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Culture shift required to help ethnic minority women in the workplace

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The Equal Opportunities Commission has released the final findings of its two-year investigation into the employment opportunities for black and Asian women – and it’s calling for a fundamental cultural shift in the way they are treated at work.

Moving on Up: Ethnic Minority Women at Work, the largest investigation of its kind in Great Britain, has established that Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean women face significantly greater penalties than white women in the workplace.

Those who want to work are finding it more difficult to get jobs, progress within them and are more likely to be segregated into certain types of work, despite leaving school with the same career aspirations as white girls and similar or better qualifications than white boys.

In areas with above average numbers of black and Asian women participating in the local labour market, the research found are entirely absent from 30 per cent of workplaces and under-represented in almost 60 per cent of workplaces.

The EOC’s report suggests it’s not too late to set the country on a different course: 28 per cent of employers surveyed said they intended to introduce steps to improve the recruitment and progression of black and Asian women. However, the same percentage said they were unsure what action to take.

According to the EOC, the key to solving the issue is ‘cultural intelligence’ – the awareness, understanding and confidence to communicate and relate positively to people from different cultural backgrounds, to get the best from them at work and design policy that meets their needs.

The EOC warns that cultural intelligence is absolutely crucial if Britain is to avoid paying a high economic and social price. Between 2001 and 2020, ethnic minority people are expected to account for over 70 per cent of the growth in the UK population aged 16-59.

With Britain’s employers facing skills shortages, it is crucial to tap into a growing and increasingly well-qualified pool of young Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean women’s talent to maintain economic growth.

EOC chairman Jenny Watson said: “Young Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean women are ambitious and equipped for work. But they are still suffering even greater penalties at work than white women.

“Time after time women told us about the ‘unwritten rules’ in their workplace, hidden barriers that prevent them from realising these ambitions. Without tackling these unwritten rules, change will never come.

“Our investigation has pointed to practical solutions, suggested by employers, that can contribute to more cultural intelligence in Britain’s increasingly diverse workplaces. Multi-national companies have been applying this concept for many years in order to help them win contracts and compete in different cultural contexts.

“Government policy also needs to meet the needs of a new generation of ethnic minority women. Rather than focusing on young women themselves gaining additional skills, or tackling a resistance to women from some communities working outside the home, our investigation suggests that better careers advice at school and into adulthood, more work experience choices, and help with childcare costs for larger families would be of the most practical benefit.”

Communities secretary Ruth Kelly said: “I welcome the EOC’s report, which represents a significant contribution to the debate on how we promote cultural change and real equality of opportunity.

“For black and Asian women, the workplace is a complex story of ambition, skills and achievement on one hand and missed opportunity on the other. Not only does this mean disappointment for individuals, it makes us less competitive.”

CBI deputy director-general John Cridland added: “The EOC’s report sets out the complex social and cultural challenges that need to be addressed to bring more ethnic minority women in the workplace. It shows how equality and diversity issues need to be addressed in the round rather than dealt with in a piecemeal way.

“Employers will welcome the examples of good practice highlighted by the EOC’s investigation, on which others can draw. As the report says, employers are keen to employ more women from ethnic minorities but better guidance is needed to support them.”

The full report and advice on initiatives that can bring about change can be found on the EOC’s website

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