Written by Laura Livingstone
In May 2016, Londoners voted in their first Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan. During his campaign, Khan accentuated his modest upbringing in a working class Pakistani family home in a council estate in South London. As such, Khan has continuously appreciated the opportunities London has given him to succeed and become the Mayor of London today. However, recent employment statistics suggest that Khan’s success is an exception to the common experience for British Muslims and that the reality is in fact very different.
In August 2016, the Government published a report on “Employment Opportunities for Muslims in the UK” which was commissioned by the Women and Equalities Committee. The aim of the report was to address the perceived employment disadvantages faced by Muslims in the UK. It was concluded that ‘Muslims suffered the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in society’. The report found that unemployment levels and economical inactivity for Muslims are more than double compared to the general population (12.8% and 41% respectively as opposed to 5.4% and 21.8%). The report further highlights the additional disadvantages faced by many Muslim women who incurred a triple penalty in employment: being a woman, being Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and being a Muslim. For instance, despite overcoming traditional pressures from the family or community (which was hard enough), a study found that Muslim women were 71% more likely than white Christian women to be unemployed. This was even though they possessed the same qualifications in education and language.
The report attempts to address the exacerbated disadvantages faced by Muslim women by reviewing the Government’s approach to:
(a) integration and opportunity
(b) support available for aspiring Muslim women
(c) access to university and
(d) work place discrimination.
Education and Muslim Women
The report attempts to review the early stages of disadvantages faced by Muslim women. It was found that Muslim women are often placed at a disadvantage due to the cultural expectation that their role will be a homemaker which leads to a lesser emphasis on education. Although the report identifies a shift in attitude in younger Muslims and increased participation in higher education of Muslim women, it was found that Muslim women were often restricted in their choice of university as they tended to apply to universities close to their family home.
The report also highlights a lower level of Muslim students at Russell Group universities in general. This was found to be for various reasons such as parental pressures and idealistic career planning, attainment at school, sharia compliant student loans and a lack of soft skills usually developed by networking. The report calls for an improvement in offering more tailored advice around higher education choices and transparent and representative monitoring of BME students at Russell Group universities.
The report further acknowledges the Government’s effort in promoting English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes to Muslim women and its positive reception from the community. However, it also identifies a lack of guidance and support for Muslim women through the employment process in places such as the Job Centre and recommends mentoring and role model programmes to help aspiring Muslim women reach their full potential.
Recruitment and Muslim Women
It was reported that a ‘chill factor’ discouraged Muslim women from applying for certain jobs in order to avoid the risk of discrimination during the recruitment process. A study found that applicants who appeared white on an application would receive a positive response following 9 applications compared to BME applicants who would receive a similar response after 16 applications, despite having the same qualifications and experience. The report states that the Government recognises name based discrimination and as a result, name blind recruitment has been introduced by a number of well recognised public and private sector companies.
Once a Muslim woman bypassed the name discrimination and was invited for an interview, the report found that many Muslim women experienced an unconscious bias during the recruitment process as a result of many misconceptions. Studies reported issues such as the assumption that Muslim women may not be able to travel for work and interviewers questioning Muslim women on their family life, marital status and childcare. However these questions were less frequently raised with white women.
The report identifies that the triple penalty becomes more flagrant when Muslim women face conflicting pressures when considering wearing their religious or cultural dress. A study found that 18% of Muslim women were unable to find a job when wearing a hijab (and in one case, the niqab) but once removed, they all found employment. However, a number of Muslim women then reported that they were subsequently at risk of being judged negatively by male family members.
One particular pertinent example is the representation of Muslim women within the police force. It has been over 10 years since the Metropolitan Police approved the hijab in their official uniform, and in August 2016, Scotland Police followed suit by also approving the hijab in an attempt to have a more representative force. It is still recognised that there is a need for more diversity and a police force which reflects the multicultural communities it serves.
Workplace and Muslim Women
It was reported that negative stereotyping continued once a Muslim woman eventually secured a job. This included assumptions such as Muslim women not being social, uncommitted generally and requiring flexible working. The report then referred to the issue of social networking and Muslim employees who were less inclined to attend events which included alcohol (which is forbidden in Islam). The Muslim Council of Britain advised that, consequently those Muslims were potentially excluded from informal relationship-building and mentoring opportunities that occurred in places outside the office, such as the pub. The Muslim Women’s Network UK also suggested that employers should “take such matters into account and help employees feel a part of the team and cared for… Simple actions such as the company offering to pay the taxi fare, arranging car sharing or organising lunch time events during the day for team-building purposes shows inclusivity and solidarity”.
However, a further study notes that where management procedures were fair and considerate, immediate colleagues would view the management decisions as politically correct. When a Muslim woman was promoted, it was reported that colleagues viewed her as being treated more favourably and as a result, created a hostile environment within the team.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The report reminds employers to acknowledge and identify the impact of discrimination for Muslim women in the workplace and to take into account their legal duties to challenge discrimination. It recommends that employers provide perceptive training to employees to reduce misunderstandings or misconceptions whilst ensuring there is an inclusive working environment.
The commissioning of the report in itself is a positive step which demonstrates that the Government has recognised the need to rebuild trust with Muslim communities and to introduce a clear overarching strategy with measurable objectives to tackle the inequalities faced by Muslims. The Government will need to adopt a hands-on approach to counter the negative effects of cultural stereotyping which remains the root of the division and we now await their response to the report.
It is unlawful to, directly or indirectly, discriminate against a person for holding or not holding a particular religious or philosophical belief. Employees may first raise any discrimination issues in accordance with their employer’s internal procedures, by raising a grievance complaint.
For more information on religious discrimination and grievance procedures, please contact Head of Employment, Laura Livingstone or a member of the Employment team.
Gordon Dadds is proud to support diversity and has worked closely with a national education charity called SkillForce, helping young people to develop the skills and confidence to successfully enter the world of work or post-16 education and training. Gordon Dadds welcomed female, predominately Muslim, students from a school in Tower Hamlets and provided workshops on interviewing techniques and mock interviews whilst showing them the variety of career options to consider in a law and professional services firm. We received great feedback from the students and are delighted to be supporting the programme again this year.
Thank you to Mandy Rai, trainee solicitor in our Employment department, for her help in preparing this article.
Contact the Author
I am a partner and head of employment at Gordon Dadds. I graduated from Bristol University with a BA (Hons) in History, before beginning my legal career at Taylor Wessing. My expertise lies in the luxury retail, media, IT and architectural sectors. Over my 20 year career, I have dealt with all aspects of employment law within these fields, including a restructuring of Shoe Studio group following the sale out of administration. I am passionate about sport, both as a spectator and a participator; I play lacrosse for West London Women’s Club and I am a season ticket holder for Harlequins Rugby Club.