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How Workplaces Can Support Refugee Women

How Workplaces Can Support Refugee Women

Refugee Week is a UK-wide festival celebrating refugees' contributions, creativity, and resilience. Founded in 1998 and held annually around World Refugee Day on the 20 June, Refugee Week is also a growing global movement.

The twenty-first century has witnessed a massive upsurge in refugees worldwide; the UNCHR estimates 89.3 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. The UNCHR (IOM) defines refugees as people who have fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. This dynamic movement has a tremendous impact on the culture, policies, and workforce that make up organizations and institutions in host countries. Therefore, team leaders must prepare and adjust to support this dramatic shift.

Over the years, refugees have gradually entered the job market. They are now integral members of societies, yet refugee women remain among the most marginalized groups in many parts of the world. Conflict and Coronavirus, two issues that continue to beleaguer the globe, have magnified existing inequalities for this group, making them more vulnerable and exposing them to a myriad of challenges that have failed to receive a due acknowledgement. One such impediment is their relationship to acculturative stress — tension and anxiety accompanying efforts to adapt to a dominant culture's beliefs, orientation, and values — such stress may exacerbate physical and mental health disparities, including hypertension and depression.

In addition, other roadblocks augmenting the stress of relocating, adjusting, and adapting include poor education, lack of relevant work experience, racism, language and cultural barriers, prior traumatic lived experiences of abuse and sexual violence, and documentation challenges. Refugee women can help integrate businesses into global markets. Moreover, they bring bi-cultural competence and cultural capital alongside other untapped strengths. These strengths would remain underutilized should team leaders fail to support their assimilation and acclimatization.

This article examines the challenges these refugee women face and explores strategies to help overcome obstacles and promote their integration into host country societies and labour markets. Team leaders can deploy the following strategies to lessen the sting of acculturative stress impacting immigrant women.

[Related: Inclusive Leadership: Training is Only Part of the Solution]

Offer and actively connect immigrant women to relevant resources.

Given how acculturative stress already impacts these women, organizations need to invest in a robust workplace well-being program. Companies can be crucial in directing immigrant women to services they need. These include domestic violence hotlines, shelters, financial well-being contacts and referrals, legal expertise for documentation and visa processing, schooling, child care, and other resources devoted to emotional, economic, and physical well-being.

Immigrants intentionally move to seek better opportunities, but refugees do so because they are desperate to escape conflict, instability, or crises. The recent devastating invasion of Ukraine has displaced more than 11 million people from their homes. Many of these refugees often embark on dangerous and arduous journeys after the trauma of losing homes and loved ones, only to experience additional angst from physical abuse and sexual harassment - plus degrading, typically inadequate conditions at refugee camps. The experience of trauma and the process of healing will be different for each group; team leaders must offer medical and psychological care informed by these unique experiences and sensitive to culture and faith.

To mitigate the resulting stress, caregivers must empathize with an immigrant's background, ethnicity, and belief system. Access to quality medical and psychological care is thus crucial to overcoming traumatic experiences. A dedicated helpline or department that offers in-depth services and information for signposting will be particularly valuable for new refugee entrants.

Build awareness of their challenges through an intersectional lens.

Refugee women are far more disadvantaged than native women as they are less resilient financially and socially. A report on Immigrant Women's Experiences of Acculturative Stress reveals how visible immigrant women of color experience far greater exclusion from ordinary privileges than non-visible immigrant women. This type of exclusion is as detrimental to psychological health as more overt forms of discrimination. Leaders must also recognize that these immigrant women might not fit society's stereotypes, so one-size-fits-all solutions might fall short.

To mitigate the impact of acculturative stress, we must recognize that some of these women may experience disadvantages on multiple fronts due to gender, faith, race, ability, socioeconomic background, disability, or other factors. Although a majority of women and marginalized groups experience prejudice at some point in their lives, particular challenges are unique to specific identities.

For example, Sofia is a Black Muslim immigrant woman with an invisible disability. While many of her challenges will be similar to those of other underrepresented groups, some issues are more profound and distinct to each identity Sofia represents — as a migrant, a woman of color, a Muslim, and a disabled person. Moreover, Sofia's struggle is not just about her multiple identities and resulting oppressions but how these identities are deeply intertwined — a reality that makes it exceedingly difficult to separate them and clearly distinguish where one form of oppression stops and the other begins.

The successful integration of migrant and refugee women also highly depends on their (and their partner's) gender norms within their countries of origin. Career progression expectations are informed by persisting gender role attitudes, especially if the target group's country of origin has a significant gender equality gap. Moreover, as men's attitudes toward working women also play a crucial role in female labor market participation, male allyship initiatives that address men and their traditional gender norms should be pursued. Leaders must implement interventions that do not perpetuate harmful gender norms, discriminatory practices, and inequalities by disregarding cultural and faith nuances.

Consider benefits that can make a difference.

The disproportionate burden of home chores and family responsibilities has squeezed women during the pandemic, leaving them exhausted and anxious. That burden is especially encumbering for refugee women as many can't turn to outside help - they typically lack a support system of family and friends that is more readily available to native women. Since most refugee women fall within low salary bands, affordable child care is often out of reach. Refugee women also face double financial ramifications and are already behind men in terms of pay, pension, and health insurance.

In theory, healthcare is available to all migrants and refugees in the EU. Still, in practice, many barriers remain, particularly in mental health care, preventive care and long-term care for older generations. Specific health needs of refugees are poorly understood and rarely adequately addressed, leading to health inequalities that hinder integration (imbalances that are particularly evident with Afghan refugees).

