Empowering Muslim women in the labour market in Muslim minority and Muslim majority countries

Muhtar Kent, CO-Chair of the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World, and Soraya Salti, Senior Vice President Middle East and North Africa, INJAZ AL Arab on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World. Jordan, 2011
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Muhtar Kent, CO-Chair of the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World, and Soraya Salti, Senior Vice President Middle East and North Africa, INJAZ AL Arab on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World. Jordan, 2011

The similarities in employment aspirations and challenges faced by young Muslim women in England and Qatar

While much research exists relating to the high levels of Muslim youth unemployment and social exclusion across England and the Arab region, there is limited research regarding the employment aspirations and outcomes of young Muslim women.

Recent labour market research studies conducted between 2008 and 2012 in England (Bunglawala 2008) and Qatar (Bunglawala 2011 and 2012) have shown that young Muslim women in both these Muslim minority and Muslim majority countries respectively have increasing levels of education and employment aspirations, compared to previous generations. However, improved human capital and career goals have not yet fully translated into employment activity and progression as many young Muslim women in both countries continue to face barriers and challenges in the labour market.

The Muslim population in England is 2.7 million people (Census 2011). Qatar is a sovereign Arab state with an estimated population of 300,000 citizen Qataris, the majority of whom are Muslims. The overall Qatar population is 1.83 million, consisting of mainly non-citizen expatriates largely from the Indian sub-continent (Qatar Statistics Authority, 2012). Thus Qatar has a majority Muslim citizen population. This paper refers only to citizen Qatari women.  

This paper suggests it is time to take a fresh look at the employment aspirations, activity and outcomes of young Muslim women in Muslim minority and Muslim majority countries, to recognise the acute similarities between them and the challenges they face, and the support they now need if they are to be empowered. This paper concludes with key messages for policy-makers.

Muslim women in the workforce

Investment in women’s education, by governments and women themselves, has empowered women and their capacity to earn and as increasingly powerful players in their roles as producers, investors, and consumers, driving organisations and economies to become more inclusive of women.

However, despite increasing levels of education, Muslim women remain a largely untapped labour market resource and their economies remain unrepresentative of their young Muslim population. Low participation of Muslim women in the labour market has a high cost for both the economy they live in and their own family (World Bank, 2004) Data from the OECD shows a strong negative correlation between unemployment and women’s employment participation, indicating that a healthy economy that is more inclusive of women in the labour market is also more likely to enjoy lower unemployment.

Young British Muslims are among the most disadvantaged groups in the UK, with 23 percent unemployment of those under the age of 30 compared to the national average at 17 percent (1). A study of young British Muslim women found that despite 50 percent having graduate and post-graduate qualifications, compared to 38 percent of the overall population, and willing to work only 49 percent were in work while 51 percent were inactive (Z Bunglawala 2008).

In Qatar, despite the fact that 76 percent of Qatar University students in the academic year 2008-09 and 2009-10 were women, and a high representation of women in specialist academic areas, for example, 312 of the 390 grants for undergraduate research at Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in 2009-10 were to women students, (2) only 36 percent of Qatari women are in employment (Qatar Statistics Authority, 2012).
Many young women, including Muslim women, while inactive in the labour market may nevertheless be contributing positively to their families and society as mothers of young children and carers of family members. Many young Muslim women interviewed in both countries suggested they intended to return to work after their children were 3-5 years old, but many could foresee difficulties in re-connecting to the labour market, as do many non-Mulsim women, often due to childcare and labour market flexibility issues.

Attitudes, ambition and aspirations

The causal factors that explain a large proportion of older generation Muslim women’s low employment and high inactivity in England and Qatar, such as low levels of education, literacy or transferable education and skills and cultural preferences for women to stay in the home, do not apply, or apply to the same degree, for young Muslim women.

Young Muslim women in England and Qatar are now showing signs of attitudes that distinguish them from previous generations, and suggest they are likely to push for different rules of the game. Many young women have been raised in smaller, nuclear families that are supportive of their aspirations to gain higher education, have careers and combine family life with their ambitions.

