Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

British Muslims are Still Being Discriminated Against at Work. Here’s What we Can do About it

Asma Mustafa


Ifrah Akhter

| 9 mins read

Equality of opportunity in the labour market is crucial for the economic and social integration of minorities, so we should be very concerned that British Muslims have the highest unemployment rates in the country.

In 2016 the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report on ‘Employment opportunities for Muslims in the UK’. The report compiled evidence from dozens of sources, including data from the Department of Work and Pensions highlighting that Muslim unemployment rates are 12.8 per cent compared to 5.4 per cent of wider population. The report found that 41 per cent are economically inactive, compared to 21.8 per cent of the general population.

On top of this, there is marked inequality of opportunity for British Muslims in the labour market. Research by the think tank DEMOS in 2015 uses ONS data to underline the discrepancy in occupational positions. They found that just six per cent of British Muslims are in ‘higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations’ such as doctors, barristers, chief executives and so on, compared to ten per cent of the British population.

They also found that only ten per cent of British Muslims (compared to 20 per cent of the wider population) are employed in the ‘lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations’.

Not only do employment opportunities, earning levels and occupational positions have an impact on household poverty levels, but they also play a role in long term social mobility for ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

British Muslims are more likely to live in poverty

Let me draw attention to the evidence underlined by Professor Anthony Heath and Professor Yaojun Li, that British Muslims are (after taking account of their ethnic background) more likely to be in poverty than are members of other religions or those with no religious affiliation.

Using data (70,594 respondents) from the UK Longitudinal Household Panel Study and the former British Household Panel Study (BHPS) they found that over 50 per cent of British Muslims experience household poverty, compared to 18 per cent (the national average).

Third generation Muslims are still being penalised

Worse, the labour market disadvantage is not diminishing in younger generations. The statistical analysistakes into consideration many personal factors, but crucially suggests that initial migration related dynamics such as language fluency or foreign qualifications are not explanations for the penalty faced by current British Muslims who are in their second and third generation.

The Social Mobility Commission (2016) also found that British Muslim women specifically are not achieving a ‘return on education’ that they anticipate when beginning their further education, thus they are finding it difficult to enter the workforce at the same point of entry and suitable level as colleagues and friends.

Discrimination is too easy an explanation

Altogether the evidence of marked religious and ethnic penalties in the labour market for British Muslims is highly concerning. Islamophobia could account for some things: the deselection of applicants due to ‘foreign sounding’ names, for example, and stereotyping could play a role in the side-lining of visibly Muslim candidates in job interviews. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report (mentioned earlier) documents workplace discrimination in Chapter five, following similar evidence in 2012 from the APPG on Race and Community. CV matching field experiments have also highlighted Islamophobia at job application point.

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that ‘discrimination’ is the sole explanation for the gap in employment between Muslims and wider society. Strategies are needed to understand the drivers of such trends. I believe there are other overlapping reasons for the penalties we are seeing.

The importance of social networks, for example, is important to acknowledge, especially for young people who live in ethnically concentrated or deprived areas of the UK. Wider, ‘bridging’ social ties are valuable for those seeking jobs, guidance in applications and also help raise awareness of training or graduate opportunities.

Traditional gender values or gendered obligations are also relevant. Though current generations of young Muslim women (and men) challenge cultural dichotomies of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners, there are still cultural limitations that are at play.

At times, British Muslim women are restricted from travelling long distances to work, shamed into earning less than the males in their family unit, or guided away from demanding academic study or careers (such as medicine, architecture or law) towards caring professions or jobs that are flexible, part-time or temporary.

The ‘Chill factor’

Finally, a related but distinctive explanation for the higher unemployment rates among British Muslims is known as the ‘Chill factor’. The ‘Chill factor’ describes industries or workplaces that Muslims perceive as racist or observed as hostile, or whose culture is seemingly antagonistic.

Negative perceptions of certain sectors may mean that Muslims are disinclined to apply or approach them for work. Examples include the police force, construction industry and the Armed Forces.

Second class citizens

The long-term impact of high unemployment and poverty is difficult to calculate. Aside from the expected negative impact on housing, health and welfare dependency, it could also have a bearing on inter-communal relations.

Frustrations over inequality and discrimination could lead young Muslims to see themselves as second-class citizens. Fewer opportunities in the labour market could provide space for grievances to grow, disenfranchisement in political representation to increase and community isolation to thrive – the very opposite of what we wish to see in an integrated society.

Possible solutions

The policy response should be multifaceted. First, more research is needed into the degree to which direct or indirect discrimination takes place at the point of job application. It would be helpful to have a series of British field experiments to determine whether there is discrimination and at what stages it occurs. This should be supplemented with survey research with both employers and young Muslims regarding barriers they find in applications and within the workplace. The results would help us understand whether certain industries (for example the police force) are actively attempting to diversify, but are facing the ‘chill factor’ from job seeking young Muslims.

Second, the government should encourage more employers and companies to use ‘name blind’ recruitment applications. After all, we have little use for names at the point of job application. This idea would allow for CVs and applications to be shortlisted based on merit, rather than any unconscious bias to take place.

Failing this, employers should be more proactive in shortlisting candidates from minority backgrounds. This does not negate the idea that the best candidate should be selected for a position, but offers employers the opportunity of considering candidates who are less likely to be shortlisted due to unconscious bias. It is equally important that companies carefully consider who they select on interview panels. Panel members reflecting (to some extent) our more diverse society could be helpful in providing further sense of equality of opportunity for applicants.

Finally, there is a real growing need for British Muslim role models in all career sectors. Although young Muslims are seeing more visible Muslims in the mainstream (as MPs, sports personalities and in the media), these career sectors are not reflective of the majority. We need to showcase Muslims who have achieved as engineers, teachers, architects and leaders of industry.

Forefront in my mind is the importance of inspiring young Muslims from deprived areas of the UK to challenge the circumstances they are in and see a world beyond limited choices and opportunities. Funding for programmes that work with young people are crucial in battling the prejudice by providing mentoring, role models and a space for development, hope and change.

Greater social equality is a responsibility for us all. Reducing labour market penalties faced by British Muslims could be realised if unemployment gaps closed; if British Muslims are represented across occupational groups and if employers were to ensure equality of opportunity at the point of recruitment for all applicants, regardless of background.

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    Asma Mustafa

    Asma Mustafa is the Salahuddin Abdul Jawad Research Fellow in the Study of Muslims in Britain, and is Senior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford.

    Articles by Asma Mustafa