Reading Between the Lines: Two Takes on British Women’s Unemployment

Earlier in December, the Guardian reported on a recent UK-based report—the “All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community Ethnic Minority Female Unemployment: Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Heritage Women”—that found “minority ethnic women are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts, with some removing their hijabs or making their names sound more English to try to beat discrimination.”

The report found that continuing employment woes – and, as a result, the decreased self-confidence in women – only perpetuate the unemployment cycle. Towards the end of the article, the negative depiction of Muslim women in the media is also mentioned as a possible reason for why women face an uphill employment battle:

“The portrayal of Muslim women in the media as passive victims, or as problems, undoubtedly renders them less desirable to prospective employers.”

Myriam Francois-Cerrah provides an excellent commentary on the British report in a Comment is Free post for the Guardian, and relays several stories of Muslim women who have struggled with their job search or who are required to abandon their beliefs (wearing hijab, for example) to comply with workplace rules. Francois-Cerrah also highlights the troubling “essentialization” Muslim women face in the workplace:

“A recurring theme was of women feeling ‘essentialised’ – Muslim journalists consistently asked to cover ‘Muslim’ stories, Muslim solicitors hired as a means of accessing certain communities, or a hospice worker whose conversations were routinely directed at her faith. From questions about pregnancy plans through to being asked, ‘We have a lot of gay staff here – is that going to be a problem for you?’, many women felt their identity was reduced to their scarf and the assumptions people made about it.”

At the Independent, Reyhana Patal also relays some of her own experiences with a challenging job search and awkward workplace socialization situations, which eventually led her to leave her position entirely:

“In one role, I made my religious beliefs very clear on my CV and during my interview, however, my welcome to the team was an outing ‘for a drink.’…Even after clearly highlighting my religious stance on alcohol, my colleagues saw no issue with the occasional afternoon beers in the office and no one took notice of how uncomfortable this made me feel. This lack of respect for religious beliefs was what ultimately prompted me to leave the private sector and find work in an Islamic faith-based institution.”

It was refreshing to read from Muslim women about their first-hand experience of workplace discrimination to complement the findings of the unemployment report. I was surprised, then, to read The Economist’s rather optimistic take on Asian Muslim women participating in the British workforce: “A hidden explanation for Britain’s surprising job numbers: Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are finally surging into the labour market.” I went on to read (and re-read) between the lines.

The Economist article focuses less on the prejudice Muslim and minority women face in the workplace and instead focuses on the economic impact Muslim women have in overcoming their group’s poverty. What was most striking was the lack of a first-hand account from a Bangladeshi women’s experience; the author of the article instead explains (maybe mansplains?) how cultural beliefs inform Muslim women’s participation in the workplace:

“A combination of traditional culture and modern prejudice keeps women out of work. Many still feel that it is the husband’s role to provide for the family. Even if they want to work, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are often expected to do a lot of cleaning, cooking and taking care of children, which leaves little time for a job.”

While cultural norms may indeed inhibit women’s employment, the tone here seems condescending and doesn’t allow for Bangladeshi women to explain their own circumstances.

The role that prejudice and discrimination plays in women’s unemployment rates receives passing notice, where women are blamed for the situation they find themselves in:

“Then there is an ‘ethnic penalty’ in hiring. Some 30% of Bangladeshi women who want to work are unemployed. Even well-educated women with Islamic names can struggle to get interviews…Many employers are reluctant to hire women they fear will leave to take care of children. For new migrants, meanwhile, poor English and weak formal education are huge barriers to work, crowding those women who do so into poorly-paid and menial jobs.

What is interesting here is the author’s nonchalant belief in the “ethnic penalty”—the author takes it as a given that women will face some discrimination in finding a job. Even well-educated women with Islamic names—imagine that! (despite the fact that sociological research looking at how a potential employee’s name influences an employer’s hiring decision has been well-documented). The author’s own assumptions about Muslim women come to the surface, including beliefs about women leaving work for childcare and women’s lack of educational background.

After blaming Muslim women for their unemployment, the author concludes that these same women must find work to overcome the poverty they face: “Unless more women go to work, Bangladeshi and Pakistani poverty rates are likely to spiral upwards.” The focus on women as being solely responsible for their economic-well being, without considering the myriad ways prejudice and discrimination contribute to their unemployment, is appalling.  So is the lack of any mention of the report conducted by the all-party parliamentary group, which, as the Guardian initially reported, found that unemployment rates have held steady for minority women for the past thirty years.

The Economist’s staid reporting reveals the author’s underlying assumptions about Muslim women and provides little commentary on how prejudice and discrimination affects Muslim women’s employment—it’s far from an optimistic take on employment numbers that the editors claim in the byline. Instead, it promotes a narrative that disregards societal judgments and squarely places the job of overcoming poverty on women themselves—a well-documented negative media portrayal that only contributes to the challenges women face to finding a job.