While most women experience a pension deficit that later affects their retirement, this shortage amplifies for refugee women who begin their contributions late. Thus, a lower pension pot works against them by augmenting their economic dependence on men. These women need additional protections for their working conditions, salaries, and access to benefits over time.

Team leaders can facilitate discussions around benefits that are most valuable for refugee women as many employees lack clarity on the type of help available. Anonymous surveys, solicited feedback, and even focus groups can help develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying issues impacting refugee women and what benefits could help them the most. Organizations often have lunch and learn sessions to create awareness about trending issues. Still, they often miss opportunities to communicate available benefits and encourage employees to take advantage of everything a company offers.

Assign "assimilation buddies."

Allocating "assimilation buddies" can help refugee women feel included, respected, and valued.

These advocates can also significantly help the integration and acclimatization process by making migrants familiar with the host country's cultural norms and expectations. These buddies can challenge their refugee partners and push them out of their comfort zones while offering an outside, non-dominant perspective.

Refugee women, similar to other marginalized groups, are often grateful to be offered any roles in the first place. Compliance and modesty underpin their communication style; thus they mute themselves. Reverse mentoring could also provide a unique opportunity for managers to learn more about refugee women's strengths and challenges. Buddies can help part-time workers confront their feelings, navigate the confusion and stress, evaluate their choices honestly, and overcome any obstacles or limiting beliefs.

For many, their confidence has eroded and been replaced with self-doubt; buddies can play an essential role in combating social conditioning that severely limits the potential of these women. It is necessary to help women contextualize career impediments and identify whether they are system-based or self-imposed. Buddies can also be a source of insider knowledge and inspiration while encouraging others to overcome socialized reticence and broker the connections they need to take on more prominent roles and advance their careers.

[Related: In Search of You, Chief Empathy Officer]

Embrace language, skills training, and other educational opportunities.

Critical gaps in tailored skills development can impact the ability of refugee women to realize their full potential as leaders. Education is one influencing factor of labor market integration, primarily through diplomas/certifications and work experience. In general, first-generation immigrants tend to have lower skill levels than the native population, with refugee women being the most poorly educated. These low levels of education greatly influence a refugee woman's employment prospects and constitute a principal obstacle to integration.

It is essential to prioritize leadership and resilience training, corporate development programs, and educational opportunities that can empower refugee women to reach the highest leadership ranks. However, offering these programs outside of work hours may mean that the same groups who can benefit from them the most will miss out, given a plethora of family and home responsibilities. Whenever possible, include "protected time" during office hours for training and educational opportunities that can help make a difference.

Without a doubt, mastering the host country's language benefits the social and economic integration of migrants and refugees. Combat language barriers with language training, reminders to use simple language with co-workers, speaking slowly and repeating what you hear and say, and hiring a translator/interpreter. One of my clients recently shared how hard it is to understand managers who use complex vocabulary when simple language is more straightforward.

Recognize and celebrate their national days, festivals, and holidays.

Sometimes, differences in lifestyle and values can lead immigrant women, particularly women of color, to be unintentionally excluded as outliers. To help them reconnect with their roots and own their heritage with pride, make a conscious effort to celebrate their cultural and religious holidays. This intention and respect can facilitate positive representation and help colleagues feel included and valued.

However, involve them in this process to avoid the perception of cultural appropriation. These dedicated efforts can help refugee women be proud of their heritage. These celebrations can also help build cultural awareness and normalize mainstream religious or cultural practices. Understanding cultural practices add to the cultural intelligence pool of the organization and helps re-humanize professionals following these practices as multidimensional beings; when they feel supported, they bring their whole selves to work.

Establish safe spaces.

Employees feel secure when they are part of affinity groups with members who share the same fears and challenges. Therefore, providing them with opportunities to be vulnerable and share their challenges in a safe space that encourages open and candid conversations is essential. This safe space is essentially a place where they can freely express their point of view and listen to other perspectives without judgement or blame.

Showcase role models.

"I cannot visualize and aspire to be at some level if I do not have examples in front of me," confessed a client I recently coached. It's a sentiment we can all likely identify with, but even more so for immigrant women. Spotlight success stories of immigrants that have boldly overcome challenges and penetrated leadership ranks/upper echelons of workplace power to promote a narrative and culture of inclusion and optimism. Immigrant women who ascend to leadership positions signal that all women can progress and succeed within that organization despite their immigration status.

However, it is essential to recognize that role models are successful on their terms, not because they have had to compromise their values to succeed or engage in excessive code-switching to fit in. Migrant communities have also come to believe that they must often round their edges to fit into a pre-formed mold, which can be counterintuitive. Authentic role models encourage others to bring their true selves to the table, promoting genuine confidence.

The strategies mentioned above may not eliminate acculturative stress but can ensure a smooth transition; it will alleviate anxiety and make immigrant women feel valued and not an afterthought.

Supporting refugees is crucial for the refugees themselves and beneficial for natives who can learn to co-exist harmoniously. It is also a prerequisite to ensure better outcomes for their children entering the workforce in the future. If we do not help refugee women overcome their unique challenges while fostering inclusion, the pronounced socioeconomic gaps will never close; refugees will forever be stuck in a stagnant and vicious cycle of social immobility that continues to threaten a healthy economy.

[Related: Why Women Work for Less, and How to Change the Pattern]


Hira Ali is an author, writer, speaker, and executive coach focused on women's and diverse leadership development. Founder of Advancing Your Potential and champion of allyship programs, she is also the award-winning author of two transformational books: Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling and Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead through Advocacy. You can follow her work on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.

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