7.1.2019 | Von:
Mirjana Morokvasic

Women on the Move: Impact of Migration Revisited

In many world regions the share of women in international migration is rising. Yet, the traditional gender order is quite resistant to change.

In many world regions women outnumber men in international migration flows.In many world regions women outnumber men in international migration flows. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Deutsche Version des Artikels.

Mobility and migration have a specific significance for women, historically associated with sedentarity, immobility and passivity. For a long time they were either invisible or regarded as dependents, their migration tied to that of men, rather than as migrants in their own right. In many societies, obstacles to and restrictions to women’s mobility persist and they often face moral stigmatization even in the situations where they massively participate in migration and are main family providers.[1] For example, they are regarded as "easy women", as prostitutes. The issue of outcomes of migration, more specifically the impact of immigrant women’s employment on gender hierarchy, has been a challenging one for many feminist and other scholars in the 1980s, and especially from the 1990s onwards.[2] Migration of women has generally been identified as being more problematic for families than that of men.[3] The most sensational social cost of migration, "disruption of the family," is always referred to the absence of the mother and the destruction of gender norms.[4]

The increasingly feminized international migration reflects the continuous and growing presence of women in precarious, low paid service jobs as domestic work, nursing, care for the elderly, entertainment and prostitution.[5] These occupations are built upon gendered assumptions of women’s innate affinities for work in the reproductive sphere, that is for (unpaid) housework and family care. It therefore could be expected that working in these spheres would not be conducive to destabilizing gender norms concerning the division of labor in the household and to disrupting gender hierarchies.

Migrant women are well aware of the institutional, political, cultural-social and economic contexts which shape their employment opportunities across borders. They know that job openings for them exist because the employment of migrant women (and sometimes that of migrant men) allows for the continuity of the traditional gender order with its class-gender hierarchies, informal employment structures and family ideals (see below).

When migrant women’s only chance to leave their home country is to join "alternative circuits" of smugglers or to feature as mail order brides via agencies or internet, when their only employment opportunity is in domestic service or in commercial sex, it is very likely that they will go along rather than try to challenge the very order that opens the borders for them and procures them work. Some will go even further and excel in demonstrating how irreplaceable they are in their traditional nurturing role.

Beyond the usual question whether gender relations are reconfigured in the context of migration, in this text I ask how the outcomes are negotiated and what space is left for agency and empowerment. My argument is that migrant women tend to use the traditional gender order and rely on it for their own purposes, if they do not openly challenge or question it. The empirical evidence suggests that processes of the reproduction of gender order are manifest in a variety of situations. Yet, at the same time, they contain elements of change and subversion from within. Deeply rooted gender identities are not openly challenged, but rather redefined within the pressures and requirements of intersecting power hierarchies (class, race,gender among others) in the context of migration.

Gains for Women?

The conventional wisdom has been that the change in gender relations is closely related to the participation of women in the labor force. Earning their own money increases migrant women’s bargaining power compared to their countries of origin.[6] At the same time, women's migration and their integration into the labor market favors men’s participation in activities traditionally associated with women’s duties like child care and household chores in their countries of origin. Women, on the contrary, even when they are not successful in the labor market, gain access to institutional and other resources (education, welfare, legal protection etc.) which are supposedly unavailable in their home countries. The universal finding that women are generally more reluctant to return to their countries of origin[7] feeds into the assumption that women are better off, more adaptable and favorable to settlement in the new country as opposed to men, who tend to reinforce their own values and norms as a response to a hostile environment that excludes them.

Some migrant women originate from countries where their access to paid employment is seen as a transgression of their traditional roles as for instance Morocco. Yet working in Spain provides Moroccan women with greater control over resources and more autonomy in managing their lives "in spite of the inferiority of their position in Spain both as foreigners and women".[8] When Spain’s immigration policy gives priority to female immigrants this in turn contributes to modifying the gender order in Morocco: Men are no longer seen as exclusive economic providers for the family as women become indispensable economic agents. Similar observations have been made with regard to the impact of feminization of the trading circuits from Tunisia to Italy.[9] Philippine women in France acquire the status of the breadwinner for the whole family and have access to liberties unknown to them in the Philippines whereas men assume tasks which in their home country are associated with female roles. Thus, migration can contribute to women's empowernment. This, however, takes place in a world where (female) migrants are condemned to a "partial citizenship" only.[10] Indeed, given the preservation of hierarchies of class and gender, no matter what gains may be achieved by immigrants, they are likely to be offset by the loss of status, overwork, declassing, and exploitation.

