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.

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