Student receives NSF grant for study on religious representation in the workplace

When doctoral student Salam Aboulhassan received an email from the National Science Foundation (NSF) congratulating her as a recipient of the Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award in sociology last May, she was in a state of disbelief. 

“I emailed my advisor and asked her to review the email because I wasn’t convinced. After she did, I sat on my bedroom floor for about 30 minutes with my mouth hanging open.”

Aboulhassan had applied the year before and been rejected. She applied again, convinced she wouldn’t win but that it’d be a great opportunity to practice her grant writing skills. 

She had always known her research on gendered and racialized Muslim experiences at work was important, but for her, earning the grant meant she was doing the work right.

“It may sound odd to say, but until I received the NSF grant, I was concerned that I had gotten in way over my head when it came to research and graduate school. While the NSF grant did not define my success, it became the threshold moment where I stopped devaluing my work as a young scholar.”

Born and raised in Dearborn, Aboulhassan began working at the age of 16 and has since repeatedly confronted issues of sexism and racism based on her identity as an Arab-American Muslim woman. Her co-workers’ and friends’ workplace stories are fraught with the same mistreatment and microaggressions, though at a young age, she noticed that the discrimination is heightened for women who wear hijabs.

Inspired by these experiences, her dissertation compares “Muslim women who veil with Muslim women who do not and Muslim men to examine how the visual representation of their religion intersects with gender and race to distinctly shape their [U.S.] workplace experiences,” she says.

Using snowball sampling, she started with her circle of friends and asked them to share her study with any Arab Muslim co-workers. Her intent: interview 60 total Muslim professionals—20 men, 20 women who veil and 20 women who do not. So far, she’s completed 50 interviews. 

Preliminary results show that the number of Muslim women who wear the hijab within management positions is limited compared to those who do not veil, she says. Those who do tend to be tokenized, encounter more microaggressions and questions about their personal lives, experience heightened invisibility in group settings, are excluded from networking opportunities “due to assumed cultural barriers,” and are more likely to be “asked to join diversity committees regardless of interest or desire.”  

While complexion plays a role in identity politics, Aboulhassan says forms of religious dress, accents, names and national ideology play bigger roles in targeting Muslims in the workplace. Her interview with a Lebanese-American man in finance particularly stands out to her. He had a master’s degree and struck her as a highly motivated worker, but had been repeatedly passed over for promotions in his company. He talked about his struggle to develop and maintain work relationships, despite being outgoing and having a wide social network outside the office. 

“When asked why he thought all of these things were happening to him at work, he linked it to his accent. While he understands and speaks English fluently, it is not his first language, and language, permeated with cultural themes specific to the U.S., becomes the way friendships and bonds are forged at work.” 

The data has also shown substantial differences between industries that serve the larger population, such as the government and academia, compared to those driven solely by profit, such as accounting and the automotive industries.

“Diversity policies seem to be more embedded within institutions that cater to a larger minority population. Diversity policies within corporate environments are often surface level and explained as policies that protect the organization rather than the individual.”

Aboulhassan’s hope is that her research is used to address the systemic inequalities that hinder racialized minorities in U.S. workplaces, not only on the employee level, but also change and impact how companies conduct business. 

Currently, she’s writing articles for a two-book series, one about Arab identities in Metro Detroit and another on the voices of Arab Detroiters through creative writing pieces. 

After graduation, she hopes to continue her research on Arab and Muslim populations and teach. 

“I cannot envision a career where I am not teaching.”

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