Maintenance of the Gender Order?

Many (research) accounts primarily focus on the social costs of women's migration: the reproduction of gender inequalities, intensified traditional roles, dependency, loss of support and an increase in work load for women on the move. This happens when paid work is in one way or another related to women’s family role and is either perceived as a family obligation for women or not considered as ‘real work’.

When female employment is needed to maintain the standards of respectability for the family as, for example, in the Cuban community in the US in the 1970s, the traditional view stretches to include employment as a regular part of the female role.[11] Then, access to employment as a family obligation does not imply changes in other values such as moral respectability or hierarchical patterns in male-female relationships. Besides women’s paid work remains subordinated to her nurturing role.[12]

Women are often employed in occupations related to domestic duties. The spatial connection between woman’s work and home implicitly defines her work as "work at home", not as "real work". The fundamental gender division of labor resting on the expectation that "women are responsible for home and men for paid work" is not challenged but reinforced.[13] In the garment production in Paris, the petty entrepreneur status is quasi-limited to men no matter whether they possess sewing skills or not. They can, or have to, rely on the skills of their kin and other women and can even expect women in their own family to work without pay at all, as sewing is simply considered to be an extension of women’s domestic duties.[14] These women, although they may generate income, do not get out of their dependent status. For years they remain home-based workers or outworkers without any opportunity of promotion and unable to legalize their status. The French legalisation procedure of 1982, requiring uninterrupted continuity of work and long-term engagement which benefited some 135,000 clandestine immigrant workers, bypassed women whose work was marked by discontinuity and by short term, sporadic arrangements.

In most EU countries and in Turkey, increasing employment rates of local women and an aging population have created a demand in the "domestic niche".[15] Foreign women increasingly replace both paid and unpaid labor of local women as housekeepers and carers. Gendered and racialized characterizations continue to be the rationale behind migrant women’s employment: They are considered to be naturally gifted and generally charitable in disposition, undemanding and subservient, i.e. perfectly suited for service and care work.[16] Marginalized as unproductive and often excluded from the category of work their labor remains strongly embedded in and sustaining of the ideal of family care.

The presence of migrant women in personal services enables gender hierarchies to be preserved in their employers’ households. The increase in the equality of opportunities between German men and women in the labor market is paralleled by increasing inequalities among women.[17] Most of Eastern European live-out cleaners, babysitters and caretakers to whom German middle class career-oriented women transfer the reproductive work are de-classed and de-skilled: They are middle class themselves, often academics and professionals in their own countries and are trying to hold on to their high-status low-pay jobs at home. Their upward mobility or status preservation at home is thus contingent to de-classing in their country of work.

Whereas for their employers they contribute to the maintanance of the caring arrangements functioning on a daily basis as a norm, for their own families they improvise the "living-apart-together arrangements", managing separations across time and space which tend to last longer than initially predicted. Although this can be empowering for them, as their economic and bargaining power within their households may have improved for many of these women, it nevertheless reinforces their traditional identities as mothers and carers, as one women stated in an interview: "When I go home to Poland, I do not rest; there is so much to do. Imagine a man alone with two kids. If I go to stay one month for instance, the first two weeks I do nothing but housework."[18] Thus, the typical traditional gender order remains unquestioned, even though (or precisely because) the father or the partner had taken over in the wife’s absence. When the Polish mother-worker is back home from Belgium, things have to "return to normal" even though it may take half of her vacation. In sum, even though migrant women attain more autonomy abroad, once they are back home gender order reasserts itself. Women have fewer opportunities to make use of their success abroad and are confronted with the stigma of bad reputation: Migrant women (not migrant men) are blamed for being absent and therefore "destroying the family" and "destructing" social and gender order.

