Amna Karra-Hassan is a brave, influential advocate for diversity and inclusion for women and minorities in the community, workplace and sports. Amna has worked with the Australian Federal Police, is Founder of the Auburn Giants Football Club for women and has sat on numerous boards to make change in communities she cares about.
We speak with Amna about how she determined her identity and cause so early, the importance of self preservation, and the role of mentors and women on boards to level the gender gap.
Amna, what shaped you into being a leader and champion of diversity, especially for women and multicultural communities in business, sport and wider society?
My journey started in my home. I often say families are the battleground that prepare us for the frontline. The conflicts you go through as a young woman shape you. As someone who belongs to so many categories in terms of my identity, I’m either seen as not Muslim enough, not Aussie enough, or not behaving like a woman enough… I had to push through a limit that someone else placed on me. In doing so and living my life on my terms, I started to lead.
How did you determine your purpose so early on in life?
When I was growing up the difference between the sexes bothered me deeply. I felt it was a great injustice to be told I couldn’t do things because I was a girl.
When I looked at the local community leaders, business leaders, people on TV and sporting fields, I didn’t see girls, there were only boys. I thought something is wrong here. I decided I’m not waiting for anyone to start a women’s sporting team, I’m going to do it myself. At work if something didn’t feel right, I found a way to speak up.
I recognised that as I show up in a corporate or public service space, there’s an absence of people that look like me, which means more work needs to be done. I’m laying the ground for the next generation.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced in terms of your progression?
Having multiple identities meant I had different expectations from varying segments of the community. Engaging with media or in the public space, people asked questions that were stereotyped or had racist elements. I didn’t get to engage as Amna on her terms, but Amna living in shadow of terrorism.
If not that deep, it was more superficial, like ‘how does your father feel about you playing football’? I hated the idea that the patriarchy only permeates through Arab or Muslim communities. We still have issues with the gender pay gap, bullying and sexual harassment.
I’ve had to fight discrimination across communities with the intelligence to have the conversation on all sides. It was the most difficult, complex thing to navigate as young woman.
What is your advice to others facing similar difficulties you have in the workplace, whether it’s because of background, gender or any another reason?
Know when to fight. That was my biggest lesson, learning to pick my battles. The issue is much bigger than me and one experience. Pause and think, is this person going to change, evolve and engage or will I be hitting a wall? Hitting that wall only hurts me.
The other part is self preservation; I can’t make a difference if I’m burnt out, traumatised or totally dejected. If you’re going to be empowered to support others, you need to set boundaries for yourself and know where to draw a line in the sand.
What led you to work for the Australian Federal Police (AFP)?
I was finishing university and wanted to prove to my father that my degree mattered. He had the migrant mentality that it would be better to get a job straight away and work my way up, rather than study. An opportunity arose at the AFP, and a government job made sense, it’s stable and secure.
Social justice was always a theme for me – if there’s an injustice, or lack of checks and balances within the police, I’ll speak to it. There was a strong core alignment with my values, I felt compelled to take on the role with a real appetite to make a difference.
How did you create change and make an impact at the AFP?
I was unsworn, and realised quickly that I was very different, and was ok with that. I created spaces for police to engage with the community through events. The seminars allowed me to meet with community leadership across different cultural groups and bring the information back in to the organisation. I was a bridge for understanding and found it really fulfilling.
I also facilitated cultural and religious education internally, which were about being courageous enough to challenge people and allow them to be non-politically correct. It was a safe space for people to work through their unconscious bias without judgement, which allowed people to show up and work through issues.
You’ve sat on numerous boards, how did you become involved?
I’ve been involved because of civic engagement – I believe you have to be the change you want to see in the world. I care about social issues, diversity and inclusion, and representation.
Every board I’ve sat on had to have a values alignment to the things I care about. At the point I feel I’ve contributed everything I can, I step down to allow someone else the opportunity.
How can we get more women on boards? What can women do and what should organisations do to close the gap?
I didn’t always apply to boards, I was tapped on the shoulder and told either you should apply or we’ve already sent a nomination on your behalf. Others found me and said we need a voice like yours. If your boards don’t have representation of women – go and find them. It’s not always the responsibility of women, it’s also the responsibility of the chair to know there is a gap.
The power dynamics at the table matter. I left one board appointment because of the underlying gender and race issues. Don’t ever let someone undermine your confidence. The minute that happens, walk away. Be brilliant somewhere else.
Do you have mentors? Who do you turn to for support or look up to?
I have many mentors. It doesn’t have to be formal. If you ask for anything, most often people will say yes. I asked Katie Page, CEO of Harvey Norman for a meeting and thought she’d be too busy. She was happy to meet me. I never asked her to be my mentor, but she plays that role in my life, helping me understand my value, power and contribution.
Find a mentor who will help you navigate different spaces; work, family and personal development. Find people who are wise and have skills you admire, that will demand more of you, and are equally invested in you.
What are you looking to achieve next? What are your goals for 2019?
I’ve just resigned from the AFP with a heavy heart and will likely continue to work with them in some way. I’ve taken a part-time role with the Lebanese Muslim Association, leading an incredible team of people. I have to show up and play at the highest level every day to serve the community.
With the other percent of time, I’ll be leading the football club through change with the Women’s AFL, it’s an evolving space.
I have one more challenge – I want to bring Michelle Obama to Australia. She is an incredible voice for all women but women of colour, they believe the impossible is possible because of her. I’m happy to work with anyone who is interested to help me bring Michelle Obama out!
Connect with Amna K-Hassan.
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Photography supplied by Amna Karra-Hassan.