Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Angela Dale (2002) 'Social Exclusion of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Women'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 3, <>

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Received: 30/9/2002      Accepted: 30/9/2002      Published: 22/10/2002


This paper explores some of the processes that influence access to higher education and employment for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in Britain. We ask what changes we can expect amongst younger Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who have grown up in the UK? How do we expect educational qualifications and family formation to influence labour market participation amongst these women? What barriers do these women face in obtaining qualifications and paid employment? To what extent are these barriers imposed by the family and community and to what extent are they imposed by the local labour market?

We find evidence of change across generations. By contrast with their mothers' generation, younger women who had been educated in the UK saw paid work as a means to independence and self- esteem. Women with higher level qualifications often showed considerable determination in managing to combine paid work and child-care. Whilst most women subscribed strongly to the centrality of the family, it is clear that the majority will follow very different routes through the life-course from their mothers. However, even with higher level qualifications, women are facing considerable barriers to employment. If the expected increase in economic activity amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi women is not to lead to even higher unemployment, there is a pressing need to ensure that potential employers do not hold negative and out-dated stereotypes of traditional Muslim women.

Ethnicity; gender; employment; unemployment; education, marriage, South Asian; family formation


Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in Britain are characterised by low levels of labour market participation and, amongst the economically active, high levels of unemployment. Small scale studies (for example, Allen and Wolkowitz, 1987; Brah and Shaw, 1992; Phizacklea and Wolkowitz, 1993) suggest relatively high levels of home working, although this is not captured in survey data. National figures for 1998/9 show economic activity[1] rates of 30 per cent for Pakistani women and 20 per cent for Bangladeshi women, aged 16-59. This contrasts with 74 per cent for white women (Labour Market Trends, Dec.1999). Although economic activity levels are low, amongst those women who are economically active, rates of unemployment are very high: 21 per cent in 1998/9 using ILO definitions[2]. Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are more likely than other ethnic groups to be excluded from the labour market - in terms of both economic activity and unemployment. In this paper we will explore the factors that lie behind these figures and, in particular, ask what changes we can expect amongst younger Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who have grown up in the UK. We use data from interviews conducted in Oldham and supported by analysis of national level survey data from the PSI Fourth National Study and data from UCAS (University and Colleges Admission Statistics) and HESA (Higher Education Statistical Agency).

The Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Oldham

The geographical distribution of Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Britain tends to reflect the reasons for their migration. Oldham, an industrial town north of Manchester, was once the centre of the world's cotton industry. The industry peaked in the 1920s with 320 mills, reducing to only twelve by 1991 (Kalra, 2000). In the 1950s there were attempts to revive the industry through the installation of better technology and the use of night shifts to maximise the benefits of the expensive machinery. The recruitment of male workers from South Asia was specifically designed to fill these poorly paid night shifts that were not attractive to local men. These migrants, mainly from the rural areas of Mirpur in Pakistan and from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, came to Oldham with few formal education qualifications and little English. Once they were established in a job they were joined by their wives and families and moved into the terraced housing built for earlier mill workers.

Despite the introduction of new technology, the cotton industry was still contracting and the recession of the early 1980s saw its near total collapse. This loss of jobs was not compensated by the growth of new manufacturing industries and resulted in very high levels of unemployment. This impacted especially hard on the more recent migrant groups. Access to alternative work was hampered by the lack of growth in the local economy, particularly in semi and unskilled manufacturing; the limited skill base and lack of formal education of the initial migrants; and the hostility and discrimination which South Asian workers faced in trying to find work. Oldham still remains a relatively depressed labour market although white women's levels of employment are higher than the national average, reflecting the tradition of female employment in the cotton mills.

The largest minority ethnic group in Oldham is Pakistani comprising 6.1 per cent of the population of the Borough in June 1999, followed by Bangladeshis at 3.9 per cent. These communities are also almost entirely Muslim. Because of the young age structure of the Asian population in Oldham, projections show that ethnic minority population is expected to reach 19 per cent by 2011 (Oldham M.B.C., 1997). A high proportion of this group will have been born and educated in the UK.

