On average, Muslim women work for pay less than other women around the world, but until recently, we did not know if this was also true in the United States. A study I published recently answers this question and digs into which Muslim women might be less engaged in paid work outside the home and why. I find that only visibly Muslim women, those who wear the hijab, have significantly lower employment than non-Muslim women.
Why should we care about Muslim women’s employment?
Demographers, sociologists, and economists track women’s employment, because participation in the labor force has been linked to women’s empowerment both individually and across societies. Paid work may have many downsides—especially when juggled with a disproportionate amount of care work—but in capitalist economies, it is a key component of financial independence, which has been shown to impact wellbeing. As a result, we often think of women’s employment as an indicator not just of women’s individual outcomes, but also of overall gender inequality in a society. For example, Paula England argues that the plateau in women’s entry into the labor force in the United States in the 1990s and 2010s is evidence that the gender revolution has stalled.
Similarly, the fact that Muslim women work less than other women around the world has been seen as one of several signs that the Muslim world has particularly high levels of gender inequality. A debate has raged among scholars over the last decade about whether this inequality is inherent to Islam or an accident of the histories and structures of societies that happen to have many Muslims. That debate makes the experiences of Muslim women in the US even more interesting. American Muslim women come from all over the world and experience the opportunities (and constraints) of the U.S. job market. Studying Muslim women in the U.S. can help us to understand whether there is actually an “Islam effect” or whether the other features of predominantly Muslim societies happen to lead to low labor force participation among women.
Most studies of American Muslims have been qualitative or have focused on specific ethnic subsets. That work has suggested that Muslim women may value homemaking over paid employment, despite having high levels of education. This study is the first, to my knowledge, that explicitly compares American Muslim women to other women, using data that span across ethnicities, religions, regions and age groups.
How does wearing the Hijab impact employment?
After pooling a survey of Muslim Americans with a survey of the general public, I divide women into the following religious groups: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and No Religious Affiliation. The employment rate across the non-Muslim groups is 72%, whereas for Muslims it’s 56%. So Muslim women are, indeed, the least employed of the religious groups in the U.S.
But once Muslim women are divided by whether or not they veil (or wear the hijab), a different story emerges. The hijab, a veil over one’s head usually coupled with loose, long clothing is worn by about 40% of Muslim women in the United States. I find that actually the low employment is entirely driven by the women who wear hijab (Hijabis). That is, non-veiling Muslim women (non-Hijabis) are just as likely to work outside the home as non-Muslim women. While over two-thirds of uncovered Muslim women are employed, almost two thirds of Hijabis are not.
Why are Hijabis the least employed?
Hijabis are pretty different both from non-Hijabis and from non-Muslim women—they are younger, more likely to be Middle Eastern or Black (as opposed to South Asian, Other or White); they are less likely to have done their survey interviews in English, a bit more likely to be married and much more likely to have children. But do these differences explain why Hijabis are less employed?
To answer that question, I divided potential explanations into five subsets—demographics (age and ethnicity), migration history (generation in the US, citizenship), human capital (education, language of interview), household composition (marital status, number of children).
By adding these controls incrementally, we could see how much of the hijab effect (the gap in employment between those who do and do not veil, which is 31 percentage points) they explain.
Demographic variables (age and ethnicity) accounted for about 13% of the gap, human capital variables (education, language of interview) accounted for another 16%, and finally, household accounted for 6%. After all the controls are added, the gap between Hijabis and non-Hijabis goes from 31% to 20%. This means about two thirds of the difference in employment is unexplained by any of the control variables.
Two remaining explanations exist, but the data don’t allow us to test for them. One possibility is that women who wear the hijab could be seeking employment and failing to find it because of employer discrimination. Indeed, recent resume studies have shown that indicating you are a Muslim on your resume results in much lower call-back rates from potential employers. Wearing the veil makes one especially visible as a Muslim, so it stands to reason that this would translate into lower job market outcomes. Another possibility is that women who anticipate discrimination for wearing the hijab when seeking employment may opt out of wearing it—that would also drive the results we observe.
While we cannot know for sure what is driving hijab-wearing women out of the labor force, it is clear that veiling is yet another axis of inequality within the American labor market.
Eman Abdelhadi. “Hijab and Muslim Women’s Employment in the United States.” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 2019.
Image: Lyncconf Games via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)