Barriers and bias: Muslim women at work

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Though progress is often slow, there are solid signs the gender opportunity gap in the retail industry is shrinking. But not every woman is benefiting equally from the retail and consumer products industry’s gender diversity and inclusion efforts.
For Muslim women, religious and cultural bias presents barriers that can be disheartening, even overwhelming.
Not getting a second interview. Being overlooked in meetings or left out of social conversations. Finding yourself passed over for leadership development opportunities and left off succession charts.
Many Muslim women experience the often devastating effects of conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace. As customers, they often report feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome, unaccommodated or, in extreme scenarios, unsafe.
In our offices and in our retail stores, ignorance is the enemy of equality — and business. Muslims represent nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and comprise the second-largest — and fastest-growing — religion.
There are 2.75 million Muslims in the United States, and while they make up just 1 percent of the population, they are a significant minority in many cities and regions. But many Americans have misconceptions about the Islamic faith, its culture and the role of women in Islam.
Asked to identify their most important problems, 29 percent of Muslim Americans surveyed by Pew Research said “negative views about Muslims.” One in five said “discrimination, prejudice or not being treated fairly.”
Bias begins at the interview
Conscious and unconscious bias against Muslim women often starts at the first interview. A 2012 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that applicants who identified themselves as Muslim on social media had a much lower chance of receiving a call back compared to Christian applicants, even if they had the same name and same qualifications.
Muslim American women who choose to wear hajib, a visible — and often misunderstood — sign of their faith encounter even greater career challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project cites research that found Muslim women who wear a headscarf are more likely to face discrimination than those who do not: 69 percent of women who wore hajib reported at least one incident of discrimination, compared to 29 percent of those who didn’t.
The extent of the prejudice becomes more real when you consider the numbers: More than one-third of Muslim American women polled by Pew Research said they always wear a hijab in public. Another 24 percent reported wearing a hijab most or some of the time.
It was only two years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman denied a retail job because her headscarf was not in line with the company’s dress code.
It’s been proven over and over: The strongest companies have the most inclusive corporate cultures that attract, retain and develop the best talent. Whether you’re an executive, peer or direct-report, knowing what to do when bias threatens diversity and inclusion is an important step toward ensuring equal opportunity for all.
Here are three ways we all can help create a more inclusive workplace:
If you witness a colleague acting with prejudice — for example, telling a co-worker to remove her headscarf — call it out.
This can be done in a nonconfrontational way, Remi Alli, CEO of conflict management platform Brāv, told Alli suggests pointing out your company’s workplace policy against discrimination or saying something like, "She’s here to work. How does what your suggesting affect that?"
An instance of bias can be a teachable moment. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of people not thinking before they speak, and not realizing the impact of their words,” Leigh Steere, cofounder of Managing People Better, told “Tell them that what they said was highly offensive, and that will probably be the last you’ll hear of it.”
Reach out to your Muslim coworkers, especially if you see them treated unfairly.
“Many people are unsettled, and are unsure of where they stand — both in the workplace and in society,” Steere said. “It’s up to you to say, ‘I support you, I do not condone this kind of rhetoric in the workplace, and if you ever feel disrespected, come talk to me.’”
Never justify bias or discrimination, for any reason.
As the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission points out, “Refusing to hire someone because customers or co-workers may be ‘uncomfortable’ with that person's religion or national origin is just as illegal as refusing to hire that person because of religion or national origin in the first place.”

Eliminating workplace bias against women — all women — isn’t just the lawful thing to do. It’s the foundation of any successful talent strategy.

This blog first appeared in CSP magazine.

Blog Author Bio

Nancy Krawczyk is vice president, corporate partnerships and engagement, for the Network of Executive Women, the largest women’s leadership organization serving the retail and consumer goods industry.

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