Oldham is a relatively poor borough. Seven out of its twenty wards are in the worst 10 per cent nationally (DTLR's 2000 Index of Deprivation) and a further three are in the most deprived 1 per cent. The Oldham labour market offers mainly semi and unskilled work at low wages and educational attainment is below the national average. This social and economic context was seen by the Borough Council as an important factor behind the disturbances of summer 2001[3], exacerbated by the educational and residential segregation of the white and Asian communities (Oldham Independent Review Report, 2001). The Denham report (Ministerial group on public order, 2001) concluded that there was 'fragmentation and polarisation of communities - on economic, geographical, racial and cultural lines - on a scale which amounts to segregation, albeit to an extent by choice.' Although the research reported here took place before summer 2001, the social and economic backdrop to the disturbances has been present for many years.

The Research Questions and the Data

In the preceding sections we have set out the context in which we now explore the factors that influence Pakistani and Bangladeshi women's labour market participation. In particular, we ask what changes we can expect amongst younger Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who have grown up in the UK? How do we expect educational qualifications and family formation to influence labour market participation amongst these women? What barriers do these women face in obtaining qualifications and paid employment? To what extent are these barriers imposed by the family and community and to what extent are they imposed by the local labour market?

Our empirical evidence combines national level quantitative data with qualitative data from local interviews and group discussions. National-level UCAS and HESA statistics provide information on the extent of applications for higher education from Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people and their subject preferences, over time, by comparison with other ethnic groups. Qualitative interviews in Oldham were conducted with (1) young people, mainly in education and (2) women across a range of ages. Each is described:

(1) The interviews with young people explored educational and occupational aspirations and the sources that influence those aspirations. Students aged 14-16 were selected from two secondary schools in different areas of Oldham - one with a very high proportion of Bangladeshi pupils and the other with a mix of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and white pupils. Interviews were conducted with mixed groups of Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils; in addition, two group interviews were attempted with white girls from the mixed school. Young people aged 16-21 in full-time study were recruited from a Further Education College and a Sixth Form College in Oldham. A group of university applicants was obtained through informal networks. We also interviewed some young people who had decided not to continue in full-time education and these were recruited by informal contacts. In total, 82 Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people took part in these discussions.

(2) More detailed individual interviews were conducted with Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in Oldham, selected to represent different stages of the lifecycle, different levels of labour market participation and different educational levels. All the women in this group had left full-time education. The economically inactive - who were at home - were recruited by calling at dwellings in two different neighbourhoods, both identified from the 1991 Census as having a high proportion of Pakistani or Bangladeshi residents. A group of young unemployed women were contacted through the local job centre. Women who were in employment were recruited by a range of methods, which included contacts through our consultation forum (see below) and through local voluntary organisations. The women interviewed therefore included young women born or educated in the UK as well as older women who were are able to provide some insights into their preferences for their own children's education and employment. All interviews were taped and fully transcribed.

We also established a 'consultation forum', which comprised about twelve Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women who were working in statutory or voluntary organisations in Oldham. We held regular meetings of this forum at which we discussed the project design, enlisted help with access and reported initial findings. We include here some of the views offered by these women.

(3) We cannot claim that our interviews are representative of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi population of Oldham and neither is Oldham representative of Britain more generally. Therefore we also use national-level data from the PSI Fourth National Ethnic Minorities Survey (Modood et al, 1997), designed specifically to capture the experience of minority ethnic groups in Britain. This therefore provides the best available source of quantitative data for modelling the variation in women's labour market participation. As it contains a representative sample of white women it allows comparisons to be made between Pakistani and Bangladeshi and white women.

The PSI survey was conducted in 1994 and drawn from a sample of wards selected on the basis of the proportion of the population who were from ethnic minorities. A sample of addresses was drawn from each ward and focussed enumeration used to locate ethnic minorities. The numbers of adults interviewed were: 1232 Pakistanis, with a response rate of 73 per cent; 598 Bangladeshis, with a 83 per cent response rate and a white sample of 2,867 with a 71 per cent response rate (Modood et al, 1997). By using weights, a nationally representative sample can be obtained for each ethnic group. All the analyses reported in this paper have been restricted to women aged 18-59 inclusive and omits those in full-time education.

The Employment Context for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women

Women's employment choices are influenced not just by structural and human capital factors but also by cultural expectations and family and community pressures. Therefore an understanding of the perceptions of community values and the general context in which a woman makes decisions about marriage, family formation and employment is relevant and important.

Amongst the older generation of women there was often an acceptance of their role within the home to the extent that questions about paid employment seemed inappropriate and irrelevant. Many women also had heavy family responsibilities often without access to a car or to convenience foods. As one young woman said:

'I think that a lot of women don't work because they have too many responsibilities towards their families and they haven't got the time. It can be difficult especially with children, in-laws and housework. My mum, aunts, friends' mothers, you see them working so hard in the home, they would never have time for a job even if they wanted to' (Pakistani woman, 22, single, working full-time).

