People underestimate the power of representation. I get inspired by a lot of black women who work in the US in the field of privacy and responsible AI, like Dr Elizabeth Adams, Cherish Molezion, Dr Timnit Gebru and Dr Joy Buolamwini. So many black women who are doing phenomenal things, but they are over there in North America," said Fathia.

"I'm here in Australia and I look around and think, where are my people who are in senior leadership? I don't see them on TV, I don't see them in magazines, and I don't see them when I go to company town halls."

“What I’d like to see in the future is people who look like me or people of different ethnicities being represented on boards in corporate Australia and the not-for-profit sector."

"Boards of banking, energy, finance, insurance, and retail organisations are dealing with millions of Australians. Australia is not a homogenous country, yet people on these executive leadership teams mainly are - is that doing the best to improve the lives of all Australians? Where's the lived experience?"

“I’m passionate about Diversity and Inclusion - and intersectionality in particular. One person can have multiple identities that inform their real-life experience. For me, being a Muslim, being a black woman, being a woman - all of this is informing my life in so many different ways."

"I highly encourage anyone from a diverse background to explore and find ways to become involved. We need those lived experiences on boards. If not, how we're going to make change? And boards themselves have to be welcoming of change.”

As well as the inclusion of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, Fathia would like to see a lot more change when it comes to mental health and working.

“Right now in corporate Australia, it's a bit difficult for people to say, ‘oh, I have a mental health condition or I'm a person with disability and I would like to have some accommodations at work’," said Fathia.

"In my experience, people usually keep silent because they are afraid to put a mark against their name, and if anything happens, they’ll be the first one out the door."

"I’d like employers to walk the walk when they say, ‘we support everyone’. It has to change from the top down."

"There are not enough executive leaders who are open about having a mental health condition or having a disability."

“The work that Life Without Barriers does to advocate for the employment of people with disability, and inclusive work practices - Life Without Barriers is the exception to the rule and it should be the norm, right?”

And what is Fathia's hope for her own future?

“I want a career that has a positive impact on the society around me and I'd love to give back to the next generation. Right now I’m very interested in Artificial Intelligence ethics and responsible AI. What are the potential impacts of AI on my community? How can my community benefit from this?”

Fathia’s tenure as Observer of Life Without Barriers’ Board will run until the end of 2024.

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