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Muslim Women Contend With “Acceptable” Discrimination in the Workplace

Muslim Women Contend With “Acceptable” Discrimination in the Workplace

MPs warn that Muslim women who wear headscarves are routinely being passed over for jobs and sidelined in the workplace because of what is described as one of the last forms of “acceptable” discrimination.

An inquiry by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee has heard that highly qualified women who have already overcome major barriers to train in professions such as law are being written off by potential employers because of crude assumptions that they are “submissive and weak”.

Some of these women are questioned – illegally – at interviews about whether they are married and have children or want to have children, while those already in jobs find themselves passed over for important assignments because of assumptions that they might not be “allowed” to travel.

Call for ‘name-blind’ job applications

The Commons report urges immediate action to tackle unemployment in the Muslim community. Unemployment rates are currently more than double the rate of the general population (12.8% against 5.4%).

It also calls on businesses to introduce “name blind” applications to reduce “unconscious bias” against Muslim and other minority candidates – supported by revision of existing legislation if necessary.

Maria Miller, chair of the Commons committee, said:

“The evidence was very strongly that . . . it was seen as acceptable to discriminate against Muslim women and that [people] almost didn’t see it as discrimination.”

“You can’t have some women more equal than others . . . Everybody is subject to the same law in this country and Muslim women can choose to dress in the way that they want in the same way that other women can and shouldn’t have to suffer discrimination as a result of it,” added Ms Miller.

Where does the law stand on religious dress at work?

An employer will need very good reasons before seeking to enforce any rule which bans the wearing of religious items or dress in the workplace.

It may be that where such a prohibition is for health and safety purposes, a rule could be enforceable – but it is clear that mere customer preference and protection of a business’s bottom line will not be reason enough.

In the last resort, a business interest in generating maximum profit should give way to the right of the individual employee to manifest his or her religious identity. Should a customer’s attitude itself be indicative of prejudice it would be dangerous to excuse the employer from compliance with an equal treatment requirement in order to accommodate such a prejudice.

Encouraging open dialogues on dress codes

The CIPD highlights the numerous ‘do’s and don’ts’ to bear in mind when drafting and implementing a workplace dress code, and recommends that organisations may find it useful to consult Acas guidance before doing so.

Although it is acceptable in law to impose different dress requirements on men and women, these should be applied equally across genders: for example, asking women to wear a smart dress and men to wear a collar and tie.

Employers should provide unambiguous guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable. If employees are clear on what can and cannot be worn, there is less room for disagreement or confusion about what is appropriate. Explanations for why dress codes are in place can also help pacify resentful employees.

Companies should also consider allowing staff to wear items that make their religion apparent. Some roles may require a strict dress code which limits what employees can wear, but if there is no health and safety or commercial reason behind a restriction, it may be hard to justify and give rise to discrimination claims if it imposed.

The CIPD recommends that it is best to have an open dialogue about dress codes. If an employee is not adhering to it, then an employer should try to agree a solution before considering any disciplinary procedure.

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