Taken together with a lack of formal qualifications and, often, little English, these factors placed considerable barriers to employment in the formal labour market and contribute to the low levels of recorded economic activity amongst older Pakistani and Bangladeshi women.

Traditionally, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women marry at a young age, with sixteen or seventeen being not unusual, although, as we see below, many women married later. However, those women who remain single into their twenties are, almost by definition, from less traditional families. Many of our respondents had marriages arranged by parents, although usually with their consent and having met their prospective partner beforehand. Amongst the Pakistanis in particular, marriage was usually to a member of the extended family, often with a marriage in Pakistan and the husband migrating to live with his new wife in Oldham. After marriage, a woman traditionally joins her husband's family and both her parents-in-law and husband play an important role with respect to her employment decisions. However, it is not possible to make simple generalisations and, particularly amongst younger women, there was considerable variation in attitudes and expectations on both sides. These are discussed in more detail below.

Post-compulsory Education for Pakistani and Bangladeshi Girls

Choices over the uptake of post- compulsory education for Pakistani and Bangladeshi young women were much more complex than for their male counterparts or their white counterparts.

For much of the Asian community in Oldham it was important that girls should avoid any behaviour that might damage the family honour (izzat). As Brah explains, 'a young woman working away from home unchaperoned is understood as providing fertile ground for malicious gossip' (Brah 1993:143). If the girl behaved in a way that damaged the family honour, for example by being seen in public smoking, drinking or out with a boy, her family would suffer in the community and she would no longer be seen as an acceptable marriage partner (Afshar, 1994). This had implications for the continuation of post-16 education for girls in situations where parents were not able to police the activities of their daughters. However, no similar restrictions were mentioned for boys.

Whilst the notion of honour was widely accepted, there were considerable differences in the ways in which it impinged on girls. For the most traditional families it meant that girls were not allowed outside on their own and going to FE college or university was forbidden. By contrast, in other families, girls were encouraged to go to university, even if it meant living away from home, and parents trusted their daughters to behave in an appropriate way. One particularly liberal parent argued:

'Education will never make you immoral. Education makes you strong and it will teach you good and bad. Without education you've got nothing.'

However, this mother had had to withstand considerable pressure and gossip from the more traditional members of the community. In her interview, however, she strongly emphasised the importance of izzat and drew explicitly on the teaching of Islam to defend her views - in particular citing the need for hard work and self-help:

'So if you work hard and get well educated and help yourself then you'll have your parents' blessings as well as Allah's blessings' (Pakistani woman, 46, 7 children, most university-educated in professional jobs)

However, other mothers used the teaching of Islam to justify much greater restrictions on their daughter's movements. The most extreme case was an interview with a woman in her mid-40s from rural Pakistan who explained that Islam recommended that a girl should not go out of the house. Another Pakistani woman explained why she felt that girls should not be educated:

'Because then girls get freedom ... I am not against education but freedom, then girls get influenced' (Pakistani woman, 4 children; born in Pakistan, been in England for 20 years).

Many of our interviewees quoted teachings from the Qur'an to justify or explain their views. However, these were deployed selectively to support quite different positions.

Some of the younger women interviewed had experienced severe restrictions and were determined that they would not impose them on their own children. A Pakistani woman in her early thirties, now working full-time, recalled with bitterness how her parents stopped her from going to college because it was co- educational, although her younger sisters had been allowed to go.

If a girl remained at home under the supervision of her family there was less risk that she would engage in activities, which could damage the family's reputation. For a girl to continue in post-16 education it was necessary for parents to be confident that this would not bring dishonour on the family. Girls often engaged in a process of negotiation with parents that, at least for some, resulted in being allowed to continue in education. Continuing FE education in Oldham posed less of a threat than going outside Oldham; the FE and sixth form college are both in the centre of Oldham and parents would quickly hear if their daughters stepped outside accepted norms of behaviour.

Girls reported that their parents were concerned if they saw Asian girls wearing western dress to college. Traditional Asian dress signified that a girl subscribed to the values and codes of behaviour of their community. It thus provided an assurance to parents and could be used in negotiating permission to attend college. Both young people and women referred to the way in which disapproval within the community acted as a powerful force on conducts of behaviour.

