Ethnic minority women are triply disadvantaged by class, gender and ethnicity

Women have long been considered the inferior half of the species to men and this has been reflected in all areas of society. In the workplace, women have been generally confined to low skilled, low paid work and are crowded in a limited number of occupations, known as ‘women’s work’. There has been an ongoing struggle against patriarchy for women, which now has been largely improved with the rise of feminism and political reform. Women are now present in more managerial and professional occupations than they were and the gender pay gap is closing.

However, for ethnic minority women the story has been different. Many ethnic minority women feel that their struggle has been excluded from feminist writings and that their situation has got no better in the thirty years from 1950. Brown and Gay (1985) showed that despite laws making racial discrimination illegal in employment, ‘racial discrimination has indeed continued to have a great impact on the employment opportunities of black people’ (p. 30). Indeed, Skellington (1996) argues that racism can account for most of the unemployment discrepancies for black people.

In the 1950s and 1960s, migrants came to Britain to find employment. Until 1962, there were no restrictions on people from the commonwealth entering the country and many were pulled here to meet the needs of the expanding economy. After the Second World War, industry was growing rapidly and the public services were expanding, creating jobs that could not be filled by the existing population. However, the jobs that were open to the migrant workers tended to be the low paid jobs, left behind by white workers who had moved into better occupations.

Many migrants found themselves working for the public sector, for wages far below those in the private sector, and in the industrial sector, with very long, often unsociable hours. Many of the black women who migrated to Britain were nurses hoping for professional advancement or young women who wished to train in nursing. However, the migrants who entered Britain were not prepares for the racist attitudes that had been entrenched into Britons for centuries. Racist ideology argued that the world was divided up into distinct races, with some superior to others, but only those with white skin were capable of intelligent thought.

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These ‘scientific facts’ were not dispelled until the twentieth century, by which time they part of British culture. The arrival of black men and women in Britain was met within a particular context; as an inferior ‘race’ in the Empire who in the past had supplied slave labour for the enrichment of the metropolitan society (Miles and Phizacklea, 1987). It was this racist attitude that served to keep the incoming migrants from better jobs. Black women who came to Britain to be part of the National Health Service were unaware of the racism that prevailed to keep them from advancing within the system.

Many of the black women who arrived to train as nurses would only become State Enrolled Nurses (SENs), a lower status nurse than a State Registered Nurse (SRN). Mainly only black women and working class women became SENs, creating a racial and class divide within the nursing profession. SENs are unable to rise into the managerial structure and work for a lower wage. Bryan et al. (1985) write ‘over the past thirty years, the NHS has got – and is getting still – a huge, captive, low waged black women’s labour force’ (p. 41). It is not just in the NHS, however, that racism has affected black women’s employment.

The 1982 Policy Studies Institute (PSI) study revealed that Asian and Afro-Caribbean women are confined to the same jobs that their mothers had on entry to Britain and so the situation for these women had not improved at all in thirty years. In addition, their unemployment rate in 1982 was nearly twice that of white women’s, a point I will return to later in this essay. Brown (1984) concludes, ‘the processes of direct and indirect racial discrimination in employment operate as if to recognise the legitimacy of recruitment of black workers to some jobs but their exclusion from others’ (p. 16). The 1982 PSI study revealed that the median wage of black women is actually higher than that of white women. Brown writes ‘on average, white men earn substantially more than black men, whereas there is little difference in the case of women’ (p. 167). However, this view has been met with much opposition, particularly from Breugel (1989). Colin Brown found black women to earn an average of i?? 78. 50 a week in 1983 compared to i?? 77. 50 by white women. Breugel dismissed these findings for a number of reasons.

Firstly, she argued that black women only appeared to be earning more because the extremely low paid work is under-reported, causing an upward bias. Secondly, Brown took the gross earnings of full time employees but did not consider the number of hours worked. On average, black women work longer hours, causing their hourly wage to actually be lower than that of a white woman. Thirdly, black women are concentrated mainly in London where the average wage is higher, again upwardly distorting the figure.

Finally, black women have a younger and therefore better qualified age profile, so the highest paid black women are being measured against all white women, distorting the facts. Brown’s work also distinguished between full and part time work. The 1982 PSI study found that 44% of white women worked part time against 29% of Afro-Caribbeans and 16% of Asian women. The Greater London Council London Labour Plan (1986) found that ‘black women are much more likely to bring in a second wage, and to work full time, partly because black men are also trapped in low status jobs. p. 114). This is supported by Westwood (1988) who argues that the harsh economic realities of life in Britain where male black workers and migrants are usually offered low-paid work make household survival impossible. One income is not sufficient for the household so women’s wages are often essential.

