Research Findings

How origin-country culture matters for immigrant women’s work

August 28, 2019

Why is it that immigrant women from China work more than immigrant women from India? An intuitive answer is that women in China are more likely to work than women in India, which is related to prevailing norms in these countries about gender and work. When women immigrate to, say, the United States, they bring these norms with them, which influences their subsequent decisions about whether to work.

Our research confirms this basic insight but adds an important twist: not all women from a particular origin country share the same beliefs regarding work. Therefore, although the employment behavior of immigrant women stems, in part, from the norms that prevail in their countries of origin, the influence of these norms is likely to vary across individuals from the same country, depending on their personal beliefs and motivations for migrating.

In all countries—regardless of norms—there are women who wish to work either due to their personal beliefs and ambitions or due to economic necessity. Origin-country culture is likely to be a weaker predictor of employment among women who migrated with the intention of working.

Women who migrate to the United States from some countries are more likely to work than women from other countries, and these differences are not due to their individual characteristics such as education. Sociologists have explained this puzzle using the concept of culture: origin-country differences demonstrate that culture matters for explaining behavior. Recent studies show that cultural norms and social practices in home countries help predict whether immigrant women work, even after they adapt to the host country. For example, female immigrants’ employment outcomes in European countries resemble those of women in their home countries.

Such studies assume that immigrant women are similar to other women in their origin countries. But migration is selective. Migrants are not randomly drawn from origin populations. They often have higher educational attainment and better health (the so-called “Salmon Bias”) than those who do not migrate. Immigrant women’s gender-role beliefs or work motivations could also differ from those of women who do not migrate, given that a common motivation for women to migrate is to pursue work or educational opportunities.

The main challenge to testing these ideas is to measure immigrant women’s work orientation. Our solution is to look at migrant sequencing, which we define as marital status at the time of migration and, for those who were married, whether they migrate before, with, or after their husbands do.

We believe that “independent” migrants (unmarried) and “lead” migrants (married but migrating without or at least before their husbands) are likely to be more work-oriented than “concurrent” migrants (married and migrating with their husbands) and “follower” migrants (married and migrating after their husbands). We think that the effect of sending-country cultural norms will vary across these four groups, because “lead” and “independent” migrants will have more egalitarian gender attitudes and stronger work motivations than “concurrent” and “follower” migrants.

We study immigrant women from 130 countries who arrived in the United States as working-age adults. Our findings show that migrant sequencing and origin-country norms both consistently predict whether immigrant women are employed, but the influence of norms varies by migrant sequencing. Most importantly, the relationship between home-country norms and female employment is weaker for “lead” and “independent” migrants, who are likely to be more career-oriented. In fact, for these two groups, it barely matters how common female employment is in their origin countries.

In sum, origin-country culture predicts immigrant women’s work behaviors, but mostly for those who are less career-oriented. Studies of immigrant incorporation in the United States and other host societies should attend to immigrant selectivity on cultural beliefs and motivations, not just on education and health. Selectivity on cultural beliefs and motivations is more difficult to measure, but we propose one possible way to do so.

At a time when national debates rage about the economic impact of immigration in the United States, we hope our research helps illuminate socioeconomic disparities among the foreign-born, as well as between immigrants and natives.

Read more

Qian He and Theodore P. Gerber. “Origin-Country Culture, Migration Sequencing, and Female Employment: Variations among Immigrant Women in the United States.” International Migration Review, 2019.

Image: Seattle City Council Workers Voice Summit via Flickr (CC0 1.0)

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