The Women in Business Awards NI were held late last month. They aim to celebrate the contribution of female led businesses, female business leaders, organizations with female management teams and female sole traders in Northern Ireland economy, and the contribution they make to the Northern Ireland economy.
Women in business are facing a daily battle of the inherent sexism and patriarchy of the business world. Black and ethnic minority (BME) women face this hurdle alongside issues of discrimination due to their race.
In a report ‘The Northern Ireland Economy: Women on the Edge?’ it was suggested that the lack of precise data on women in the workplace adds to their problems. The report acknowledges the “scant attention” given to coherent data collection on BME women in Northern Ireland. This creates a veil of silence, pushing BME women to the margins in the workplace. The report said, “Generally means that scant attention has been paid to providing gendered data on migrant women”.
There is a worrying trend that, with the little information available, BME women are filling stereotypical and ‘gender-based’ roles in the labour market. In a survey Unison carried out in 2009, they noted that almost all of the women surveyed worked in the health sector, with 60% of them in the NHS.
Based on anecdotal evidence gathered by through Migrant Worker’s Focus Groups hosted by NICEM, there is an atmosphere of fear surrounding BME women and their position in the workplace.
In 2008 the UK government was asked to intensify its efforts to eliminate discrimination against ethnic minority women. They identified that BME women are under-represented in all areas, these range from the labour market, to political and to public life.
The ‘Women on the Edge’ report included an Oxford economics survey that found almost half of employers who responded to the survey in the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland said they employed migrant workers in junior roles generally. In the survey of 600 NI employers they found that 94% of migrants who work in agricultural sector and 84% manufacturing were in ‘low tier’ occupations.
The tendency to place migrants and women in ‘low tier’ occupations was uncovered in the ‘Forced Labour in NI: Exploiting Vulnerability’ by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2011.
They found that “many migrant women are forced to take low-waged work in formal and in-informal settings.”
They linked this form of discrimination in the work place as being directly linked to the women’s status as a migrant, “they have minimal rights and can find themselves in a doubly insecure position in the labour market open to potential discrimination as a migrant worker and as a woman.” Therefore the women are in two, equally constricting boxes, and one reinforces and strengthens the other.
The JRF report detailed the specific worries BME and migrant women face such as the threat of destitution, family support and discrimination in the face of pregnancy.
The ‘Women on the Edge’ report noted that; “A striking feature of more recent migrants is their concentration in low-skilled jobs. Despite their relatively high level of education, around 33% of them are employed in elementary occupations and a further 25% in personal service, sales and processing”
Another factor in the high rate of BME and migrant women in low-skills jobs is ignorance towards qualifications earned outside the U.K. The report stated that women were falling down the job ladder of an already restricted system as “many are already doing jobs below their qualification and skill level due to a non-recognition of their qualifications.”
This is supported by the Equality Commission’s findings in ‘The role of the recruitment sector in the Employment of Migrant Workers’, that the vast majority “had further education qualifications and one-third had a professional qualification.”
The willingness to accept these lower tier jobs is motivated by fear, because the loss of a job for a BME or migrant women is a serious concern. JRF noted that the implications are “severe for a woman without permanent status who may be forced to return to her home country or face destitution without the safety net of social protection.”
The JRF report illustrated cases where women were being told suddenly ‘they were no longer needed’ when they informed their employer they were pregnant.
Another major factor in the under-representation and the exploitation of BME women in the workplace could be the lack of young girls getting involved at an early stage through education. For example, promoting an interest in subjects such as mathematics and science would open up a wider variety of career choices. Such development at an early level could provide young women with a greater scope for their future development.
In CEDAW’s periodic report of the United Kingdome, submitted in 2011 the concern of under representation is highlighted. The report voices concern at “ reports of under-representation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and in apprenticeships especially in Scotland, which ultimately affects the gender gap in the labour market.”
In 2005 the Racial Equality Strategy used the term ‘ethnic penalty’ to describe the situation of some who suffer from particularly poor outcomes in education, employment, health and other life chances for a mixture of reasons, including racial discrimination.
Equanomics submitted some findings to the Runnymede trust in which they stated that, “the Coalition Government’s spending cuts and other key decisions, have worsened the educational opportunities and the employment and economic position of women generally and BME women.”
They went on to detail how the additional risks many BME women face during the recession will, due to government cuts, “reinforce pre-existing disadvantages.”
The aptly named ‘Women on the Edge’ reminds us “the racism and harassment suffered by women is rarely reported. Intimidation directed at women is usually ongoing, low level harassment.” The continued drive towards equality needs more and better data collection, so that BME women in leadership positions in business becomes normative, rather than extraordinary and occasional.
Lizzie Dass, NICEM intern