Struggling to fit in

Tuesday 16 March 2004

Ethnic minority women are forced to dress in a certain way to “fit in” at work, according to Scots management experts.

Dr Anne Fearfull of the University of St Andrews and Dr Nicolina Kamenou of Heriot-Watt University explored the workplace experiences of a range of staff in a range of different organisations. They found evidence of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities in the UK and, in particular, increased prejudice and attacks amongst Asian, Muslim women after 11 September 2001.

The authors argue that organisations the length and breadth of Britain need to remove prejudicial practices and recognise the informal processes of institutional racism existing within their businesses.

The research focuses on the issues of personal appearance and associated religious and ethnic codes. Kamenou and Fearfull found that employees had to dress in a certain way and engage in particular activities to be fully accepted as “committed” employees. For example, wearing traditional Muslim dress led to women involved in the study being perceived as passive, fundamentalist, less- professional and less committed to work. Pakistani Muslim women said they were not perceived as “career women”, regardless of their performance within the organisation.

Some opt for more western dress to overcome this but, even then, discrimination continued in some cases and the women also faced conflicts within their own identity through presenting themselves differently at work/home. If they did not, they risked cutting themselves off from their communities.

Anne Fearfull said, “The majority of individuals we came across are living in two worlds, each with different sets of expectations. In the “white” world at work, they are expected to strive for success and be assertive – regardless of their religion, culture or ethnicity. On the other hand, they go home where they are expected to take care of their families, often look after elderly relatives and are taught to be respectful. By downplaying their cultural identity to fit in, they are enveloped in bi-cultural stress.”

Nicolina Kamenou said, “We would agree that progress has been made to some extent but organisations still need to recognise the different needs that different ethnic/cultural/religious groups may have and respect them. They should accommodate them, rather than see them as a problem. They should also better utilise their resources, especially in view of changing demographics, the new Framework EC Directive which came into effect in 2003 and which includes religion and religious belief and existing UK legislation, and the business case for diversity.”

The research, which looked at the way men and women present themselves, is part of Kamenou and Fearfull’s broader research project looking at career experiences and opportunities – specifically, the struggles of ethnic minority men and women in being accepted and succeeding in mainstream organisations.

Access was granted in a large retail organisation and a health trust, both based in the North of England. A number of interviews were also conducted with an ‘independent’ sample of ethnic minority men and women where negotiation to interview was between the researcher and the individual and no formal access was gained in their organisations. The positions of the independent sample include a health officer, lawyer and chief executive of a housing organisation. These interviews were also conducted in the North of England, mainly Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham, with the exception of one in London.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or cg24@st-; Dr Anne Fearfull – 01334 462875 Dr Nicolina Kamenou – 0131 4513849 Ref: press releases/ethnic View the latest University news at

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