Young Muslim women, university officials and employers interviewed in England and Qatar suggest that more women now seek graduate careers and entrepreneurship opportunities, as the following comments illustrate:

“I’m studying because I want to, I enjoy it and my family are very supportive…they’re paying the fees.”
Muslim female university student, Manchester.
“I want to work after my studies to help achieve my own goals, to apply my education and to help contribute to my country.”
Muslim female university student, Qatar.
“Many female students here are highly motivated and driven. They will strike out on their own probably accepting a prestigious government job first and then setting up a business for themselves.”
University official, Qatar.
“The female graduates are highly motivated and ambitious, often even more than the men. We are now seeing a ratio of 3-to-1 applications from women compared to men for our graduate recruitment programme.” Employer, Qatar.

Having more women in the labour market can have a progressive multiplier effect to women’s employment. Research has shown that companies owned by women not only recruit more women than male-owned companies, but they also recruit more women at managerial and professional levels (World Bank, 2008).

The barriers that must now be addressed and the similarities between them recognised

There are a number of barriers that can lead to low employment activity, representation and progression in the labour market. Some of the barriers which affect Muslim women affect all women, such as gender discrimination and a lack of affordable or accessible childcare, and some barriers are faith-based, cultural or country-specific. In England, evidence suggests Muslim women face significant additional challenges including a ‘Muslim penalty’ which results in employment discrimination based on their faith for example through wearing the hijab or niqab. (3)

Yet, despite their differences in population status, geography, national cultures and socio-economic policies (4), young Muslim women in England and Qatar face many of the same key challenges of limited awareness of the labour market, access to careers support, and a lack of social capital and social connectedness - all of which play a vital role in labour market entry and progression.

Limited understanding of how the labour market operates and the skills-set required:

Qualitative interviews with key stakeholders and Muslims women themselves highlight that increasing education levels are not enough to secure labour market entry and progression. Many young Muslim women they and their parents – many of whom did not work or have limited employment experience - have limited access to careers services, limited understanding of how the labour market operates the importance of building soft skills, and how social capital and networks help to translate education into labour market entry and progression. Many Muslim women also have limited awareness of the value of gaining work experience through internships while still students to further their professional networks and help them to identify possible future careers.

Young women interviewed in England and Qatar displayed some understanding of the important role social capital networks play in helping to identify and secure employment opportunities but did not appear to rely on these networks or to resort to them in the first instance when seeking employment. 

In England, while 45 percent of young Muslim women interviewed stated that they found their first job with the help of family and friends (Z Bunglawala 2008) they did not directly associate the importance of social capital networks to help identify employment opportunities as many had also applied for numerous other jobs unsuccessfully. In Qatar, while many young women emphasised the importance of ‘wasta’ (connections) when seeking employment they also did not immediately rely on their connections to help them identify employment opportunities. 

“After graduating I sat at home for one year applying for jobs and sending out my CV. The only job that was offered to me was a teaching post, but I didn’t want that. In the end I got my job because my friend worked here in a senior role and knew they were looking. She put in a good word for me.” Female employee, Qatar.

Limited access to and availability of skills building and employment support:

Muslim women interviewed in England and Qatar felt there was not enough accessible advice and support on how to apply for jobs, prepare for interviews or present themselves as employable candidates in order to successfully gain employment. Only 50 percent of British Muslim women interviewed not currently in work, but wanting to work, had succeeded in gaining job interviews (Z Bunglawala 2008). Many also have limited awareness or experience of using employment support services. Muslim women in England who have accessed the state’s Jobcentre Plus services, 78 percent said they did not get the help they needed in order to improve their skills levels or find work. This is in stark contrast to the general UK population, 60-70 percent of whom were ‘very’ or ‘quite’ satisfied with the service they had received from Jobcentre Plus. This may also suggest that public employment support services are not fully capable of helping graduates, including the growing number of Muslim women graduates, to identify employment or gain key skills.

Support in work is equally limited – 46 percent of British Muslim women in work interviewed said they did not have any support from their employers and managers to develop their skills further and progress at work, and 41 percent were not happy with the way their careers were progressing and felt they should have progressed further (Z Bunglawala 2008). Many Qatari women similarly stated that they experienced limited support from their employers to develop their skills further or were granted opportunities to access training they wanted (Z Bunglawala 2012).