  • Chris

    ” ‘We have a lot of gay staff here – is that going to be a problem for you?’, many women felt their identity was reduced to their scarf and the assumptions people made about it.”
    “In one role, I made my religious beliefs very clear on my CV and during my interview, however, my welcome to the team was an outing ‘for a drink.’…Even after clearly highlighting my religious stance on alcohol, my colleagues saw no issue with the occasional afternoon beers in the office and no one took notice of how uncomfortable this made me feel. This lack of respect for religious beliefs …”

    These statements in “neighbouring” paragraphs leave me a little confused. The first one seems to demand of employers “to look beyond the religion” of the applicant or new colleague, and not treat them differently than all others (in this case, not assume they will have an issue with homosexuality because of their beliefs). The second statement seems to ask of superiors and colleagues to treat the new employee or colleague differently by their religion (concrete, not to ask them to join the colleagues for drinks. Not have a beer in their presence (?)).

    Also, I get the impression you misread or misunderstood the author in the “ethnic penalty” aspect. In fact, that clearly means what you reproach them to miss a paragraph later: Structural discrimination tied to ethnicity identifiable in a name. And while the wording may be debatable, it makes sense for them to stress “even” those with good education are singled out. Normally, education and labour market-valued qualification in many cases help lessen such blatant discrimination tied to one’s name (found for low class majority Europeans for Germany, where low social classes are often easily identifiable by their choice of surname for a child). You mention studies, field studies in France (I do not know whether they have been done in the UK, but I see no reason why they should not be relevant in a UK discussion, too) have in fact shown that an identifiable Muslim African name compared with a Christian African name received significantly less calls for an interview at equal qualification, suggesting it is overt discrimination of Muslims, more so than for other women of colour, just by the name (no headscarf on the CV photos). The name “penalty” in that kind of research in effect is not used to indicate any “fault” in the ethnicity itself (as if they had “done” something to merit punishment), it is used simply to show applicants are being punished (by receiving less job opportunities) for their name, looks, femininity, sexual orientation etc alone. No reproach of being “to blame” for that. The author actually expressed exactly what you added later by quoting that “ethnic penalty” literature: That there are scientific studies to prove there is structural discrimination of Muslims, no matter how well they are qualified.

  • Chris

    By the way, it would be highly interesting to see employment rates of South Asian and Asian women in the UK, also for 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants, before and after childbirth. I have no statistics at hand, but having observed the early careers of former colleagues during my studies in the UK (master’s program), I can say that all so far, despite having vowed to keep working once they have children, have more than the UK average of children per family (3 for most I know, in their early 30s), and most of them had their second child after relatively long childcare leave (1-2 years) right at the end of their leave, where they were supposed to resume work, and repeated the same for the third child for those who have three alredy. That makes childcare leave of 4-6 years for my friends in the UK. While statistical discrimination (an employer’s forecast of the person’s future productivity based on group membership, in this case this would mean an employer would not trust from experience an Asian or South Asian female employee would stay in the workforce, and therefore not employ or promote them) is absolutely wrong and against the law, I do see a structural issue with well-educated Asian and South Asian mothers indepedent of employers. They seem to have been determined to have a career, yet they take several years of leave and assume absolutely traditional roles in childrearing by staying at home until kids are in primary school, while “of course”, their husbands provide for the family with full-time employment. A year of childcare leave normally poses no issue in today’s workforce more accomodating for women’s (and men’s!) childcare responsibilities, but everywhere in the world and for everybody, to be absent for 4-6 years means you are going to have a very hard time to catch up and compete to have a career. Every woman and every man, every parent need to be conscious of that. That is not discrimination, but a choice to raise children (relatively alone) instead of having a career in the profession one is educated in.
    If my friends are representative for the majority of Asian/South Asian woman in the UK (which I cannot say with statistical certainty, as they may be an exceptional lot of 20 people – unlikely, but possible), I don’t think we should put all the burden of blame on employers, who do not “want” Muslim women to succeed and leave them in dire unemployment despite their qualification, but see that traditional roleshare is not compatible with women’s careers. Anywhere in the world, independent of faith.

    There *are* alternatives. Shared childcare time between mother and father benefit both parents’ psychosocial relationship to the child, and both careers. For highly qualified women, the income typically is not so low that the family risks starvation if the husband is home for 6 months to a year. I suspect there *are* traditional objections to this solution for South Asian and Asian cultural backgrounds – more so, than, say, a Swedish or Norwegian backbround – though.