Professor Sonia Ghumman from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Shidler College of Business and Professor Linda A Jackson from Michigan State University recently examined the expectations that women who wear hijabs have regarding their employment opportunities. Their findings, "The downside of religious attire: The Muslim headscarf and expectations of obtaining employment," has been published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour
When asked what made her take up the study, Ghumman sets the backdrop, "Given the recent political and social climate regarding discrimination against the hijab (the Muslim headscarf) in both America and Europe, the main goal of the study was to examine the expectations American women who wear the hijab (Hijabis) have regarding their employment opportunities. We surveyed 219 American Muslim women, asking them to report their expectations for receiving job offers from a variety of occupations.
"Hijabis are not only aware of their stigma of being Muslim, but also they expect to be differentially treated in the workplace as a result of this stigma. Specifically, Hijabis had lower expectations of receiving job offers than other Muslim women who did not wear the hijab. The amount of public contact required of the job moderated this relationship, such that Hijabis held even lower expectation for obtaining jobs that required high public contact (waitress), than jobs that required low public contact (technical writer). This suggests that Hijabis are aware that employers might find them more suitable for certain types of jobs over others. Qualitative responses from Hijabis reveal that employers consider suitable jobs to be those in which the visibility of Hijabis and their interactions with clients are kept at a minimum."
What made her take up this study in the first place? Surely there must have been a trigger factor? Ghumman replies, "Two things: my friends and the current social climate at the time. First, I had several Hijabi friends who had mentioned some incidences of workplace discrimination. Second, during the time of this research, France and several other European countries were in the process of proposing a ban against headscarves in the public arena. Given these reasons and because there had been no empirical studies conducted on this topic, I thought it was important to highlight the issues that Hijabis face."
And how does she herself react to the findings? Were those along expected lines? Ghumman says, "Having already heard of the negative experiences of some of my Hijabi friends, I was not that surprised to find that they had lower expectations for employment opportunities. I know several Hijabis who had not applied for certain jobs that I did, simply because they expected that their Hijab would be a deterring factor."
She continues, "I was, however, shocked that many women wear the Hijab not just for religious reasons, but for personal reasons. Although many Westerners view the Hijab as a symbol of subjugation of Muslim women, several Hijabis in our study reported that the hijab is a means to reject societal expectations of how women should dress and behave, and that to me is female empowerment. Additionally, many women actually started to wear the hijab or continued to wear the hijab after 9/11 despite all the negative implication to dispel myths which people might have about Hijabis."
When asked what the hijab meant to them as a Muslim and as an American, most responses reflected that as a Muslim, the hijab was an act of following God’s will, showing commitment to one's religion, and to show modesty and piousness. As an American, hijab was used to represent one’s identity as a Muslim woman, show individuality, serve as a form of freedom.
When the researchers asked why they chose to wear the hijab even after 9/11, when it might have posed a danger to do so or aroused suspicion from others, most Hijabis argued that their reason for continuing to wear the hijab post-9/11 was that regardless of the politics or current events going about. In fact, most voiced an opinion of how wearing the hijab and keeping it on became even more pertinent for them after 9/11; the primary reason being to dispel stereotypes about Muslims by being model citizens and to teach people that Islam is a peaceful religion.
But what do these findings mean in a socio-political context? Ghumman does a qualitative analysis, "These findings highlight several concerns for Muslim women who wear the headscarf. First, having low expectations might precipitate a self fulfilling prophecy in which Hijabis, not expecting to get job offers, may behave less confidently in employment interviews, which in turn will actually result in fewer job offers.
"Secondl, and an even more serious consequence, would be that Hijabis, having low expectations for employment opportunities, might not even apply for certain jobs or jobs altogether. This can lead to systematic group differences in the levels and types of aspirations and accomplishments of Hijabis. Additionally, this lack of representation of Hijabis in the American workforce might continue to perpetuate stereotypes that Americans already may have of Hijabis and prevent future understanding of this stigmatized group."
Was the sample size of 219 strong enough? Ghumman points out, "The study is based on an American sample, and with that comes the caveat that the findings reflect the experiences of the 'American Muslim woman'. Although the stigma of the hijab may be generalised to various locations, the actual experiences of Hijabis might differ depending on the legal factors in place (employment laws, discrimination policies, etc.). I think that is important to note when trying to generalise this study to a global sample."
Is there a next step? Ghumman says, "As a followup, my next study focuses on actual discrimination against Hijabis in the workplace. Because of the American laws protecting religious attire, it is hard to survey employers who would actually admit that they engage in discriminatory practices against Hijabis. Thus, for my next study, I am conducting a field experiment in which I have women confederates apply for work with or without a Hijab. I examine not only whether they experience discrimination but also what forms of discrimination (e.g. outright discrimination vs subtle)."