How are ethnic minority women getting on at work?

From breaking through glass ceilings and achieving equal pay to childcare and flexible working, the business, policy and societal environment in which women work has come under increasing scrutiny over the last few decades. But what about the differences between women themselves? Professor Yaojun Li from the ESRC Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) has been looking at how well women from an ethnic minority background are doing in the workplace compared with their white counterparts.

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British society is often said by observers to have a unique stability, but many important changes have been taking place in the last few decades. Large-scale immigration has changed the demographic landscape and more and more women have gone out to work. This has changed not only women’s class profiles but also the terms of competition for occupational attainment for men and women alike.

Social mobility research in Britain used to focus almost exclusively on men, but recently, much more attention has been paid to women. However, when it comes to women from an ethnic minority background, the picture has been rather sketchy.

This research looks at the upward and the downward mobility of minority ethnic women in different groups compared with white women from the early 1980s to the most recent time. We wanted to look at whether ethnic minority women suffer marked ethnic as well as gender penalties, whether there are changes over time or whether class trumps ethnicity in an overall manner.

Social progress

Existing data on the changing profiles of women’s employment and class situations provides evidence that women were over 4 times as likely to be workless as men (45% and 10% respectively) in 1972, but by 2012, the gender differences in the workless rates were reduced to around 5 or 6 percentage points.

Women’s increasing employment also changed their class positions and we see a consistent increase in lower-grade professional-managerial (salaried) and small-employer positions over that period. The fact that women are less likely than men to have a higher paid job clearly indicates gender inequality, but the overall changes in women’s employment and class positions would indicate social progress over the decades.

At the overall level, ethnic minority women are slightly more likely than white women to find themselves in a salaried job (34% and 30% respectively) and less likely to work in routine white-collar positions (clerical workers) possibly due to their lack of English proficiency. The proportions found in other class positions are fairly similar.

Looking more closely, we also see that women of higher salaried (professional and managerial) families from minority backgrounds are  more likely than their white peers to stay in such positions (19% and 14% respectively), and ethnic minority women from unskilled origins are less likely to stay in unskilled positions than white women.

Apart from this, we find a notably higher proportion of ethnic minority women from self-employed or farming origins who work in unskilled manual positions than do white women (40% and 28% respectively). Women from developing countries are much more likely to originate from agricultural backgrounds (17% in our data) than white women (8%).

The economic resources associated with the former are likely to be much smaller than those for the latter, and the migration processes tend to ‘devalue’ the original resources, pushing ethnic minority women from such families towards the bottom of the job ladder when they arrived in Britain.

Overall, ethnic minority compared with white women have significantly lower upward and higher downward social mobility. There is also a significantly higher rate of long-range upward as well as downward mobility, suggesting a greater polarisation among ethnic minority than among white women.

We examined data in two time periods,1982-1992 and 1995-2012 and found black Caribbean women doing very well in both, outperforming white women in upward mobility, whereas black African and Indian women fell behind.

This, of course, is related to their parents’ class positions. Black Caribbean women who came to Britain in the 1950s/60s in response to job advertisements on a voluntary basis were not particularly ‘positively selected’ in terms of family origins. Black African women tend, like their male counterparts, to be ‘students’ who stayed, hence from generally advantaged families.

Social mobility: who is doing well?

Therefore we need to look at the net effects. Viewed from this perspective, there is no difference between black Caribbean and white women in terms of overall upward mobility, but black African and Indian women suffered a significant ‘ethnic penalty’ in the first period. Black Caribbean women also fared very well in terms of long-range upward mobility, with large numbers of them filling positions in the NHS.

An interesting question is whether women from different ethnic groups advanced or suffered deterioration in their net mobility over the periods. Further analysis shows that in none of the comparisons were there any significant changes, although some notable increases in net upward, and decreases in net downward, mobility rates are discernible.

For instance, controlling for father’s class, nativity, education, age and age squared, we find, as compared with their white peers, black African and Indian women being 10.2 and 4.9 percentage points behind in upward mobility, and 16.8 and 7.1 points more in terms of downward mobility in the first period, and Pakistani/Bangladeshi women being 11 points more in downward mobility in the second period. These are very large differences attesting to grave ethnic penalties for the groups concerned.

Women compared with men

And what about ethnic men versus ethnic women when it comes to net upward and downward mobility? In the first period, Chinese men were doing significantly better than Chinese women in upward social mobility as compared with whites, and black Caribbean women were doing significantly better than their male peers in long-range upward mobility.

In the second period, black Caribbean women continued to out-perform their male counterparts, but Indian and Chinese men were still doing better than their female peers in terms of upward mobility. Indian men were also significantly less likely to be downwardly mobile than Indian women, relative to their white peers. With regard to long-range downward mobility, black African and Chinese women both fared better than their male peers.

Overall, ethnic men and women both faced greater downward mobility than whites, but ethnic women faced more difficulties in obtaining upward mobility as compared with their white peers. Black Caribbean women are found to have done equally well as white women in their net mobility trajectories.

Black African and Indian women in the first period and Pakistani-Bangladeshi women in the second period suffered marked and significant setbacks in avoiding downward mobility.

 Pakistani and Bangladeshi women

Around three quarters of Pakistani-Bangladeshi women are economically inactive.While the second generation are more likely to be in employment than the first generation, the rates are still much behind those of the other ethnic minority groups.

This greater inactivity may have many reasons, ranging from cultural norms for women to stay at home and look after children, family size, multi-generational households, health issues, to ‘chill factors’ and discrimination in the workplaces which may have discouraged the women in question and made them opt out (not applying for jobs).

Disengagement from gainful employment would, for most people, mean less family income. Recent research by the present author in collaboration with Professor Heath has shown that 57% of Pakistanis and 46% of Bangladeshis are in poverty. A major issue for policy making is therefore to design family- and work- friendly work environments so as to try to bring Pakistani and Bangladeshi women into the labour market.

In terms of social policy, helping them find a job (at least for those among them who wish to have one) is as important as helping their career progress.

Further information

The research used data from the British Household Panel Survey, Understanding Society and the General Household Survey.


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