Greater concerns were felt when higher education meant travelling outside Oldham because it was harder for the family to retain control over the girl. Also, girls living away from home could not be given family support and help if they faced difficulties. Role models were frequently mentioned as providing parents with reassurance. For example, if an older cousin had successfully completed higher education this often gave parents much more confidence. The girl's achievements brought status to her family with the result that other parents were more likely to allow their daughters to follow a similar route. Whilst there is obviously scope for conflict between children and their parents, a number of girls still in education had been able to reach a resolution with their parents. However, our interviews with married women included several instances where they had been prevented from continuing their education.

Uptake of Higher Education

Our Oldham interviews suggested, and were reinforced by the views of the consultation forum, that there was an increase in uptake of higher education amongst young Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. In order to assess whether there is statistical evidence to support this assumption we have examined national- level data. Labour Force Survey figures for 19-24 year olds studying for first or higher degrees in 1995 (ONS, 1996) show very similar national levels for white and Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people - about 13-14 per cent - but much lower than the 30 per cent of Indians in this age-group.

However, applications for degree courses indicate a marked increase amongst South Asians, especially for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women; for example, an increase of 83 per cent for Bangladeshi women and 60 per cent for Pakistani women between 1994 and 1999 (home students). By comparison, there was a fall in applications from white men over this time period and only a small increase amongst white women. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA, Table 10A) give the numbers of UK domiciled full-time first-year students on degree-level courses by ethnic group. This shows an increase of 95 per cent for Bangladeshi women and 71 per cent for Pakistanis women between 1994/5 and 1998/9. The increases for Bangladeshi and Pakistani men, for the same time period, are 21 per cent and 44 per cent respectively. The UK does not publish annual age-specific population estimates by ethnic group and we cannot, therefore, show the increase in participation as a percentage of the relevant age cohort. However, these increases for Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are likely to far outweigh the growth in the student-aged population over the four year time period.

There is also an indication that young Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are narrowing the gender gap in uptake of higher education. Amongst first year UK domiciled full-time degree level undergraduate students for 1994/5, girls represented 38 per cent of both Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. By 1999/2000 this had risen to 44 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively (HESA, Table 10.A). There is no sign that the increase in applications by Pakistani and Bangladeshi girls in recent years is slowing down. It is, of course, only a decade or so ago since white women were also significantly less likely than men to take an undergraduate degree course.

The statistical evidence therefore suggests that there are very real gains being made by Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people and that women, in particular, are narrowing the lead held by men in terms of entry to degree-level courses. This level of attainment needs to be viewed against the lack of economic resources available to many of these students. Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Britain are characterised by high levels of unemployment and economic inactivity, very marked geographical segregation (Peach, 1997) and considerable material poverty (Blackburn et al, 1997; Karn et al, 1999). South Asian students also tend to have lower than average A level scores for the degree-level courses to which they are applying; and are more likely to have to achieved these scores after a re-sit (Modood and Shiner, 1994). This is consistent with the expressed determination of many young people interviewed to succeed against the odds and the encouragement and support given by parents and family.

The Role of Qualifications in the Labour Market

From our interviews we found that young single women who had left education (all educated in the UK but with a range of qualifications), saw paid work as bringing positive benefits. It was something which, at this stage of their lives, they wished to pursue. They felt that they gained independence and self- esteem from a job and some also saw a job as giving freedom and the ability to 'get out of the house'. This can be understood in relation to the 'traditional' view that women should not take paid-work outside the home. A woman whose father had opposed her taking paid work said:

'My father's comment was - why do you need to work when I can give you the money' (Pakistani woman, 31, married, 3 children)?

It is noteworthy that all the young women interviewed accepted without question that they would get married and have children. They also foresaw that marriage was likely to lead to some compromises and they would lose some of their individual freedom, particularly if they moved into the household of their parents-in- law. These women all spoke fluent English with qualifications gained in the UK educational system. This removed many of the obstacles to employment faced by older women and more recent migrants without fluent English.

The interviews provided overwhelming evidence for the role of educational qualifications gained in the UK in promoting labour market participation. The influence of qualifications is apparent in two ways. Firstly, as for white women, qualifications provide the entry requirements for many jobs, particularly in the non- manual sector. However, for Asian women (and men) this had a particular significance because of the widely held view (amongst interviewees and members of our consultation forum) that an Asian applicant has to be much better qualified than a white applicant to stand a similar chance of success. Secondly, the traditional view amongst the Asian community in Oldham is that women should not work outside the home. Again, this was often reinforced by calling on the teaching of Islam:

'But in our Islam, working outside the home for women is not allowed; as much as they can stay in the home, it's better for them' (Pakistani woman, 35, 5 children).

