In this case study, we will look at the challenges Nuzhat Ali has faced as a Muslim woman as well as the work of the Muslim Health Collaboration Network and the lessons they have learnt.
Nuzhat Ali, National Lead, Health Improvement, Public Health England and Co-Chair, Civil Service Muslim Network, spoke at our Women in Public Sector Leadership Conference in September 2020 . She discussed with us how we can champion inclusive values to break down barriers to success and create a positive organisational culture.
Nuzhat shares the challenges she has faced being visibly Muslim. For example, wearing the hijab makes it easier for Muslim women to be identifiable and therefore more likely to experience discrimination. Empirical data shows Muslim women face complex challenges, compounded by the issue of islamophobia .
This includes stereotyping and unconscious bias. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 research paper, The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims, reported that ‘everyday workplace interactions can be a challenge’. For example, dealing with colleagues’ or customers’ lack of knowledge or understanding of Islam. Participants often reported ‘feeling ‘othered’, different, separate or feared – as well as experiencing or feeling discrimination more directly’ .
Additionally, social norms and interactions that involve alcohol may be challenging for faith communities in which alcohol is not consumed. This often has an isolating effect.
Nuzhat highlights the importance of recognising intersectionality. This refers to understanding how different aspects of a person’s social and political identity combine to create different forms of discrimination and privilege. These can be gender, BAME, faith, career/family. Nuzhat continues:
“Focusing on one characteristic alone does not offer and provide a holistic and realistic picture of the challenges which impede Muslim women’s careers and aspirations to leadership. An intersectional lens is required to draw attention to the ways in which the various factors hinder progress for women like me” .
Opportunity: The Muslim Health Collaboration Network
The Muslim Health Collaboration Network was formed in 2017 bringing together staff from three separate organisations: The Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, and NHS England & Improvement. It aims to provide health staff with a strong, unified voice so that issues facing them are heard at a senior level.
Internally, The Network represents and supports Muslim staff. It works to improve faith inclusion, through including all faiths and beliefs – and the role of women within that, listening to their issues and barriers for development. The Network has run faith literacy and faith sensitivity classes as well as setting up initiatives to help the development of its members. This includes professional development workshops and a buddy scheme to mentor staff .
Externally, they consider how they, as a network, can use their knowledge of staff insights and lived experiences to help support the delivery of relevant strategic health objectives that impact Muslim communities. Members of the network want to ensure that the organisations they work for understand what is happening in their communities and the inequalities they are facing. The Network has carried out government health pilots across the country, collaborating with mosques, community organisations, and charities. This has helped policy be tailored to reach members of different communities who might otherwise have found the information and consultation inaccessible .
Lessons Learnt: Key Factors to Facilitate and Catalyse Inclusion in the Workplace
Individually you must have the courage to speak up. Nuzhat tells us that her line manager once said, “you must never leave a meeting without saying something”. The more you speak up the more you push to be heard. “Sharing my vulnerability has helped in opening up conversations. And empowered others to speak up”, says Nuzhat .
“As leaders, we must support. What we say as leaders matters but what we do matters more.”
Nuzhat outlines the key factors that help champion inclusive values:
- Creating safe spaces for staff to talk about how exclusion and discrimination feels
- Welcoming, encouraging and supporting conversations about inclusion. Making the time and developing the opportunities to encourage and support conversations about inclusion is key to being an inclusive leader
- Humility and empathy to listen to staff experiencing exclusion and discrimination. The more you listen and provide people with the opportunity to be heard the more you are facilitating a cultural shift and organizational change
- Lead by example. What you say must align with what you do
- Set clear leadership accountability. Leaders need to be able to listen and then act on the lived experience of others
- Agree metrics, measure progress and analyse the impact that interventions are having
Early on in her career, Nuzhat made a conscious decision to bring her whole self to work and support and influence those who she works with to do the same. Nuzhat’s inclusive leadership and utilisation of networks place her as a role model for leaders who strive to create a culture where people feel they can bring their whole self to work.
 Ali, N. 2020. Women in Public Sector Leadership 2020: Breaking Down Barriers To Success Conference
 Social Mobility Commission. 2017. The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims [online] [accessed 11/05/21]
 muslimhealthcollaboration.co.uk. [online] [accessed 11/05/21]
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