People who identify as minority ethnic are at a disadvantage in the labour market compared to the British white majority. They are more likely to earn less, be outside of the labour force, be unemployed and remain unemployed for longer.
Research also shows that Muslims are worse off than any other religious group relative to white British Christians. Academics refer to this fact as the “Muslim penalty”. Importantly, the Muslim penalty remains even after accounting for factors that are likely to affect employment, such as education, age, region of residence, English language proficiency and health.
The ‘cultural norms’ argument
The existence of a Muslim penalty does not in and of itself indicate that discrimination is taking place. Some therefore argue that so-called “cultural norms” are at play – that Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, are less likely to be working because the values of their own communities hold them back. These purported norms include a unique “taste for isolation” and a commitment to “traditional gender roles”.
But investigating a decade of data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study – one of the largest surveys of its kind, which gathers information on the socio-economic situation and cultural contexts from around 100,000 people – I did not find this view to be supported by the evidence.
By using information on people’s religious beliefs, membership in social organisations, and the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “Husband should earn, wife should stay at home”, and “Family life suffers if mother works full-time”, I was able to account for a range of attitudes in my study.
If “cultural norms” are really so important then we would expect the Muslim penalty to be substantially reduced – if not completely disappear – after taking them into account. Yet, adjusting for this information did not reduce Muslim men and women’s comparatively high likelihood of being unemployed or inactive in any significant way.
In other words, my study found no association between so-called “socio-cultural attitudes” and the likelihood of Muslims being unemployed or inactive.
What then is driving the Muslim penalty? Survey analysis like mine cannot prove discrimination is at play, but my findings lend support to the overwhelming evidence from field experiments that suggests discrimination is a significant barrier to Muslims looking for work – even if it is not the only driver of such disparities.
A growing body of evidence
Findings from field experiments – generally taken as the gold standard for establishing whether discrimination is at play – provide strong evidence that discrimination in Britain contributes to differences in employment outcomes.
For example, a 2019 study examining employer behaviour towards Muslim job seekers across five European countries, including the UK, found high levels of discrimination. One of the study’s findings was that Muslims who disclose their religion to employers experience a lower callback rate, but Christians from the same country who disclose their religion do not.
This is persuasive evidence that the discrimination is targeted at Muslims, and is not an uneasiness with religion in a general sense. Another study has shown that even in cosmopolitan London candidates with a Muslim name secure three times fewer job interviews compared with those with Christian-sounding names.
Evidence of racist and prejudicial attitudes in Britain and the continued vilification of Muslims in the media lend further support to the discrimination thesis. Importantly, it’s not only the white majority who harbour anti-Muslim feelings. Research shows that Muslims are also “singled out for unique hostility from (…) other minorities”.
While subscribing to racist beliefs does not necessarily translate into action, suggesting that holding such views doesn’t influence a person’s behaviour, for example, in their hiring decisions, implies that employment is negotiated outside the social environment in which it operates. This is not a plausible assumption.
When all the evidence is analysed in combination, it is difficult not to see that discrimination plays an important role in bringing about the Muslim penalty.
The consequences of ignoring the facts
The argument that Muslims’ “problematic norms” hold them back appears to be more of an ideological position than one supported by evidence. It trivialises the reality Muslims face in the world of work and fails to acknowledge the complexities of how racism operates – which in turn delays efforts to improve the situation.
Poor labour market outcomes affect multiple aspects of a person’s life. Among other things, they affect what people can afford to eat, where they can afford to live, the education they and their children can access, as well as their physical and mental health. Delaying work to tackle anti-Muslim discrimination in the British labour market therefore reinforces a range of inequalities that extend well beyond the world of work.
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