Therefore, women who wanted to work often found themselves having to justify that decision. Those with higher qualifications appeared more confident and more motivated to argue against this traditional view - also using the Qur'an to justify their decision. Some of these women will also have had to show considerable resolution and determination in order to have achieved their qualifications. Women with few qualifications often felt defeated by the labour market:

' I said I didn't go to school much and I got married at a young age and to me I think I'm not really good for any job, that's what I think' (Bangladeshi woman, 30, married, 3 children, no qualifications).

This suggests that the role of qualifications may have a greater impact for Asian women than for white women and, indeed, analysis of the Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities (Dale et al, 2002) shows that this is, indeed, the case. Almost all Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with qualifications at A level and above were economically active by comparison with only 13 percent of women with no qualifications. However, we need to remember that those Asian women getting higher qualifications are unusual and therefore likely to display other characteristics - for example, considerable determination and strength of character. As more women go into higher education - and there is less resistance to this from the community - we may expect the association between level of qualification and economic activity to weaken.

Generally, analysis of the PSI survey shows that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who have experienced the same educational system as white women are achieving similar or higher levels of qualification and showing similar or higher levels of economic activity (Dale et al, 2002). However, these figures do not control for the effects of marriage and childbearing. We consider these factors in the following section.

Marriage and Family

In our interviews we were told on many occasions that, by comparison with the white population, Asians give much more priority to their family. We were therefore interested in the role that educational qualifications and employment potential played in relation to decisions about the priorities of family and paid work after marriage and child-bearing.

While the younger, single women asserted the importance of paid work in giving them recognition as an individual, on the other hand they accepted that after marriage individuality may be subsumed within family life - which often included living with parents-in-law.

'I have talked to my future husband about this and he says that this is alright and that he won't mind if I have a job as long as I don't neglect him and the duties of being a wife ......... after I get married I will be moving into the family house and I will have to look after their needs, I think it is going to be tough at first, you have to learn how to live again and accustom yourself to this new house and these new people.... I hope it isn't going to be too bad' (Bangladeshi woman, 21, engaged, working full-time).

Thus, these young working women enjoyed the freedom that came with a paid job but also accepted that they would get married and have children. They also foresaw that this might lead to some compromises and loss of their individual freedom, particularly if they moved into the household of their parents-in-law. This may, perhaps, be seen as westernised ideals of 'individualisation' confronting Muslim ideals of prioritising family life over individual desires.

Unlike the Muslim women interviewed by Afshar (1994) in Bradford, these women did not appear to see marriage as giving them independence from their own parents, but as a potential threat to an independence they had achieved through paid work. However, we must remember that the views reported above were from a group of young women who already had the freedom to take paid work. Not all young women - or their parents - held these views. Women from traditional families were likely to get married very soon after leaving school without having worked outside the home.

These younger married women varied not just in the extent of their labour market participation but in whether this was represented as their own choice, a negotiated outcome, or the result of family or community pressures. It is significant that those women who had higher level qualifications and the prospect of a 'good' job appeared to be in a much stronger position to choose whether to take paid employment. They had confidence in their own abilities and were also more likely to have married a man who accepted their views on working.

These women were also keen to distinguish between tradition and religion and thereby demonstrate that there was no incompatibility between being a devout Muslim and taking paid work. This was extremely important for women who wished to affirm their adherence to Islamic values - and to uphold the honour of their family - but who did not want to be bound by the traditional values of what was seen by some as a rather old-fashioned and narrow-minded community. A Pakistani law graduate had maintained her career and worked full-time despite having a young child and facing very strong opposition from her parents-in-law. She was strongly opposed to 'sitting at home' and being dependent on her husband. In defining her position she stressed that her opposition was to tradition, not religion:

'I'm not attached to the tradition; I'm concerned with my religion which is a totally different thing' (Pakistani woman, 27, law graduate, married, one child).

