It was October 2003, and as normal, I boarded a train to work. Just a usual day lay ahead of me with meetings to attend and careers events to organise. But there was one big difference on this particular Monday morning. For the first time in my life, I was going to work wearing a headscarf.
Of all the life changing decisions I’ve ever made, wearing the Muslim headscarf (commonly known as the hijab) is probably there at the top. Everyone of course knew I was Muslim, but I was now publicly expressing my faith and identity in a way I never imagined I would. As a fresh graduate looking for work 3 years before, I thought long and hard about the hijab, but was always worried about the impact on my career. What would people think of me? Would I be able to get a job?
But being already in work and then deciding to wear the hijab was still a huge step for me, and on that first day, I was full of nerves as I prepared to face my colleagues and the world.
Wearing the hijab never posed any problems when it came to my career, and I always received total respect and support from colleagues. Naturally some people were curious and asked questions, but not in an offensive manner; in any case it was an opportunity for me to share my faith with others.
Of course not everyone has a positive experience, and outward expression of religion has often been a contentious issue. There was the famous case of a British Airways worker who was prevented from wearing a cross in work. And most recently, US fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch have found themselves at the centre of a legal battle following accusations of not hiring a Muslim woman because she donned the hijab. From the body of research and reports on religion and belief in the workplace, there is growing evidence of increased discrimination and negative attitudes towards some faith groups, with particular challenges for British Muslims (at the end of this post I’ve listed a few reports for those who want the finer details).
It’s easy to be cynical about how “diversity friendly” employers really are. But there are organisations doing a massive amount to reach out to different groups, and I’ve seen many have established internal staff networks, especially around faith. I spent many years managing a mentoring programme for disadvantaged students, and I worked with some top blue chip firms and graduate recruiters right across different sectors who genuinely wanted to engage with a wider pool of talent.
One particular organisation was Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who have an impressive list of accolades for their tremendous work on diversity. Some of their achievements include The Times’ Top 50 Employers For Women in UK, Race For Opportunity Benchmark Top 10, Opportunity Now Benchmark Top 10 (for gender equality), TARGETjobs Best Diversity Recruiter 2013 and much more.
Their work has included a BME employee mentoring scheme and focus group who meet once a quarter to discuss ideas and innovations to make a more welcoming workplace. They have a dress code that is appreciative of religious beliefs, and facilities in offices and breaks to allow for prayers, including Friday prayers. And there is a “No Fuss” policy to allow time off for religious observances / holidays.
But Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s work goes beyond compliance and legal obligations, and what really stood out was their work surrounding the cultural pressures and expectations that many BME, particularly female, employees face. One initiative was a recent dinner that encouraged employees to bring their family members to meet the managers and understand what the company does and how they can accommodate their particular needs.
Why does this matter? It matters because I’ve realised that the relationship between religion, culture and professional life is complex. When we talk about employment challenges and barriers facing some groups it’s not just about discrimination, but also “what the family and community think.” Despite some changes in attitudes, many BME women still face strong resistance from parents, husbands and in-laws when it comes to working outside the home. Being a Muslim/Asian woman and having a career is frustratingly seen as a contradiction in terms and many are held back from achieving their potential. How this is tackled is a separate issue in itself, but the fact that a major recruiter is taking such bold steps shows an appreciation of the issues that do exist.
There is no one solution to address the problems I’ve talked about. Yes there needs to be a zero tolerance approach to discrimination in all forms, but we also need to look at cultural attitudes and perceptions. Change won’t happen overnight, but this kind of dialogue between recruiters, employees and communities is valuable. It allows employers to develop their own understanding and awareness, but also gives communities the opportunity to learn more about careers and the world of work. It might not be a process that all companies can take part in, but I certainly hope we see more of this kind of forward thinking.
Do you have a personal story to share on practising your faith in the workplace? Please get in touch if you do would be keen to hear more!
For more information on religious discrimination, faith and career matters, here are some interesting pieces of research and articles:
Equality and Human Rights Commission Consultation on Religion and Belief (2014) – largest ever public consultation reveals confusion and misunderstanding on laws protecting freedom of religion and belief. Respondents came from different faith groups, the largest being Christians, as well as secularists, humanists and atheists. One of the themes was that many employees felt pressure to keep their religious identity hidden at work.
All Party Parliamentary inquiry into ethnic minority female unemployment (2012) – inquiry found unemployment rates of Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women have remained consistently higher than that of white women. Discrimination is certainly one factor in explaining this, and evidence shows Muslim women faced discrimination in interviews due to wearing the hijab. Furthermore, recent article by The Independent highlights that British Muslim women are 71% more likely to be unemployed compared to Hindu and Christian women, with workplace discrimination being a significant factor.
Religious discrimination in Britain: A review of research evidence, 2000-10 – research commissioned by Equality and Human Rights Commission and discusses whether religious discrimination is increasing or decreasing, and also the differences that faith groups experience.
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