Women in business

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The Independent Online

If you find yourself as a women having a tough time in business, you certainly won't be alone. Statistically women are still professionally disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts, with lower salaries and less chances of promotion. But for black and Asian women this difficulty can become a "double-whammy" according to recent findings by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

The EOC have released figures which show that despite the high ambitions of young afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, these expectations are not realised in the workplace. "According to the new research, young Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black-Caribbean women are almost three to four times more likely than white women to take a job at a lower level than the one they are qualified for," says a spokesperson from the EOC. "And of those seeking work, young Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are between three and four times, and Black Caribbean women two times, more likely to be unemployed than white women. For graduates the figures are worse still - Pakistani and Bangladeshi women graduates are around five times more likely, and Black Caribbean women graduates almost three times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts."

Not only are black and minority ethnic (BME) women statistically disadvantaged in pay and employment, they're disadvantaged in the type of work they're going into as well. BME women are disproportionately employed in the "four Cs" of traditionally low-paid and lower-skilled jobs - catering, care work, childcare and clerical. This kind of work tends to come bottom of the income bracket, and is less likely to offer the chance to gain accredited qualifications associated with higher earning jobs.

Lack of stability in the workplace is also an issue. "Black and Asian women are more likely to be working in temporary, less secure forms of employment than white women," says Liz Chinchen, TUC spokesperson. "Official statistics show that 9.4 per cent of black women and 8.3 per cent of Asian women, compared to just 5.7 per cent of white women, are on fixed term contracts or working as temps with an employment agency."

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, feels the research is a damning indictment of discrimination in the workplace: "Although black and Asian women have come a long way at work, employer attitudes and prejudices are still holding them back," says Barber. "Faced with a double-whammy of discrimination because of their gender and their colour, it's no small wonder that true equality at work is still some years away."

So what can be done to redress the balance? The TUC believes that greater access to training, childcare facilities, as well as dedicated time from union reps to specifically address the issue in their workplaces. Other groups argue that making young BME women aware of the opportunities available to them, and providing positive role models is a vital step.

Jessica Huie is the force behind ColorBlind Cards, a greeting cards company manufacturing products depicting black, mixed race, and Asian children. As a young mixed race women herself, Jess feels the lack of representation of ethnic groups can have a profound effect on children. "As a frizzy haired child growing up, I desperately wanted to look like Barbie," says Huie. "And I wonder if part of this was down to a lack of aspirational images I could relate to. As a mixed race mother of a black child, I found it impossible to find a greeting card which depicted beautiful black, mixed race or Asian children. In today's multicultural society it is imperative that all children have access to images which represent them and help instil self confidence and self worth."

Another important factor currently being addressed by the EOC is the sheer complexity of the issue. Young ethnic women are by no means a homogenous group, and the tendency of research to report on them as such can be confusing and even damaging. The experiences of a Chinese women growing up in London, for example, can hardly be compared with the experiences of a young Pakistani women in Bradford. In order to properly address the needs and concerns of these different groups, it is vital that the various issues are treated with the complexity by which they are characterised.

And despite another apparently negative round of research, things really are changing for the better for black and minority ethnic women. "There are some really good support networks out there, and the evidence suggests that this is a very entrepreneurial group," says Tania Salahuddin, who is the BME enterprise campaigner for the government-led Make Your Mark campaign. "I think people's expectations and ambitions are changing for the better and we need to work to supply positive role models."

The old-stereotypes of care work and public sector roles are changing too, as increasing numbers of BME women break into diverse employment fields from landscape gardening to law. "Young women must not be dismayed by the statistics out there," says Ranjit Dhindsa, partner in the employment team at Reed Smith "The business world is much more international than ever before. You have more of an advantage than you think, and there's a place for everyone at the party!"