Schools can be instrumental in addressing the discrepancy in the number of Muslim girls in the world of work, says Mehwash Kauser
A report published in 2015 by the Muslim Council of Britain concluded that only 29 per cent of Muslim women aged between 16 and 24 are in employment, compared with 50 per cent of the same age group in the general population.
The barriers are many: cultural expectations, parental ambitions for “doctors and lawyers” leading to other options being disparaged (the reality for many of the girls my school serves) to geographic limitations when applying for jobs or promotions.
Many Muslim girls also are not accustomed to seeing their mum, sister or aunt in the workplace; this leads to it being regarded as “other”, an unfamiliar world where the norms and values are inaccessible and alien. However, school leaders can intervene to cultivate familiarity, comfort and a sense of belonging.
What happened to work experience?
All year 10 students at my school take part in a week-long placement in which they are expected to adhere to professional expectations, from planning a journey to and from work to demonstrating initiative and developing key communication skills. I cannot stress the importance of Muslim girls being in the workplace, and learning that it is a place that they belong in; work experience empowers and builds confidence and readiness to work.
How are you conducting careers interviews?
These are a key opportunity to discuss the early stages of career development. Every student at our school has an interview with an information guidance officer, during which she designs a career plan, mapping out not only post-16 and higher education or vocational courses, but also where the students sees herself in five to seven years. Students who have expectations of becoming “doctors or lawyers”, but not the grades to achieve this, need clear direct guidance before they become disengaged and discouraged.
Are you preparing them enough?
The “Building my Skills” course, taken by all of year 12, is designed to introduce students to careers in engineering and construction; all students who take a level 3 course take part in mock interviews with university admissions tutors; every student has to complete a UCAS application and a personal statement meaning no one is left without the knowledge of how to access higher education.
What is enough?
School leaders face an additional, difficult amnesty decision: when have they done enough?
Our students are predominantly bright, diligent, intelligent young Pakistani Muslim women. However, they do face certain cultural barriers that must be navigated sensitively. This does not mean they must not be challenged.
An example: we decided to call the provost of a Russell Group university to explain that one student’s family had removed all financial support unless she attended the local university.
This is the kind of moment where senior leaders will have to pause and question whether they allow this student’s potential to stagnate or if they support their student in achieving her ambitions.
Following contact from the academy, the student was accepted with financial assistance, thus bypassing the need for financial support from her family. She is now reading chemical engineering at a world-class university and has spent a year in industry in Switzerland.
This is a Muslim woman who will be a force to reckon with, wherever she chooses to work, and shows what is possible when school leaders decide Muslim girls are worth investing in.
Our school expects all our students to move on to higher education, an apprenticeship, employment or training; we expect that they will contribute to their communities; we expect that they will be successful. The fact that they are Muslim girls comes second.
If we are to impact Muslim girls’ place in tomorrow’s workplace, we need to be fearless, to be relentless; to push; challenge and question; to expect more. And to watch Muslim women deliver.
Mehwash Kauser is an English teacher at Belle Vue Girls’ Academy in Bradford