White women with part time jobs tend to have childcare responsibilities but this ‘double burden’ does not apply to black women and according to Breudel ‘suggests that we need to rethink the ‘domestic responsibilities’ model of women’s position in the labour market’ (p. 8). Part time work is generally viewed as the result of the constraints put upon women by motherhood. Working part time gives women (unpaid) time for housework and childcare. In contrast, black women, particularly West Indian women, are constrained to working full time as a result of the racial discrimination that causes their household income to be lower. Returning to the case of unemployment, it is a fact that in Britain today, black women are far more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts.

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that unemployment rates for black women with qualifications are over twice the rate for qualified white women of every age group. Many explanations have been offered to legitimise this gap in unemployment figures but many writers attribute it to racial discrimination. Explanations that have been given to account for the higher unemployment rates of the black population in general are: * The black population lacks skills and qualifications. * Black workers are concentrated in particular regions of Britain. * The last-in, first-out rule of redundancies. Black workers are concentrated in particular occupations such as industry which is very susceptible to a down-turn in the economy. However, Baht et al. (1988) have a counter argument for each of the above explanations, bringing the discrepancy in unemployment rates back to a product of racial discrimination. Baht and Carr-Hill dispute the fact that black women are less qualified than white. Many of the original migrants who came to the country were very overqualified for the jobs that they took and according to the LFS, there is no difference in the proportion of black and white women with higher qualifications.

In 1988, the Dept. of Employment found this figure to be 12% for both black and white women. The argument that more black workers are made redundant during a recession as a result of them concentrating in particular areas has also been quashed by critics. Most of the black population live in London and the south-east, the areas least affected by the recession. Breugel also disputes the use of the last in, first-out rule of redundancy as an explanation for the unequal unemployment of black women.

She argues that many first-generation black migrant workers have been working for the same employer for twenty to thirty years, a period much longer than many white workers. The final reason that has been offered to account for black unemployment is, according to Breugel, the only one with some degree of truth. ‘Since manufacturing is the sector most in decline it is not surprising to find that black women have experienced far more unemployment than white’ (p. 60). Asian women are also particularly vulnerable to unemployment as many of them work in the recession-hit textile and clothing industries.

Black women’s occupational choice could, therefore, provide a legitimate explanation of their high unemployment but I have shown that their occupations are not so much a choice. The jobs that ethnic minority women hold are the less desirable jobs that racial discrimination pushes onto them. Brown argues that the evidence shows that unemployment rates are related to occupational inequality. Indeed, there are significantly fewer ethnic minority workers in professional and managerial position. 19% of white workers are in such positions compared with only 5% of West Indians, 11% of Indians and 10% of Pakistanis.

West Indian women are least likely to occupy a professional or managerial role with only 1% being in such a position in 1974. Brown concludes that differences were very wide at this time and there was little change in the ten years following. There is also much evidence to suggest that the ethnic minority workers who are in managerial positions are there from their own entrepreneurial skills, with many more ethnic minority workers being self employed than white workers. With most ethnic minority workers concentrated in unskilled, low paid labour it follows that this group will be the first to be made unemployed during a recession.

However, the reasons for these women being in this occupational group are unjustified, indicating that race is the distinguishing factor. According to Breugel, ‘for black women, direct discrimination appears to be conflated by their concentration in manual work and their consequential greater risk of unemployment’ (p. 62). To explain, some of the higher unemployment among black women can be explained by their concentration in particular industries but a proportion of the discrepancy can be attributed to racial discrimination in the labour market.

The position of black women, of Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent, in Britain today is a vary challenging one. They experience racial and sexual oppression as part of everyday life. According to Westwood, these are not two sides of the same coin but are analytically distinct. Marxists argue that since black women enter the labour market and exchange gendered labour power for wages, they are part of the working class as a whole.

However, Phizacklea (1988) argues that black women are also entering a racialised employment structure and are therefore also part of a ‘class fraction’ within the working class. Rex and Tomlinson (1979) see black women as forming a black ‘underclass’. It can therefore be argued that class also contributes to disadvantage ethnic minority women in the labour market. However, there is a growing middle class black population that no longer has being part of the working class as an obstacle. Despite this, racism and sexism still effects their promotion opportunities.

In conclusion, it can be seen that ethnic minority women are triply disadvantaged by race, gender and ethnicity since many of them are confined to the working class. However, I would argue that racial and sexual oppression are the more important factors as these still exist without the presence of class oppression. Ethnic minority women have all the same obstacles as white women with regards to lower pay and lower status jobs but they also have to contend with the issues of racial discrimination that further limit their occupational choices and subsequent pay.