By: Eastern Eye Staff
Women from an Asian Muslim background should be offered childcare subsidies to help them tackle workplace discrimination, according to the chair of the Muslim Women’s Network. Shaista Gohir was responding to a Social Mobility Commission report which analysed school performance and career prospects along ethnic, gender and socioeconomic lines. It found that British Asian students, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls, are more likely than ever to succeed in school. However, this success is not translating into opportunity as they enter the labour market. Alan Milburn, chair of the commission, described its findings as a “broken mobility promise” for Asian Muslims, particularly women. “If you’re in a low-paying job, you likely can’t afford to pay high nursery fees and go to work, as this may not even cover the cost of childcare. It would be better just to stay at home,” Gohir said. “There are certain things that employers and governments could do, such as introducing more subsidies for childcare, which would help more women and more Muslim women go to work.” Along with flexible working hours for mothers, Gohir believes affordable childcare would provide Muslim women and females in general with more of an opportunity to pursue a career. The study, which was released last month, found that academic performance for Pakistani and Bangladeshi students has improved at a more rapid rate than any other ethnic group over the past decade. This high rate of academic success transcends socio-economic status, with nearly half of Bangladeshi and over a third of Pakistani students among the poorest 20 per cent progressing to university. This success is not reflected in wages, as Bangladeshi and Pakistani women still earn less than their counterparts from other ethnic groups and are less likely to hold managerial or professional occupations than their male counterparts, despite achieving greater qualifications in school. The report also found that Bangladeshi women are over-represented in clerical and secretarial jobs. The research presents several explanations for both rising academic performance and stagnant levels of opportunity outside of school. It states that discrimination in the workplace puts certain groups at a distinct disadvantage, referring to previous research that shows ethnic discrimination affects women disproportionately. Muslim women, particularly those who express their faith or culture outwardly by wearing the hijab, for example, experience a greater degree of discrimination than other groups. Gohir said that although workplace discrimination is a common problem for many of the women she speaks to, including those in highly skilled roles such as lawyers, the reluctance of many to come forward with complaints makes it difficult to measure the extent of the problem. “A lot of people don’t complain because they are scared of losing their job or losing promotion prospects, even if that is the issue they want to complain about,” she said. “They are also worried about not being able to get a reference. “If you take a discrimination case to tribunal it often costs a lot of money, so that is a barrier in itself. Everything is stacked against the person wanting to complain.” Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, likened the discrimination faced by these women to the bias faced by all females, particularly ethnic minorities, in the workplace in the past. “During my lifetime, we have made lots of progression for women’s equality,” she said. “Look at the hijab – it’s the age-old argument over what women wear and how we judge women based on what they wear, only now it has shifted to Muslim women. We need to have those debates and conversations in order to raise awareness and we need to be clear about who is affected by discrimination. “The government needs to listen to women and their concerns, and also talk to employers and engage them about diversity and the benefits of diversity.” Parental and family influence also plays a major role in both academic performance and career opportunities, according to the analysis. The report found that while parental expectations regarding school performance are typically higher among families that enjoy a higher socioeconomic status, the same was true among lower status families of certain ethnicities as well, such as Asians. Asian and ethnically mixed students were also found to be more likely than other groups to have parents with higher levels of engagement with their education. For parents born overseas, the level of expectation and involvement they place in their children’s academic performance tended to fall in line with the status they enjoyed in their home country, rather than their current status in the UK. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, however, were under more pressure to marry and have children, rather than pursue a career, than other groups. Bangladeshi women are also less likely to migrate internally than any other group, opting to stay in the same area as their parents even after marriage, which negatively affected their career opportunities. Shah left school at the age of 12 but later went on to build a successful career as an NHS commissioner and chair of a mental health charity. She said that while this [pressure to marry and have children] may be true in some parts of the community, the majority have shifted their views to be more supportive of women pursuing a career, citing the increasing number of Asian Muslim women attending universities. “It’s no different to when we made it illegal to ask a woman her age under the age discrimination and gender discrimination acts… The difference with a woman wearing a hijab is that it is very visible. Regardless of whether or not she is of childbearing age, the discrimination is very visible and in your face,” Shah said. “From a government perspective, we need to tackle this head-on and actually do more engagement, and not apply the one-size-fits-all approach, which is what the government tends to do at times.” The report recommends that schools, universities and employers should provide “carefully targeted support” to ensure Muslim women are able to achieve their career ambitions and progress in the workplace once they leave the world of academia. How this support is provided, however, varies between schools, according to Bart Shaw, lead author of the report. Shaw said: “There’s not just one default way for schools to provide this kind of support. “Schools are often mindful of the particular demographic breakdown of their schools and recognise that there may be problems for girls of certain ethnicities, though many may not. “The report is encouraging people to think in those terms and consider the particular issues around access to the labour market that affect their students.” The Department for Education (DfE) responded with their plans to increase social mobility for disadvantaged students, though were unable to offer any solutions specifically addressing young Asian Muslim women. “We are working to make more good school places available, in more parts of the country, so that every child can have access to an education that will unlock their potential,” a DfE spokesperson said.