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Transitioning into the diverse Western Australian workplace: Experiences of Muslim women

Australia, academic research, January 2013

High potentials in the pipeline: Leaders pay it forwardThe precise representation of Muslim women in employment is unclear, however estimates hover at around the 30% mark.  How can this participation rate be increased? Dr Shamini (University of Western Australia) recently explored this question in a qualitative study of highly educated, unemployed Muslim women.  Given that previous studies have identified that overseas qualifications, language skills and previous workplace experience may be a barrier to employment, in Dr Shamini’s study all but two of the participants obtained their tertiary qualifications at Australian institutions, all were proficient in English and all had workplace experience. This research design enabled Dr Shamini to home in on her central question: How well do Australian workplaces integrate employees (and potential employees) who follow Islam? And, as a corollary, what lessons can be learned to improve participation rates.

Aim

The aim of the research was to investigate the extent to which faith/religious practice affects Muslim women’s ability to find or maintain work in the Western Australian employment market.

Method

The researcher conducted interviews with 40 women. The selection criteria included women who:

  • Self-identify as Muslims and have a tertiary education (38/40 were from an Australian institution)
  • Had workplace experience
  • Wear or do not wear the hijaab (26/40 wear the hijaab).

Women were of diverse ages and nationalities (including Australian) and the majority had obtained their tertiary qualifications in Western Australia. All participants also had proficiency in English. These factors were important in assuring that difficulties at work were not related to a lack of local skills and knowledge or due to language problems.

A structured questionnaire was used to ask participants about their experiences in the workplace and while searching for employment.  The Muslim women’s narratives were examined for employability characteristics, and facilitators and impediments to an easy transition in the workplace.

Findings

The findings can be separated into two themes - one relating to the workplace itself, and the other relating to co-workers.  In relation to the workplace, the interviewees spoke of their need to create a “faith niche” in an environment which was overtly secular.  As a minority group the women felt unable to negotiate prayer spaces, their dietary requirements, chances to honour spiritual holidays and wearing of the hijaab. In relation to interpersonal connections, the interviewees suggested that work colleagues tended to misunderstand Muslim culture and showed reluctance to deal with those who clearly identified as Muslim. This resulted in attempts by the women to conceal their Muslim faith, making it difficult for authentic communication and to build strong internal and external support networks. All of these issues created anxiety in the participants that enhanced general work stress and inhibited optimal performance.

The research also found that contemporary perceptions towards Islam are tainted with discourse on the ‘war on terror’, which creates misconceptions towards the religion and its members. For those who identify themselves as Muslim, it can limit social inclusion and chances to strengthen peer networks. Participants stated that clients and colleagues showed hesitance to interact with them if wearing the hijaab or when their religious practices are too overt. General work anxiety can be compounded by this, having a negative impact on productivity and morale.

Although the research identified a strong theme of resilience, the interviewees also spoke of a conundrum, namely Muslim women placed great weight on supportive networks to create feelings of trust and support, and yet peer networks were difficult to create given general misconceptions about Islam.

Apprehension over spiritual dress

The wearing of the hijaab was a significant topic for the participants. By wearing the hijaab, the women were openly identifying themselves as Muslim and experiences with this varied.  Some participants felt it was unnecessary to wear the hijaab because it served as too much of a religious statement in the public sphere in Australia. Long term, this caused the women stress as it became difficult to breach the topic of religion with colleagues and it came across as foreign to Australian co-workers when they needed to excuse themselves to pray at certain times or fast at Ramadan. Short term, the participants indicated that they had more challenges when they wore the hijaab. Clients and colleagues showed and expressed reluctance to deal with them when they were in their spiritual dress. However, by having this upfront from the first interaction, the problem was addressed more directly by explaining and demonstrating it would not interfere with job performance. The research suggested  that Muslim women felt they could transition better into the workplace if they attended the interview in their hijaab. Yet, they also admitted they felt this might inhibit them getting the job in the first place.

Ramifications in the Muslim and Australian communities

The research found that Muslim women working in predominantly Muslim workplaces felt more confident to openly practice their faith. However, this laid a foundation for segregation, as it was also a common view within these workplaces that they would be unable to obtain employment elsewhere if they wished to practice their religion at a non-Muslim company.

The research also found that Muslim women felt alienated by Australia’s drinking culture. By not participating in after work events involving alcohol, they felt they were inhibiting their careers by missing out on these networking opportunities. Similarly, participants felt inhibited about seeking religious accommodations in the workplace, by way of dietary needs, having places for prayer and open channels to discuss honouring spiritual holidays.  Workplace alienation was a key theme, and this experience sent ripples into the broader community context and religious integration.

Implications

By exploring the perceptions and experiences of tertiary qualified Muslim women in Western Australia, this research suggested that active efforts of inclusion are necessary to tap into under-represented group.  Dr Shamin suggested that a short term gain for companies would be the attraction and retention of highly skilled labour in an environment of skills shortages.

Highlighting diversity as part of the culture

The research suggested that workplaces could assist by promoting diversity and acceptance from the worker’s first interaction with the business, whether this is through website information or at the job interview.  

Open communication channels for diversity and inclusion

When organisations had no inclusion frameworks in place, the research suggested that Muslim women found difficulty in raising a conversation to discuss how they could practice their faith in the workplace. Open and clear channels of communication, as well as publically highlighting the value of diversity, could help encourage employees to discuss the topic to enable an easier day-to-day work experience.  Additionally, helping to build networks was identified as integral for an improved work experience.

Thinking about inclusion holistically and long-term

Finally, taking a more active approach to creating a diverse and inclusive culture, rather than relying on the resilience and courage of individuals to raise their faith needs, would assist in integrating minority Muslim women.  Such an approach would include challenging misconceptions, celebrating diversity and providing practical support (e.g. policies to swap religious holidays). 

The research highlighted the hidden relationship between workplace and community experiences, and that an overarching benefit of having diversity at the core of a company is that it can aid in changing negative public perceptions and serve as an example of acceptance to the community.

To read the full article, see Samani, S. (2013) “Transitioning into the Diverse Western Australian Workplace: Experiences of Muslim Women” Proceedings of 6th International Business and Social Sciences Research Conference, 3 - 4 January, 2013, Dubai, UAE.

Click here to download the PDF.

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