Bridging the social mobility gap

The next Labour government must tear down the barriers to social mobility that young Muslims living in the United Kingdom face, argues Bilal Mahmood

The Social Mobility Commission has reported that young Muslims living in the United Kingdom face an enormous challenge in reaching their full potential at every stage of their lives. Despite growing trends of academic achievement and personal ambition, young Muslims feel like unwelcome outsiders that are discriminated against in the working world. At the same time, many elements of Muslim communities exert pressure on young people (particularly women) to forego careers for the sake of ‘looking after the family’. This double-edged sword takes away some of the most important tools when developing social mobility – a sense of empowerment and belonging.

As an aspirational society, we are failing these young people by not providing opportunities and tackling all forms of discrimination. We also lack a comprehensive, honest and positive engagement with some parts of the Muslim community to provide these young people various role models. It is the Labour party’s duty to focus its policy and attention to such endeavours.

The report highlights a number of reasons for the social immobility of young Muslims. Nearly half grow up in the poorest areas of the UK, meaning that access to resources and progression to higher education is the exception rather than the rule for many. This is particularly frustrating given that previous studies have found that young Muslims are achieving more in schools, but are stifled when it comes to progression. The key to solving this are policies to narrow the inequality gap around the country; by ensuring that investment is made into local schools and infrastructure.

When they reach the workplace, many young people feel misunderstood or discriminated against in recruitment processes or career development. Their parents’ generation would have faced outright racism when looking for similar jobs, which has left them cynical of the system. I remember being told by family members I would never make it to an international law firm. I would be better focusing on immigration and criminal law as we would know lots of clients locally who would need my help. Plus, law firms in the City will not understand how tired I would be when fasting. It is this environment that inhibits a young person’s ambition and imposes self-limiting choices: if the system is against you and you do not belong, why bother?

To address this, legislation that aggressively tackling all forms of Islamophobia and workplace discrimination and protects workers’ rights is vital. It is also important to campaign to encourage business bodies to increase awareness around cultural competency and religious literacy within the workplace. But just as importantly, we have to understand that a community that has often tried to engage, but had been discriminated against. Consequently, many became detached and cynical, reverting inwards to a more familiar but increasingly isolated community. A Labour government needs to make those young people feel not just welcome, but wanted.

Above all else, the young Muslims who took part in the study felt they had to make a false choice: get ahead in their profession by hiding their faith, or look inwards to their cultural community. They feel to succeed (either in work or at home) they have to deny part of their identity. This is the most disappointing of the findings, but unsurprising. If young Muslims feel they have to give up one part of themselves to succeed in any way, we are failing them. Tackling this needs nuanced and complex solutions: one that highlights and encourages role models in the community, engaging young people and their parents, mentoring schemes for a range of careers (from the traditional professions to creative arts) and pilot programmes from the Department for Education on career strategies that challenge stereotypical assumptions. For many years, I worked with Mosaic (a Prince’s Trust charity) that ran mentoring programmes for both students and parents from largely Muslim backgrounds. The programme helped the mentees find their voice, connected many parents back into wider society, but also gave the (largely Muslim) mentors a sense of inclusiveness and bridging a gap. Programmes like Mosaic are a step in the right direction to fulfil the Social Mobility promise.

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Bilal Mahmood is the former parliamentary candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green. He tweets at @bilal_labour

You can read the Social Mobility Commission’s report into the barriers to social mobility that young Muslims face here

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