The Green Paper on the Integration of Women

The Green Paper on the Integration of Women

Sara R. Farris

In this article I want to concentrate on the passages in the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper that specifically refer to the integration of ethnic minority women and young girls. The goal of eliminating barriers to full gender inclusion is repeatedly mentioned as one of the primary objectives of the government’s new approach to integration. But what are the specific barriers identified that hold women and young girls back from integrating in British society? The Green Paper mentions four in particular: (1) Poor mastery of the English language; (2) poor participation in the labour market; (3) “negative” cultural norms that oppress women and (4) forced marriages and lack of clarity concerning marriage norms in the UK.

These four “barriers” to integration are considered particularly acute among women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity, who are often the women mentioned in empirical studies and statistics as less integrated compared to women from other backgrounds.

But let’s see how the Green Paper proposes to tackle the difficulties of integrating these women. Concerning language barriers, the Green Paper proposes to extend to other parts of the country the experience of the community-based English language programme, which had been trialed in 2016 and obtained good results. The idea is to launch a new programme along the same lines, particularly in those areas in which there is a high concentration of people with an insufficient proficiency in English. While it is impossible to assess the impact of the new programme, as it is still in the future tense and it will depend on how it will be implemented, concern has been expressed over the Government’s approach towards one of the key initiatives delivering English courses for ethnic minorities: i.e., the Adult Education Budget.

Recently, the Government decided to devolve responsibility for the Adult Education Budget to eight Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) and the Greater London Authority (GLA). The Adult Education Budget is one of the most important providers of English classes for ethnic minorities. While the devolution route was justified on the basis of the benefits that might derive from the possibility of tailoring these programmes according to local needs, combined authorities at the receiving end fear that the funding for the transition period will be inadequate and the timescales for the handing over of powers too challenging. Furthermore, as Maya Goodfellow reports in her article in this issue, government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in England registered a 60% drop since 2010.

The second major obstacle to the integration of ethnic minority women identified by the Green Paper is their low rates of activity in the labour market. To provide evidence for this point the document resorts, among others, to a study on the “individual attitudes” of women of different origins towards gender roles and work.[1] In other words, although the reasons for ethnic minority women’s low levels of participation in the labour market are not entirely clarified, the document seems to suggest that their own, subjective attitudes – which might derive from their cultural backgrounds – coupled with their poor English proficiency, are responsible for holding them back from actively seeking a job. The solutions identified are rather vague – amounting to the idea that “diagnosing an individual customer’s barriers to employment and providing a tailored approach” is better than working on more structural programmes (p. 52) – and thereby reflect the philosophy that the lack of integration in the labour market is fundamentally an individual problem which is rooted in a negative individual attitude towards work.

It is interesting here to note that the Green Paper does not mention a document that had been made available in October 2017 by the Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust on ‘The Impact of Austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic Women in the UK’. According to this study – which relies on both statistical data as well as qualitative interviews – the hindrances to the economic participation of ethnic minority women are above all systemic and structural. First, ethnic minority women tend to belong to the poorest segment of British society. In the case of mothers, the prohibitive costs of childcare for preschool age children and the misrecognition by the Sanctions Regime of their caring responsibilities as “work” mean that these women either have little time or cannot afford to actively seek for a job. Second, discrimination in the labour market has been widely demonstrated to be a major problem for ethnic minority women. Studies show that employers still tend to prefer white workers or “British” sounding names to ethnic minorities, particularly for the most qualified jobs.[2] Third, ethnic minority women tend to be concentrated in the “health and social care” niche of the labour market and in the worse paying jobs, which also tend to be more precarious. A serious and equitable approach to the economic integration of ethnic minority women must address the high costs of childcare in England (the highest in the world according to the OECD), the levels of discrimination to which they are subjected (which are exacerbated by the xenophobic climate the Government has fueled) and the fact that it is not enough to improve access to the labour market if the jobs that are available are badly paid and precarious. The whole labour market organization should be changed, starting from the drastic improvement of wages, workers’ rights and conditions.

I will consider the third and fourth aforementioned barriers together as they fundamentally point to the same problem: the unequal treatment of ethnic minority women and forms of oppression in marriage that can derive from these women’s cultural/ethnic heritage. The Green Paper proposes to “empower marginalized women” by improving understanding “of the ways in which overseas influences can undermine attitudes to rights and freedoms in the UK” and “exploring reform of the law on marriage and religious weddings” (p. 15). While these proposals are still indefinite, what is clear is that those ethnic minority women (and women more generally) who are subject to abuse and domestic violence will find it harder to seek help in a context in which almost 20% of domestic violence refuges have been closed since 2010 following the budget cuts.

As Julie Cooper reported to the House of Commons in 2016: “Thirty-two of the domestic violence services that have closed since 2010 were specialist services for black and minority ethnic women. The closure of these services is dangerous for all women, particularly those who rely on specialist domestic violence services, such as women of colour or trans women”. The fight against misogyny and women’s oppression within ethnic minority communities cannot be based on an ethnicised (and ultimately stereotypical) understanding of gender inequality as a “cultural” problem. It is vital to provide victims of gender oppression and violence with the infrastructures that enable them to subtract themselves from these situations.

Overall, the Green Paper’s approach to the integration of ethnic minority women (and to the integration of ethnic minorities and migrants more generally) reflects the wider approach developed at the EU level since the mid 2000s. Integration is increasingly casted as a “duty” and a certifiable “result” (rather than an opportunity and a process) that foreigners must achieve in order to demonstrate their good will to be part of their “hosting” societies. In other words, even though integration is called a two-way process that involves and engages the hosting society and institutions just as much as the migrants and ethnic minorities themselves, integration policies in reality emphasise the subjective resolve of individuals from ethnic minorities.[3] Accordingly, if what is deemed to be integration is not achieved, ultimately it is their fault, while the wider structural impediments that prevent ethnic minorities and migrants from being included in society are not really taken into account. However, it is precisely those structural problems – the racist biases present in the labour and housing markets, the neoliberal cuts to vital social services and language courses, the absence of public and free facilities for the care of children and the elderly – that make the process of integration particularly difficult for ethnic minority men and women.

Women have been put increasingly at the center of integration policies in recent years all across the continent. Not only are women the mothers of the future generations, and thereby key to the inclusion and “acculturation” of the whole family and community, but they are also increasingly key potential or actual workers in the growing social care and health sector. It is thus not surprising that so much emphasis is put on their integration. The barriers to integration, however, are seldom of an “individual” nature: they speak of the material obstacles, prejudices and inequalities that are present in our societies. Any proposal that does not confront the challenge of integration at this structural level is fundamentally misguided and destined to fail.

Khoudja, Yassine and Platt, Lucinda (2016) ‘Labour market entries and exits of women from different origin countries in the UK’, CReAM discussion papers, CPD 03/16. Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM), London, UK.
[2] See Catney and Sabater (2015) Ethnic minority disadvantage in the labour market. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
[3] See Carrera, Sergio and Anja, Wiesbrock (2009) Civic Integration of Third-Country Nationals Nationalism versus Europeanisation in the Common EU Immigration Policy. CEPS Report prepared for ENACT (Enacting European Citizenship), a research project funded by the Seventh Framework Research Programme of DG Research of the European Commission and coordinated by the Open University UK, 2009.


Sara R. Farris is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths University of London. She has worked extensively on issues of migrant women’s integration in the European context. She is the author of In the Name of Women’s Rights. The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, 2017).

Image: Garry Knight  CC BY 2.0