DAVID Cameron won widespread applause for his party conference speech in which he championed the need to promote social mobility as a means of overcoming discrimination and poverty.
He argued that Britain has amongst the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world; that too many people are ‘unable to rise from the bottom to the top, or even from the middle to the top, because of their background’.
The lack of social mobility in the United Kingdom today is not only a blight on the meritocratic ideals that underpin our society, it also wastes vast amounts of human potential, squanders our investment in education, damages social cohesion and contributes to the lack of productivity that presents such a persistence and dangerous economic challenge to the UK today.
This unfairness is felt acutely by the poor, by women and by ethnic and religious minorities. For no religious group is it felt more acutely than Britain’s Muslims.
Indeed, a new report by Demos, Rising to the Top, shows that Muslims are half as likely to hold a professional or managerial job as the average Briton, and are substantially more likely to be unemployed, or living in poverty.
It is remarkable that these problems are not discussed more frequently, and in more passionate terms, in our national discourse. After all, it’s not as if we don’t talk about British Muslims in other contexts – in particular, focusing on their social attitudes or commitment to ‘British Values’.
These conversations are important, but it is wrong that we afford disproportionate airtime to abstract conversations, while neglecting to confront the vast economic and social challenges facing British Muslim communities.
From a lack of valuable social capital to inadequate educational support, from disadvantages related to language, to those related to class, there are a lot of issues to talk about – if only we would.
One of the reasons these topics are avoided, of course, is the lack of Muslim voices in this conversation.
To this end, Rising to the Top focuses on the lived experiences of British Muslims, particularly the younger generations, to hear about these issues in their own words. Specifically, we talked to young ‘high-flyers’, struggling school leavers, employment services staff, business groups and local councils, to identify the specific barriers they face to accessing or progressing in good quality, professional jobs.
Some of these barriers are demographic, some are institutional – whether a lack of support and careers advice in the schooling system, or discrimination in hiring practices while others are more cultural such as an unwillingness amongst some Muslim parents to send particularly their daughters away from home to access opportunities, and the challenges Muslim professionals face in navigating a workplace social culture dominated by alcohol consumption.
Whether demographic, institutional or cultural, these obstacles to the top professions are complex, and ingrained. Some of these are also very difficult for policy to influence.
For example, British Muslims are more likely to be relatively recent migrants, often from poor countries, and as a demographic group, they have a much younger age profile. These are certainly factors behind their under-representation in the top jobs that need to be acknowledged.
Discrimination, a persistently cited factor in under-representation, also needs to be addressed in more innovative and intelligent ways – through things like contextual recruitment, which takes into account an applicant’s background, or blind interviewing, which ignores which school or university a candidate comes from.
Change also needs to come from within Muslim communities across the UK. This is particularly true when it comes to the topic of Muslim women and their economic participation – one of the major causes of the community’s overall under-performance.
Of all British Muslims with top jobs in the UK, only 40 per cent are women, the greatest gender imbalance of any religious group at this level. Muslim women are far more likely than the average Briton to be economically active in order to look after the family and the home.
There is no way around it: the commonly held familial and community attitudes towards women and the world of work need to be challenged; but this challenge can only come from within the Muslim community.
The Prime Minister wants to be remembered as a great social reformer. If he truly has the ambition and the will to drive social mobility in British society – he cannot achieve this without targeted and sustained focus on improving the economic prospects of our Muslim community.
Louis Reynolds is author of a report entitled Rising to the Top published by Demos, Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank.