Against the Cultural Odds: More Focus Needed on Integrating Migrant Women

Written by | Monday, March 19th, 2018

Female non-EU immigrant workers make up about 6% of the 25-54 year olds in the EU15 member states. The lack of their integration in the labor market is both a lost opportunity and a macroeconomic problem. In Germany and Belgium, for example, the difference between the employment rates of immigrant and non-immigrant women is more than 35 percentage points. Achieving the same employment amongst the immigrant women as amongst the native-born women would increase the total employment by almost 2%. Even a slight increase in the female immigrant employment would have a major impact on overall employment.

A big part of the employment gap can be explained by some intrinsic differences in employment characteristics between immigrant and non-immigrant women. On average, immigrant women are younger and have less education. However, even if these factors are taken into account, this still can’t fully explain why female immigrant employment is significantly lower. While the probability of employment goes up with the length of stay in the host country, even after 20 years of residence, their chances of landing a job are still much smaller than those of non-immigrant women and also when compared with the employment gap between the latter group and men.

On top of the differences in age and education, one commonly cited factor is culture. It is important to remember that female labor market participation is traditionally low in many countries of origin of non-EU immigrants. The issue is particularly prominent among the Muslim population who tends to retain close connections to their native culture even over generations. Research by the European Social Survey shows that if non-EU immigrants from a given country are more likely to think that women should “cut down on paid work for the sake of family”, women coming from this country are less likely to be employed. This cultural aspect is also important because the skepticism around migrant labor market participation is one of the main reasons behind the hostility towards migrants amongst the host population.

Changing cultural norms and preferences of immigrants is a challenging task. Yet, studying how immigrants’ economic attitudes and labor market participation change over time suggests that there is scope for more direct policies to promote the economic participation of female immigrants. Therefore, there is room for more direct on-the-ground policies to promote economic participation of female immigrants: while immigrants’ attitudes change very slowly, the employment rate of female immigrants does converge.

This possibly hints that beyond education, skills and persistent culture, structural factors and labor market conditions in the host country – equal access to work, education and social institutions – are key for non-EU women immigrants, especially in the first years since their arrival in the host country. It is therefore unfortunate that it is only one single project put forward by the European Commission in this area that specifically targets women. Identifying and easing structural constraints that women immigrants face in the labor market is an important and doable step towards increasing their economic participation.

‘On International Women’s Day: More Focus Needed on Integrating Migrant Women’ – Commentary by Mikkel Barslund and Nadzeya Laurentsyeva – Centre for European Policy Studies / CEPS.

(The Commentary can be downloaded here)

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