Adam Baidawi admits he’s pretty shocked to say that he’s editor-in-chief of GQ Middle East, the 21st edition of Condé Nast’s worldwide men’s media brand.
In October, Baidawi’s team published its debut issue—and, at age 28, Baidawi became GQ’s youngest-ever editor.
His peers aren’t surprised.
“He’s always been stupidly precocious,” says Quartz Ideas editor Georgia Frances King, a friend of Baidawi’s since childhood.
Baidawi’s parents are Iraqi and raised him in Australia. Before joining GQ, he held the post of Australia correspondent for the New York Times, where he reported a story about a trailblazing Iraqi surgeon and another about misogyny in the Australian Defense Force.
In this interview with Quartz, Baidawi proves he’s unafraid of broaching sensitive topics. He explains why his own experience with gendered power dynamics at work is atypical, and where perceptions about masculinity go wrong.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
I’ve been lucky. A great deal of my career success has come from women who were willing to take a chance on me when others were not.
The gender dynamics in the workplaces I’ve experienced are atypical. When I was 18, two women, Eliza Jones and Clare Polanski, hired me to be editor of the music magazine they owned and operated—my first full-time job in publishing. A few years after that, Ceri David, then GQ Australia’s deputy editor, gave me my first GQ commission. She went on to give me my first GQ cover story, too. Even with my new gig at GQ Middle East, talented, powerful women continue to be a theme: my publisher, as well as our two clever brand guardians from Condé Nast, are all women.
But even with all of that exposure, even in the often-progressive organizations I’ve been part of, there are still gaps.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from Me Too is that my own perspective has built-in blind spots. That seems like a wildly obvious thing to say. But, honestly, I was moving through my life in the full belief that I was a fully informed citizen. And I just wasn’t.
Early on, as Me Too swept across social media, I felt a mix of guilt, horror, and gratitude as women began sharing their stories, big and small. It was around that time that someone tweeted something that’s stuck with me: Sometimes, the most helpful thing a man can do is listen, acknowledge, and amplify. Sometimes—and here’s a twist—nobody needs us to weigh in right away.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
I consider myself as standing proudly under the umbrella of women’s rights supporters. I do feel conflicted about it, but I feel as though some of the discourse around capital-f Feminism has been co-opted by some that seem less interested in exploring equality and fairness, and more compelled by toxic feuds and gotchas. (Those voices usually come from the more resistant side of the debate.)
My ideal feminism is trying, above all else, to be a help, not a hindrance. Remembering to listen. But I’m still learning, too. I’m not sure if it’s a perfect way to approach things, but it’s where I’m at.
3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?
Something that I’ve begun doing is working to correct baked-in biases that have appeared in my work. Last year, while reporting with the New York Times’ Australia bureau, some of my fellow reporters and I would regularly stress-test our own work, and ask ourselves whether we’d called upon enough women to be quoted as experts or sources. It’s an elementary thing to do, but it made a difference in my reporting.
On a similar note, after a quick audit revealed that I hadn’t profiled a woman in nearly a year (!), I went out and pitched six or seven stories, right away.
Both of those actions are extremely reactionary, but my hope is that good, deliberate things will lead to good, instinctive things.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
Men: both others and themselves. There are crushing pressures and false narratives that have become embedded into masculinity—that men have to be a certain way to be successful, to be respected, to be desirable. Show no weakness! Swallow your anxieties! Be theatrically assertive! It’s all verifiably bullshit. But nonetheless, these outdated ideas have been codified into masculinity, and we’re only just starting to detangle ourselves from them.
When I reflect on my past behavior, which has been unfair to others, or unfair to myself, 99% of the time, it’s been rooted in anxieties that, in turn, have been rooted in outdated expectations of How a Man Should Be. These expectations and anxieties can be extraordinarily dangerous to men, and to those around them.
Masculinity has been, for the longest time, extremely prescriptive. That’s definitely broadening, and we need to keep nudging things forward.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
Absolutely. And they’re conversations that are happening more and more. I’ve found my immediate circle of friends to be extremely engaged. When it comes to those who are more resistant or defensive, I switch up my approach. It saddens me to say it, but persuasion is persuasion, regardless of the topic. And the best way I’ve found to persuade someone is to begin by empathizing with their current point of view, and then guide them to an alternative.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
These days, that I’ve inadvertently caused someone distress. I think men, on the whole, are feeling anxious about their place in the world, and how they interact with society. Honestly? We could probably stand to be a little more anxious. Hopefully, from anxiety comes reflection.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
That I—and most men—am open-minded (and thick-skinned) enough to hear criticism.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
I don’t think supporting women ought to be a particularly difficult or controversial thing to do in everyday life. I’d also add: It doesn’t need to be screamed.
The bar for men to be an ally is extraordinarily low. Men are such doers and fixers, but what I’ve learned is that nobody’s asking for a Sorkin monologue from you. Just listen, acknowledge, and support. If you have an opportunity to exercise your power—socially or professionally—to materially assist, even better.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
There are many things that I would do differently, knowing what I know now.
Most recently, I interviewed a male celebrity and asked for his feelings on the Me Too Movement. He went on to, in an inelegant moment, say something that was obviously inappropriate and that I’m sure he’d rephrase, given the opportunity.
Naturally, I listened back to that part of the interview recording several times, checking and triple-checking that the transcript was accurate. That meant I also re-listened to my own response to his thoughts.
After his gaffe, I immediately attempted to help him backpedal—to help bail him out. Listening back, over and over, I was disappointed that I couldn’t muster up the courage to address it head-on.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
My answer for both is the same: Remember to check your actions against your principles.