Other women found themselves much less able to resist traditional expectations. The parents of a 22-year old Bangladeshi woman did not want her to continue her education or to take paid work. Whilst she had come to the UK when aged 9 and had obtained GCSEs, she married at 17 and had two children at the time of the interview. She found herself unable to resist the control that her parents-in-law exercised over her movements. This meant that she saw paid work outside the home as impossibility. By contrast, her sister-in-law, who had a university education and was in employment, appeared to have considerable independence.

However, not all women had mothers-in- law who wanted them to stay at home. A number of women whom we interviewed found their mothers-in-law supportive and helpful. It is clear that the power exercised by parents-in-law is negotiated and that education and employment are both significant in giving daughters-in-law bargaining power and confidence.

The graduates in the sample, all from UK universities, were highly committed to their careers but were also committed to a role of wife and mother. Ways of combining work and children were actively explored and, for many, part-time work seemed to offer the preferred balance with mothers or mothers-in-law providing childcare - a pattern reminiscent of that of many white women.

Turning to our national level data from PSI survey, (reported more fully in Dale et al, 2002) Pakistani and Bangladeshi women without children show similar levels of economic activity as their white counterparts (over 90 per cent are economically active). However, amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with a partner but no children, economic activity is 66 per cent - considerably less than for white women in this category (83 per cent). But it is amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with a partner and children that economic activity is lowest - about 10 per cent - and contrasts most sharply with white women (72 per cent).

This suggests that family responsibilities are a much more important influence on Pakistani and Bangladeshi women's economic activity than for white women. However, unmarried Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are disproportionately likely to be non-traditional women who have delayed marriage. Similarly, those married with no children represent women who have delayed childbearing following their marriage. Women who follow the more traditional way of the community get married at an early age and have children soon after marriage. Thus marriage and presence of children are conflated with age, generation, fluency in English and educational qualification.

Multivariate Analysis

Models of employment behaviour generated for white women show that increased educational attainment leads to a sharp rise in levels of economic activity, particularly amongst women with young children (Macran, Joshi, Dex 1996; Dale and Egerton, 1997). However, we cannot assume that the factors that influence white women's employment behaviour will be the same for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who clearly enter the labour market in very different circumstances (Brah and Shaw, 1992; Brah, 1993; 1996).

We have therefore used evidence from our interviews to construct some models which are applied to the national level survey data and which can help to disentangle the range of influences on women's labour market participation.

The explanatory variables in the model include educational qualifications; fluency in English; partnership status; dependent children; age and household size. The population used was women aged 18-59, excluding FT students.

The variables with a large significant impact on Pakistani and Bangladeshi women's economical activity (by comparison with the reference category) were:

As successive cohorts of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are born in the UK and have fluent English the negative effect of language will apply to fewer and fewer women. The increase in numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women taking degree-level courses, discussed above, is likely to lead to a sharp increase in economic activity amongst future cohorts, although tempered by the strong negative impact of young children. The opposing effects of qualifications and the presence of young children pose the crucial question of how this will be reconciled by younger cohorts of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women[4].

The results for white women are broadly similar to those for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women but with a key difference - the positive effect of qualifications was smaller whilst the negative effect of young children was also less. Thus we see much less variation amongst white women's economic activity in relation to individual characteristics.

Our interviews provided some tentative evidence that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women might reconcile a desire for paid work with a commitment to family life by seeking part-time employment. For example, when asked about children these two respondents, both with degrees, married and working full-time, replied:

'Well, I would want to work but I don't think I, I wouldn't work full-time, I would like to go on a part-time basis or if I did work full-time I would have to work round the hours my husband worked. I don't think that would be possible though I think, it would have to be more of a part-time role for myself, but we have even discussed my husband going part-time and me staying full-time, which doesn't sound right from a cultural point of view' (Pakistani woman, 23, married, no children, degree, currently working full-time).
'I think I would like to give my children the best as well and with that comes financial security and I think as well as my husband earning I would like to do part-time work, therefore my children will get the best, so yes I will work but I won't work to the same degree as now' (Pakistani pharmacist, 26, married, no children).

So far our analysis has suggested an increasing numbers of young Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with higher qualifications who will expect to work full-time, at least until they have children. However we have not yet addressed the difficulties which Pakistani and Bangladeshi women experience in actually getting and retaining employment.


