Stereotypical views of women from ethnic minorities still abound in the UK workplace, and HR has a key role to play in debunking the myths behind them. Kate Hilpern reports.
Ethnic minority women at work: myth and reality
MYTH: "I know that many Muslim women are not allowed to work in certain professions, or are not allowed to work at all, for cultural or religious reasons. That's why we don't get many working here."
FACT Almost 90% of 16-year-old Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls in the UK said their parents supported their choice to find paid work.
MYTH "We are an equal opportunities employer. We treat everyone the same."
FACT One in three black Caribbean working women under 35 and one in five Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have experienced racist comments at work.
MYTH "They don't speak English - that's why they don't have jobs."
FACT Around three in five Pakistani women and black Caribbean women, and nearly half of Bangladeshi women in the UK were born here. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are more than twice as likely as white British women to be fluent in another language besides English.
MYTH "It's too risky taking on an Asian woman. They could be sent away to get married, and chances are they will leave as soon as they have children."
FACT Young Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Caribbean women with children are more likely to aspire to senior positions than white British women with children.
Source: Equal Opportunities Commission
When Shabana Kosar was asked at a job interview: "Does being a Muslim prevent you from being allowed to work alongside men?" she was speechless.
"I couldn't believe I was being asked this question," she says. "I had read the job description, I knew what the job entailed, and I wouldn't have applied if I had felt it was inappropriate. Not surprisingly, I didn't get the job."
The Equal Opportunities Commission's (EOC)'Moving on up?' investigation has found that stereotypical views of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Caribbean women are still rife in today's UK workplaces. Despite their qualifications, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women with a degree who are seeking work are still five times more likely to be unemployed than white British women with a degree.
There are fewer black Caribbean women with no qualifications than there are women or men without qualifications from any other ethnic group, yet black Caribbean women are twice as likely to be unemployed as white British women. And one in three black Caribbean women under 35 and one in five Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have experienced racist comments at work.
In an attempt to overcome the problem, the EOC has launched its 'Promote people not stereotypes' campaign, which focuses on Asian and black women who have succeeded, as well as offering practical advice for organisations. EOC chief executive Caroline Slocock claims the campaign is particularly relevant to HR professionals.
"They are probably the ones in the strongest position to take action," she explains, pointing to a host of examples including Lloyds TSB, which has introduced a network of 1,000 employees from ethnic minority groups, who have been identified as having the potential and drive to reach more senior positions within the organisation.
B&Q has an e-learning module, Respect For People, which all employees have to complete as part of their induction, and which includes advice on terms to avoid because they might cause offence. And Tesco has produced a religious toolkit explaining the features of the major world religions, which managers can use to promote understanding among their staff.
Despite such examples, many HR departments are unsure how to proceed.
"A third of employers we surveyed said they wanted to do more to improve recruitment and progression of ethnic minority women, but on a practical level they didn't know where to start," says Slocock.
"We believe there is an urgent need to address this because even in areas with significant populations of ethnic minorities, we found that black and Asian women are missing from a third of workplaces. We also found that when they do get to interview stage, they are far more likely than their white counterparts to be asked about their plans for marriage and children.
"Even when they are employed, we found they often face inadvertent discrimination, such as repeatedly being questioned about issues such as fasting, or being ignored or segregated because people are afraid of saying the wrong thing to them."
Addressing the challenge
West Yorkshire Fire Service, where Kosar now works as a fire safety officer, decided to address the issue before the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 came into force.
"We designed a policy looking at things such as the needs of these women, in terms of clothing and jewellery, right through to ensuring our own staff were trained in myth-busting," says Maria Tonks, the service's equality and diversity manager.
Race-related complaints are dealt with more seriously - a fact that is well communicated - and new recruits are offered mentors.
"We've still got challenges, including the fact that we have a low staff turnover, but we have increased the number of ethnic minority women, so we know we are doing something right," she adds.
Kosar agrees. "During the interview, I was told the fire service was quite happy to introduce a shalwar-kameez if I felt the need to wear it. The uniform was later designed by myself and a colleague and introduced to the brigade," she says.
Among the benefits of Kosar's appointment is a strengthening of the fire service's relationship with the local community.
"In the past it was often difficult for fire inspectors to communicate with the Asian community, mainly because of cultural and language barriers," she says.
"On visits, I often wear traditional clothing, and I speak Urdu and Punjabi, which has been hugely helpful in getting our information across."
Fostering an inclusive culture
Law firm Shoosmiths has also been successful in increasing the number of ethnic minority female employees, and became the first UK solicitors practice to receive the Committed2Equality accreditation, for its Birmingham office.
Recruitment manager Rita Tappia believes the fact that she is Asian is a useful starting point. "I know not to patronise where some might do so inadvertently," she explains.
Shoosmiths' HR-led programme addressing the shortage of female ethnic minorities was aligned to the overall business strategy from the start, she says, with 'inclusivity' having since become a fundamental part of the culture. As such, Shoosmiths placed emphasis on employee suggestions.
"Some people told us that they'd like a prayer room others that they didn't like being 'expected' to drink at social events," adds Tappia. "Some even said colleagues subconsciously favoured new recruits from red-brick universities, where ethnic minority women are less likely to have studied."
Shoosmiths operates voluntary diversity monitoring, which Tappia claims helps identify any trends that may need acting on. The firm also trains staff in diversity, provides mentoring programmes, and actively advertises in relevant publications, such as the Black Lawyers Directory and Ethnic Britain.
In most organisations, however, there is still some way to go in terms of myth-busting, as Khalida Begum, an Asian stress and structural engineer at Airbus UK, says.
"I'm a 5'4" Muslim woman with a scarf, so people expect me to be quiet," she says. "But I'm confident, assertive and self-assured, which does shock some people."
Case study: Nahid Majid
Nahid Majid is deputy director, area initiatives and communities division, in the Work, Welfare and Poverty Directorate, Department for Work and Pensions. She is currently the most senior Bangladeshi Muslim woman in the Civil Service.
"Role models are important," she says. "My career choice was inspired by my cousin who, while I was growing up, was a town planner. I don't think I've ever considered myself as a role model, particularly because what I have achieved is a result of a lot of struggles. But I hope people can learn from these struggles.
"The first occurred while I was at school. My parents firmly believed in the importance of a good education and pushing me further, but I had no career advice at school. I felt I only started to learn at college.
"Later, despite my qualifications and experience, I faced other barriers, notably people who were still reluctant to give real opportunities to women and ethnic minorities. The public sector is the worst. Despite what they say about diversity, even many senior people want people like themselves - who look the same and behave the same.
"Another barrier I have faced is being labelled as the 'community representative', as opposed to someone with real professional skills, such as urban design and planning.
"HR definitely has a role to play in changing the situation. But I think many HR professionals face a battle. For example, they may be on an interview panel, but how much say do they really have in the final decision-making process?"