When it comes to training, you can apply to be trained or even find courses yourself but you never hear back from the management. They don’t really want us to progress.” Female employee, Qatar.

Employers in both countries express key concerns, and in some cases misconceptions, related to diversifying their workforce while also meeting the skills needs of their organisations. When asked to identify the major challenges associated with recruiting ‘national’ staff, only 45 percent of CEOs in Qatar cited that new graduates carried the ‘right skills set’. Only 35 percent of Arab CEOs believe that the private sector in their countries has successfully communicated its expectations to the education system (Al Maktoum Foundation and PWC, 2008). 90 percent of Arab CEOs stated that their fundamental expectation of the education system was to provide students with ‘soft skills’ which include communication, teamwork, analytical skills, and problem-solving and innovation skills.

Limited awareness by employers of how to reach and recruit Muslim women:

The CBI Employment Trends Survey (2007) shows that employers are committed to diversity, with 89 percent having a formal diversity policy or equality practices in place. However, creating a more diverse workforce remains a challenge, with 67 percent of employers stating they believe a lack of applicants from disadvantaged groups is the main obstacle to achieving workforce diversity.

“There’s a lack of knowledge within the organisation of how to attract Muslim women, the big misconception is that they have a lack of appropriate skills.”
Small employer, London.

It is in the interests of every economy to ensure that young people are trained in the skills required by the economy, thereby maximizing their potential and resource. The International Labor Organization highlights that employability is closely linked to the capacity of an individual to adapt to change and build on their skills throughout their working life (ILO, 1998). Academics and NGOs in both countries emphasise that as many young Muslim women are the first in their families to gain higher qualifications and seek professional careers, they now need targeted and tailored employment and empowerment support to enable them to successfully connect to and progress within the labour market.

Good practice examples highlight the way forward:

Practitioners suggest that proactive outreach programmes are needed to raise awareness of and access to work experience opportunities to help young Muslim women gain vital work experience and ‘soft skills’ in communications, leadership and presentation, to help them prepare for and understand how the labour market operates.

Empowerment and career development initiatives such as good practice examples like the Enlighten project in Greater Manchester, England, Qatar Careers Fair and Injaz-al-Arab in Doha, Qatar (5), provide key support to young students and professionals, including Muslim women. The programmes target young people through outreaching to community and women’s groups, schools, universities and Mosques to provide a variety of support including site-visits and workshops to raise awareness of higher education, employment and entrepreneurship, help to facilitate work experience through summer programmes and internships, and provide careers advice and connectivity to potential employers – such initiatives now need to be expanded to support more young Muslim women to enter and progress within the labour market.

Careers and mentoring support are vital to empowerment to help Muslim women broaden their horizons, identify and progress within their careers through providing career entry and progression advice, and access to professional networks to help connect them to potential employers and entrepreneurship organisations for greater professional connectedness. While many young Muslim women are not yet in the labour market, there are a growing number of highly successful Qatari and British Muslim women. To help increase the aspirations of young British Muslims and raise their awareness of a variety of career opportunities the Mosaic programme was established in 2007 to develop a network of British Muslim-led initiatives to inspire and support young Muslims into the labour market. Successful British Muslim professionals and entrepreneurs, men and women, are encouraged to outreach into schools and local communities, acting as ambassadors, role models and mentors to students and young people through 1-2-1 and e-mentoring offering young Muslims careers talks, careers advice, work experience placements and access to professional networks to help them gain relevant skills and experience. This Muslim community led initiative also advocates the positive contribution of British Muslims to the economy and British society.

However, despite the positive examples, which are few in number, the majority of young, educated Muslim women still do not have access to wider professional networks to help them identify and secure career opportunities, and progress in their careers. Anecdotally it is known that Muslim families and communities place strong emphasis on social connectedness and social capital – this is true of the diverse migrant Muslim community in England and the established conservative Muslim population in Qatar. Muslim women in both England and Qatar however, have not yet fully been able to utilize this Muslim community or apply the  social capital concept more broadly beyond the Muslim community and translate it into professional networks and positive outcomes in the labour market.

