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29 November 2018

Neither a woman's religious identity, nor her race, should be a barrier to career progression. Right?

Professor Shereen Hussein, University of Kent

Being a woman can evoke many stereotypes that are exacerbated by belonging to a minority race

Muslim woman reading
Muslim woman reading

It is great to see many women from diverse backgrounds rising to leadership positions across various sectors. We have a woman prime minister; it should be a great time for all women to be given real opportunities to demonstrate their talents and skills. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Being a woman can evoke all sorts of stereotypes. Add to this belonging to a minority race. Then add to that a religious belief and a small garment of cloth, called a headscarf, and all sorts of barriers are shaped.

How an engineer or an accountant looks should not be a deciding factor when they apply for jobs for which they are fully qualified. So why do women and men with the same degrees not have the same chances of entering and progressing into the job market? Even more puzzling, why do women who declare they belong to a certain religion or wear certain clothes have different employment and career opportunities than other women with similar qualifications and experience?

My colleague Nabil Khattab and I have conducted and published research into this very issue. We asked, Do British Muslim women have a disadvantaged experience of the labour market compared to other British women? Furthermore, do British Muslim women from different race and cultural backgrounds experience further disadvantages? And what could be the reasons why?

In an attempt to answer these questions, we used a large pool of data – 245,391 records, to be precise – related to labour experience of British women from 2002 to 2013. We looked at women’s economic activities, professional grades and average earnings to establish where the key differences lay.

We were particularly interested in understanding the effect of ethno-religious background and generation. So we derived an ‘ethnic-generation’ indicator as a multi-dimensional variable covering ethnicity, religion and generation as the main single predictor in most of our models. We also controlled for factors such as age, marital status, having responsibilities for young children and qualifications, among others.

The analysis clearly indicated that intersectionality and multiple inequalities are at play when it comes to the experience of British Muslim women in the labour market, with our findings overwhelmingly suggesting that most of them, regardless of their multiple ascriptive identities, generation and qualification levels, still face significant penalties compared to their non-Muslim counterparts.

Furthermore, such labour penalties for some groups of Muslim women – those who are Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black-Muslim – are harsher than for those who are Indian and White-Muslim. The variable employment experiences of different groups of British Muslim women, compared to other women, demonstrate how different social markers and multiple identities have contingent relationships to multiple determinants and outcomes.

It was clear that how different groups of women are perceived, approached and appreciated are dependent, to a great extent, on how they looked, dressed and identified by others more than on their skills, experience or ability to perform. These perceptions are embedded within a culture feasting on (negative) images – of women, Muslims, migrants and people of colour – propagated by various actors.

Surprisingly, when a national newspaper reported on the findings of our study, they chose a picture of a woman wearing a black burqa with only her eyes visible – although only a very small percentage of Muslim women choose to wear the burqa; some wear different styles of headscarves and many choose not to cover their hair at all. The fact that the paper selected this specific image was significant, from my point of view, as it seemed to suggest a certain perception of how a Muslim woman looks in the public sub-conscious.

Such negative stereotyping is reinforced in other ways – for example, when a high-profile political figure openly assumes that a certain dress code automatically makes the person wearing it ignorant, ugly and a potential terrorist. The general atmosphere becomes one of fear, resentment and alienation. Creating room for, and acceptance of, overt and covert discrimination, which in turn wastes talent and restricts potential opportunities.

Of course, some British Muslim women develop various coping strategies and resilience, including theological strategies to counter institutional and individual racialisation to enhance their career outcomes. However, if we are discussing women’s leadership opportunities and barriers, we need to consider the whole journey and trajectories to such leadership and how these might be different for various groups of women. We also need to consider the wider societal influences and existing stereotypes and assumptions.

It is clear that as a society, and as organisations and employers, we need to take more responsibility to actively foster a fairer environment for all women to reach their potential, acknowledging that some carry an even greater burden because of other people’s misperceptions.