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Muslim women face discrimination in the job market

They’re more frequently rejected when applying for jobs, are subjected to harassment in the workplace or overlooked for promotions. For many Muslim women, discrimination in the job market is commonplace. This was revealed by research conducted by scientists from Radboud University for the outgoing Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, who reported on it to the House of Representatives last week.

There had previously been evidence of discrimination in the job market, but little was known about the extent and manner of discrimination against different groups of Muslim women. To address this knowledge gap, outgoing Minister Karien van Gennip commissioned a team of sociologists from Radboud University to study these issues. They were also asked to identify additional policy measures, supplementing current anti-discrimination policies, which could help to effectively combat discrimination against this target group.

'We first studied what was already known from previous research on discrimination against Muslim women in the job market and analysed existing datasets,' says project manager Lieselotte Blommaert. 'This clearly showed that discrimination against Muslim women occurs at the entry, retention and advancement stages of the employment process.’ That applies to Muslim women in general and even more so to those who wear headscarves. For example, it was found that women wearing headscarves received 2-7 times fewer positive responses to job applications during the recruitment and selection phase than groups of women with no migration background. The same patterns were visible at other stages of the employment process, for example when seeking and during internships.

“I will hang you"

The researchers then organised focus groups with Muslim women and interest groups. 'These partly confirmed the picture we saw in the literature review and analyses of existing data, but also provided relevant new insights,' Blommaert explains. The focus groups highlighted that there are differences between Muslim women who wear headscarves and those who do not in the extent to which and how they encounter discrimination. 'For example, several participants indicated that they noticed that the course of the interview and their chances were negatively affected when employers discovered that someone was wearing a headscarf in an interview. Some employers made an excuse, while others explicitly admitted that wearing the headscarf was the reason for not hiring someone.'

The focus groups also clearly underlined that discrimination is not limited to the recruitment and selection phase. 'Discrimination is also common in the workplace and in advancement (e.g. promotions),' Blommaert argues. In everyday work, Muslim women regularly experience subtle forms of undesirable behaviour, which are less obvious and often not taken seriously by colleagues or supervisors, for example, but which can weigh heavily on someone. Take comments about how well someone speaks Dutch, or judgmental questions about terrorism or Ramadan, for example. ‘One woman said: during Ramadan, I get asked by colleagues whether fasting was healthy, even though they are positive about a colleague’s intermittent fasting (form of fasting where you don't eat anything for part of the day ed.).' Participants in the focus groups also reported experiencing fewer opportunities for advancement. This was noticeable when someone who had arrived after them did get promoted, for example.

Sometimes the discrimination is less subtle. On the contrary: 'A participant working in healthcare was warned by colleagues about an elderly resident: "be careful, you’re wearing a headscarf, he hates it". And indeed, that man later started shouting at her: "I will hang you, I will hang you and all Muslims”.’ Not only that threat is extremely problematic, Blommaert points out. Too often, organisations do not respond well to such a situation. 'They fail to provide adequate support, take no action and sometimes the discriminatory behaviour is even condoned.' Muslim women can therefore feel that they are not heard and that there is no point in reporting anything at all.'

Blommaert points out the differences in each sector. ‘According to the additional analyses of existing data, discrimination seems to occur slightly less frequently and less explicitly in government and healthcare sectors. In commercial organisations, in retail and in sectors and professions where employees have more contact with customers, we actually saw more evidence of discrimination.'

Employers sympathetic unless it creates obligations

Through a series of in-depth interviews with policymakers and a roundtable discussion with employers, the researchers wanted to gain insight into current anti-discrimination policy, the supposed mechanisms underlying it and the degree of willingness among employers to do something against discrimination. 'We found that the current policy focuses mainly on preventing discrimination in the recruitment and selection phase, but much less on tackling discrimination in other stages of the employment process,' Blommaert says.

In the roundtable discussion, employers were generally sympathetic to anti-discrimination policies. 'At the same time, they were often mostly enthusiastic about non-binding measures, which we know are less effective in some cases. Many employers were less keen on more binding measures that require extra efforts or obligations of the organisation, such as structuring recruitment and selection processes, even though we know this is effective.'

Government should lead by example

The researchers concluded their report with some recommendations. Firstly, employers should not focus their policies only on the recruitment phase, but also tackle discrimination in other phases of work. This starts with a better understanding of the problem. So, use opportunities to monitor and detect discrimination, including through clear reporting processes. 'The next step is to ensure that reporting is worthwhile,' Blommaert argues. 'Many current policies tend to focus on informing and motivating employers to take action against discrimination. In practice, the policy focuses much less on enforcement and sanctioning. 'Fine persistent offenders or make their names public.'

Discrimination in the job market cannot be separated from, for example, views of Muslims and Muslim women expressed in politics or the media. 'It is not only up to organisations themselves but also to the government to help create a more balanced image rather than perpetuating negative stigmas around Muslim women,' Blommaert argues. 'The government is against discrimination, but sometimes contributes to it itself. Consider discriminatory practices at DUO and the Tax Office. Or the headscarf ban applied in some professions. To reduce discrimination in the job market, the government must lead by example.'