However, the onus should not be on Muslim women alone to adapt to the labour market and gain key skills. Cultural awareness, understanding of traditions and inclusion of all faiths are important in the rapidly changing global economy. Employers, in Muslim minority and Muslim majority countries need to learn from best practice examples of how to outreach to and encourage more Muslim women to apply for employment opportunities, provide them with support to progress within employment and enable them to voice concerns they may have with regards to training, discrimination or combining work and family.

“We advertise locally and network with the local community to raise awareness of our organisation…in the past 18 months we’ve also started visiting local Mosques, Temples and Gurdwaras, and Asian supermarkets to attract faith minorities…we are receiving more applications from diverse groups, including Muslims.” Medium-size employer, Leicester.


As this increasingly educated and growing demographic group of young Muslim women in both England and Qatar now seeks to enter and progress within the workforce, more should be done to ensure this young and educated group are fully utilised within the workforce. Good practice examples such as those cited including Enlighten, Mosiac, Qatar Careers Fair and Injaz, which provide tailored and targeted careers advice, soft skills building, work experience, networking and mentoring support should be more widely supported and replicated by government and across the economy by public and private sector stakeholders. Employers in both countries also need to recognise the important role they play in diversifying and supporting the progression of their workforce, and tackling gender, ethnicity and faith-based discrimination. Greater empowerment emphasis and support will enable more young Muslim women to realise their employment aspirations without compromising cultural and religious norms or family responsibilities. (6)

The broader policy significance of now empowering Muslim women in England and Qatar is that this minority-majority comparison is applicable and therefore of importance to a broader group of countries where Muslims are in the majority, such as other Arab and Asian nations and in countries where Muslims are in the minority as recent migrants, such as mainland Europe and the US – as both minority and majority Muslim countries have growing young Muslim women populations with increasing levels of education and aspiration. Therefore, identifying the similarities in employment barriers, challenges faced and how to proactively support young Muslim women in England and Qatar, has direct employment and economic policy applicability and social and integration policy significance than just these two countries.



(1) A considerably higher proportion of young Muslims under the age of 25 are students than is the case for non-Muslims, 36 percent and 19 percent, respectively. D Blanchflower, New Statesman, February 2010. http://www.newstatesman.com/economy/2010/02/young-muslims-rate-labour 
(2) Author’s interview with senior QSTP official Doha, Qatar, November 2010.
(3) 13 percent of second generation British Muslim women are unemployed compared to only 4 percent of second generation Hindu and Sikh women, and 3 percent of White women. 18 percent of British Muslim women in work stated that they previously wore the hijab, and in one case the niqab and that when they did so they could not find work. Once they stopped wearing the hijab and niqab they all found employment. Z Bunglawala, Valuing Family, (4) Valuing Work: British Muslim Women and the Labour Market, Young Foundation, 2008. 
(5) Qatar has the highest GDP, per capita in the world and is a rentier state where the government redistributes hydro-carbon revenues to its national population largely through high public sector salaries, resulting in high public sector workforce concentration, Z Bunglawala 2012. England is a liberal democracy with a mixed economy where the labour market operates largely through the demand and supply allocation of skills.
(6) Organizations such as Qatar Careers Fair and Qatar Professional Women’s Network in Qatar, the Enlighten Project in England http://www.bolton.ac.uk/ResearchAndEnterprise/Projects/Enlighten.aspx http://www.injazalarab.org/en http://www.qatarcareerfair.com.qa/en/Main.aspx and http://www.qpwn.org/ organise career development events and outreach to young people, including Muslim women, to provide tailored courses and training to promote the benefits of education and employment help them gain key skills to support their career and entrepreneur-ship entry and progression. These organisations are culturally sensitive to the religious and family backgrounds of the young people they seek to help and are able to effectively engage, empower and support them.


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This article belongs to the Online Dossier Empowerment (German and English) from the Department Migration, Integration & Diversity Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

Empowerment has been understood as the increasing of political, social, economic and spiritual strength of communities or persons structurally disadvantaged through social constructs such as »Race«, religion, gender, sexuality, class, disability and age. The term »empowerment« arose into common political usage with the US-based civil rights movement in the second half of the 20th century. Similar to Positive Action, Empowerment is understood here as an approach aimed at strengthening subjects and communities who are deprived of equal opportunities, to exercise their rights and participate on all levels in society. Download as pdf (142 pages, 1.553 KB)