By Carielle Sommers
“Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t wear it to the office and I’m not going to wear it to the interview either.” Naima was shifting uncomfortably in her chair sipping her cappuccino. She was looking for a new position now that her contract was ending. With two young boys, an ambitious husband and her in-laws sharing a home, at 34 Naima seemed determined.
Wondering what it might be like to feel exposed at work and sheltered at home, I asked her how her family was taking her new attire. She was reluctant to answer at first but broke into a smile “They understand it has its consequences because they get stared at just as I do. The glares fluctuate from visible displays of empathy to confusion and apprehension. What my family understands most of all is that it matters less when we’re out together but in the office, I’m all by myself”.
The Muslim headscarf or hijab is particularly controversial. As Helbling (2014) showed for 6 European countries, attitudes of non-Muslims are significantly more negative towards the headscarf than towards Muslims in general. While only about one quarter of survey respondents opposed Muslims, nearly 60% disagreed with the practice of women wearing headscarves.
As a woman with her family’s background, Naima considered herself lucky to to work freely and independently as her husband did. “My mother doesn’t grasp the concept of gender equality yet although my husband stood right by me as it took my in-laws some getting used to”. It had taken Naima awhile to come to terms with the idea of being a working spouse and it raised an important question. Did equal opportunities for women in leadership positions sound farfetched for Naima? I didn’t know how to ask without offending her and held back.
Naima had been applying for over six months now and as she continued her search, it became evident she was worried her educational qualifications weren’t enough. I couldn’t fathom why at first. Naima had a Masters in Science at the Sultan Qaboos University and 8 years of experience in office administration. She was clearly overqualified for her current position but how hard would it be for her to find work again?
An empirical analysis in the discussion paper Life-Cycle Patterns in Male/Female Differences in Job Search shows that at the mean women experience both longer spells of unemployment and a larger decline in wages than men after being displaced (Kunze & Troske, 2012). When differences in job search area are taken into account however, the negative gender effect disappears. While the results of a further analysis differs somewhat across subgroups: For highly skilled women a negative gender effect remains (Eriksson & Lagerström, 2012). As a highly skilled woman for an office administration position, Naima was selling herself short and restricting her search to the same role.
As countries admit that gender equality contributes to social progress, companies are going one step further to increase employment outcomes for women with inclusion rather than just accounting for diversity. Quotas for women are being replaced by powerful initiatives such as balanced shortlisting and anonymous application procedures (AAP) to give inclusion and diversity its second wind.
The popularity of balanced shortlisting, where recruiters deliver a 50:50 gender split of applicants and anonymous application procedures (AAP) are helping companies increase the chances of advancing women and applicants of non-Western origin like Naima to face-to-face interviews, where a new journey begins.
“Would it be easier to find work back home?” I tried to get a sense from her. “It’s hard to call Muscat home today. I don’t feel I would fit in anymore since I’ve come this far and I don’t belong here yet, either”.
Helbling, M. (2014). Opposing muslims and the muslim headscarf in Western Europe. European Sociological Review, jct038.
Weichselbaumer, D. (2016). Discrimination against female migrants wearing headscarves.
Kunze, A., & Troske, K. R. (2012). Life-cycle patterns in male/female differences in job search. Labour Economics, 19(2), 176-185.
Eriksson, S., & Lagerström, J. (2012). The labor market consequences of gender differences in job search. Journal of Labor Research, 33(3), 303-327.
Gender Parity Musings in the Workplace is a three part series of water cooler narrative and gender research on the daily struggles that women face seeking opportunities to develop and succeed. These stories of junior to mid-level women offer leaders an understanding of what to consider when attracting, retaining and advancing inclusion in the workplace. The LEAD Network’s vision is a diverse workforce where both men and women are enabled to contribute their full potential and lead their organisations to the next level of value creation.