In the introduction we noted the very high unemployment levels amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi men and women. However, it is important to clarify exactly how unemployment is measured in government surveys. Standard ILO definitions of unemployment require an individual to be not in employment; to be actively looking for work and to be available to start within two weeks. The unemployment rate is calculated as the percentage of all those economically active (employed + unemployed) who are unemployed. From this definition it is clear that anyone who is without work and cannot provide evidence of looking for a job in the last four weeks, or cannot demonstrate arrangements for starting work within two weeks, will not be defined as unemployed. We may expect that there are many women who are deterred from looking for jobs by a belief that there are no jobs available or they will not succeed in getting one.

Our analysis of the PSI data set used a much wider definition of unemployment than the ILO definition - it extends to those who are without work and wanting a job even if not actively looking for one. This nationally representative survey shows extremely high levels of unemployment for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, and much higher than their white counterparts.

Graphs One and Two show two ways of examining levels of unemployment. Both compare Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with white women and show differences by qualification. Figure 1 uses the economically active as the base - thus it excludes women who do not want a job. We see extremely high levels of unemployment for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women - from 55 per cent for those with no qualifications to 22 per cent for those with qualifications. For white women the comparable figures are 13 per cent and 5 per cent. This reflects the enormous labour market barriers not only for women with no qualifications but also for women with 'A' level and higher qualifications. However, when we compare this with Figure 2, which uses as its base of all women aged 18-59 and not in full-time education, we see that the percentages for white and Pakistani and Bangladeshi women with no qualifications are the same (7 per cent) whilst those for women with A levels and higher remain at 22 per cent for Pakistani and Bangladeshi but only 4 per cent for white women. The reason for this is the very low numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women without qualifications who are economically active and the very high percentage of women with higher qualifications who are economically active.

Both these figures are cause for concern and require further investigation. Women with higher qualifications are fluent in English and have generally been educated in the UK. Those women without qualifications are much more likely to be older and to have difficulty speaking English. Although only a small percentage may want a job it is clear that there are immense difficulties in getting one. One may, however, expect those women with higher qualifications to be able to compete on a par with white women. Clearly this is not so.

The widely-held view that Asians need to be better qualified than a white person to stand the same chance in the labour market is supported by a considerable body of evidence (Karn, 1997). During our interviews respondents raised many instances where they felt that they had been treated differently because of their race or ethnic identify or where working practices caused them particular problems.

Several respondents felt that employers held unhelpful stereotypes of Muslim women. This was often evident in the kinds of questions asked at interview:

'I have been to interviews and you can tell as soon as you walk in that they don't really want you. There was this one interview I went to and it was a mostly white firm, in the interview they were really targeting some funny questions at me, like would you be able to work evenings being a Muslim, or do you know there are a lot of men working here so would your family mind and do you wear a scarf at all. In the end I didn't get the job, but I felt uneasy about some of the questions they were asking, I thought they were completely inappropriate' (Pakistani woman, 19, full-time sales assistant).

There was a general consensus that wearing a traditional headscarf (hijab) to a job interview raised doubts in the minds of an employer as to how well the applicant would 'fit in'. In some cases questions were also raised as to the image that would be presented to customers.

'... when you're at an interview, or even on your application form, it comes across that you're not going to have that British accent and British culture and you're not going to be able to socialise in the way that they want you to socialise. A lot of these high street legal firms, they very much have in mind the kind of person they want to employ. You've got to completely fit in and I think there's a lack of understanding of cultures, I don't think they think you're going to fit in very well as an Asian female' (Pakistani woman, 27, with law degree).

When discussing these issues with our consultation forum members there was a general consensus that clothing style was chosen that met the expectations of the potential employer. Some of the women in development posts felt obliged to wear a shalwar kameez in order to gain the confidence of the community. Others would judge whether wearing a scarf (hijab) seemed appropriate and, perhaps, wait until after starting a job before wearing one. However, it was not only white employers who were resistant to Asian dress. We were told of many Asian employers who wanted their employees to wear western clothes in order to project the right image to their customers.

A Pakistani pharmacist recalled how she had experienced discrimination from her area manager which, she felt, was associated with wearing a hijab.

'I was getting myself ill over it and it got to the stage were I felt I should resign, my husband said just leave your job, but I was adamant and I said why should I leave because of a person, I'll leave because I want to leave, nobody is going to kick me out of a job for no reason, I don't want to be frightened by him because I will be like that everywhere then, I have got to fight' (Pakistani woman, 26, pharmacist, married)

It seems that clothes, whether western or Asian, convey strong messages about the wearer. Wearing a hijab may signal that the wearer is a devout Muslim and this may raise doubts amongst employers about a woman's ability to 'fit in' - for example whether she will join in drinks at lunch-time or Christmas celebrations and whether she will want time off for Eid or during Ramadan.

