Muslim penalties in the labour market: Why do women fare so badly?

Ethnic minorities face well-documented penalties in the labour market. From higher levels of poverty and unemployment to lower wages and reduced social mobility, members of ethnic minority communities enjoy lower success in the labour market than the majority White British. Yet, this focus on ethnicity – while unquestionably important – has sometimes served to overlook the related issue of religious penalties in the labour market. Our briefing note on Muslim employment notes that religious penalties are in fact greater than ethnic penalties, and that some groups – especially Black Muslims – face a double disadvantage based on a combination of their ethnicity and religion. The high rates of poverty among Muslims are both a cause and consequence of differences in labour market participation between religious group, and discrimination is known to play a role.

An important aspect of these religious disadvantages are the additional challenges faced by Muslim women, which can be overlooked in analyses that are not broken down by gender. For example, Muslim women are 41 per cent more likely to be economically inactive than White British women, while in men this gap was just 10 per cent. Likewise, the Muslim penalty in risks of unemployment reduces by more between the first and second generations among men than women. Figure 1 shows that Muslim men and women have the lowest representation in the top professions, demonstrating the existence of employment penalties even for Muslims within the labour market.


Figure 1: Women of all groups are under-represented in the top professions, but Muslim women have especially low rates of representation Source: 2011 Census, England and Wales, table DC6207EW

So why are Muslim women so disadvantaged in the labour market? Several factors are likely to be important. First, language problems are a major limiting factor. Figure 2 shows the high prevalence of language difficulties among Muslims that are especially stark among women. Given the importance of language skills for finding and keeping a job, participation in the labour market will be limited by language difficulties to a greater extent among women than men. Measures to improve English language proficiency could therefore have a considerable positive impact on employment among Muslim women, while also conferring smaller benefits to Muslim men and members of other religions.


Figure 2: Muslims are the religious group with the greatest language difficulties, particularly among women Source: 2011 Census, England table CT0557

Figure 2: Muslims are the religious group with the greatest language difficulties, particularly among women
Source: 2011 Census, England table CT0557

Alongside language barriers, which might be interpreted as legitimate reasons for the disadvantages Muslim women face in the labour market, are more worrying experiences of discrimination. This may have a particular impact on women whose religious clothing such as the hijab or headscarf might draw attention to their religion to a greater extent than for men. Indeed, Muslim women have reported a perceived negative effect of wearing traditional or religious clothes on the outcomes of job interviews. Likewise, evidence submitted to the House of Commons inquiry into employment opportunities for UK Muslims highlighted employers’ stereotypical views of Muslim women, including the presumption that they will need maternity leave, or not work hard.


Finally, cultural and attitudinal differences play a role. In 2013, 38 per cent of Muslims agreement with the statement “Husbands should work, wives should stay at home”, a higher proportion than Christians and those with no religion (18 and 11 per cent). Assuming that these answers were truthful, then Muslim women’s lower participation in paid employment might reasonably be assumed to reflect – at least in part – their preferences surrounding employment, which should be respected. More subtle are attitudinal differences that may not necessarily be held by women themselves. Employment and social class attainment are known to be lower in women with Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage who were raised in areas with a high density of co-ethnics. This pattern is not seen in men and suggests that social pressures arising from such communities might be detrimental to women’s labour market outcomes. It is not clear these social pressures are shared by women or capture a negative role of ethnic density, and a better understanding of these pressures could contribute to widening labour market involvement of British Muslim women.

You can read more in our new briefing note here: CSI 26: Muslim employment

Post by Elisabeth Garratt, 15th September 2016.