The one area where Asian women felt they were not disadvantaged was when there was a specific requirement for knowledge of a South Asian language. In some cases women had taken such a job after repeatedly failing to get a 'mainstream' job. However, most of these jobs are in short-term posts aimed at developing or providing services for the South Asian population. This, therefore, raises questions of how easily these women will move on to other, more senior 'main-stream' posts and whether their experience will be seen as generalisable beyond these very specific jobs.

'When I finally did get a job, like this one, Asian Women's Rights Worker, it's usually jobs that are catered specifically for Asian people. It's very difficult to get a job that's catered for everyone, mainstream jobs. I mean, I've had a go at that. My qualifications are probably not less than anyone else and also my experience, I've had a hell of a lot of voluntary work experience, working for firms here and there, but I think it is a problem' (Pakistani woman, 27, law graduate).

There was some evidence that, for women, the traditional assumption that they should stay at home made unemployment easier to cope with. In addition, one young woman explained that her family helped her with money, thus reducing the incentive to find work. However, reliance on state benefits was not seen as acceptable:

'... I am not the sort of person who is proud to claim benefit, I used to hate going signing on, it was such a nightmare, because the benefits woman always used to grill me about not having found a job and she would make me feel so inadequate... I don't agree with people who claim benefit to make a living... There is no respect in that at all... you should work for your money and not sponge off the state, it's wrong to do that... plenty of people do... But I wouldn't feel proud of that, my family have always ingrained in me the fact that you should work hard and be a credit to your family... so they can tell others about you... My daughter works for a doctor or my son works in computers, what respect are you going to get by saying, my daughter signs on? None at all! (Bangladeshi, 21, working full-time as a Doctor's receptionist)

National statistics as well as information from our respondents all testify to the difficulties that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women experience when seeking jobs. The fact that modes of dress may signal religious as well as ethnic differences seems to place an additional obstacle to their employment prospects.


In this paper we have explored processes of social exclusion that can be traced back to early patterns of residential segregation, an absence of well paid jobs and a lack of understanding between white and Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. Exclusion from higher education and from the labour market is particularly relevant to Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who have to confront traditional attitudes in their own community as well as suspicion and hostility in the white community. For older women the odds against getting work in the formal labour market are stacked even higher.

However, there is very clear evidence of change across generations. By contrast with their mothers' generation, younger women who had been educated in the UK saw paid work as a means to independence and self-esteem. Women with higher level qualifications often showed considerable determination in managing to combine paid work and child-care. Whilst most women subscribed strongly to the centrality of the family, it is clear that the majority will follow very different routes through the life-course from their mothers. However, even with higher level qualifications, women are facing considerable barriers to employment - not just in Oldham but nationally. If the expected increase in economic activity amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi women is not to lead to even higher unemployment, there is a pressing need to ensure that potential employers do not hold negative and out-dated stereotypes of traditional Muslim women. If this is not addressed there is a real danger that well qualified young women will be denied the jobs commensurate with their qualifications because of employers' prejudice and ill-informed assumptions.


1The Labour Force Survey defines economic activity as being in paid work or looking for a job and available to start.

2ILO unemployment is defined as not having a job, actively seeking work and being able to start within two week.

3In May 2001 there were three days of rioting in Oldham, followed by similar disturbances in Burnley in June and Bradford in July. In the weeks leading up to the Oldham Riot the National Front (NF) had been trying to capitalise on an attack on an old white pensioner which the local police had described as a 'racial attack' despite the victim and his family saying this was not true.

4We could, in theory, have addressed this using an inter-action effect between qualifications and children. This would have shown whether the negative effect of young children was the same for all levels of qualification. However, there were insufficient numbers of women with higher qualifications to allow this.


ESRC Grant No. L212 25 2029
I would like to thank Nusrat Shaheen who conducted the interviews and Ed Fieldhouse and Virinder Kalra who were colleagues on the project.
I also wish to thank Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council for allowing access to their Social Survey and Labour Force Survey, for providing details of their population projections and for their support of the research more generally.
We also thank PSI for use of their Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities and also the Data Archive at the University of Essex for supplying the data.
We particularly want to thank the members of the project Consultation Forum who gave us an enormous amount of help and advice and the young people and women who took part in the interviewing.


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