The empirical examples in this section demonstrate that the gender order (in the country of origin and destination of migrant women) is not only resistant to change, but, intersecting with class, migrancy and legality, may be intensified. While the traditional division of labor and male privilege remain unchallenged, paid work increases women’s overall workload. Instead of expecting their husband’s help with housework, the majority of women choose to pass parts of the reproductive work on to less privileged women, thus relying on what Arlie Hochschild (2000) called, the global care chain.

Are there, nevertheless, potentials for agency behind the unchallenged, preserved gender order?

Reliance on Gender Order: Turning It to One’s Own Advantage

This contradictory empirical evidence suggests that processes of reproduction of gender order are manifest in and parallel to the situations of apparent reversal. At the same time and in line with the observation that the deeply rooted gender identities are not openly challenged but rather redefined within the pressures and requirements of the intersecting power hierarchies in the context of migration[19], they contain elements of change, of subversion from within.[20] Migrants tend to use the traditional gender order and rely on it for their own projects of self-realization, autonomy, empowerment or simply upward mobility for themselves or benefit of the family, or to resist other dominations and power hierarchies (related to class, race or migrant status). For example, some migrant women resort to matrimonial strategies to escape poverty in their home countries or to obtain stable residence[21] which, in turn, opens up opportunities for employment and business creation as well as reunification with family members left behind in the country of origin. Traditional norms and institutions like marriage and the dowry system can also be reconfigured and instrumentalized. The capital earned by Tunisian women on their trading trips to Italy is invested both in their daughters’ dowries, but also in their education.[22] Thus, mothers are dealing with the contradiction of preserving some gender norms intact while trying to promote emancipation of their daughters.

Migration provides exit and opportunities for struggle and resistance for those who do not fit into the hegemonic femininities and masculinities of their milieu of origin. As such migration can be a form of breaking out of existing constraints, but becomes also a resource, a possibility for women to support their family remained behind and in return, regain respect and recognition.[23] Some take advantage of attributions that initially handicap them and reinvest gender roles with new attributes and qualities in line with their own migration practices.[24] For example, Moldova women working in Turkey are often depicted as irresponsible because of their being “absent mothers and immoral wives”. Yet, they do not question the boundaries of the local norm of motherhood as the key to the social order, but instead stretch it to include migrant mothers, not only to justify their absence but to reassert themselves as better mothers than those who do not migrate.[25] Reasserting themselves as “good mothers” may be the only socially acceptable response for those confronted with the blame and stigma related to their migration. This, in a way, legitimizes their absence and enables them to come to terms with the contradiction between the “good mother provider” and the “bad absent mother”.

Male immigrants working in what they view as “naturally” women’s work in the domestic service sector and care jobs or in hotels and hospitals renegotiate their masculinities in order to qualify for the highly gendered requirements for the job. Thus, being capable of “working like a woman”, is a strong argument in negotiating employment. With time in the job they reinvest their present role of a male domestic worker with “naturally male” attributes, putting them forward as their competitive advantage: for instance, physical strength – indeed a necessary quality for the job but rarely taken into account when the performers of caring and domestic tasks are women.[26]


Feminist researchers stressed long ago that gender processes cannot be understood independent from class, race, immigrant status and other social relations with which they intersect.[27] Both immigrant women and men are confronted with discrimination, insecurity and inequality as “partial citizens”; when de-classed in trying to achieve upward mobility, they have to join forces. Migrant women continue to be in demand across borders to perform stereotypically women’s work as domestic workers, child-minders or carers for the elderly. These occupations are built on gendered assumptions of women’s innate affinities to work in the reproductive sphere, and hence are not conducive to destabilizing the gender norms about the division of labor in the household.

This text looked at the ways the contradictory outcomes of migration are negotiated. Processes of reproduction of gender order are manifest in a variety of situations but contain, at the same time, elements of change and subversion from within. The evidence suggests that migrant women learn to take advantage of the attributions that initially handicap them and most look for compromise rather than confronting or rejecting the traditional gender division of labor and values.


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Anderson, Bridget (2000). Doing the dirty work? The global politics of domestic labour. London: Zed Books.

Anthias, Floya & Yuval-Davis, Nira (1983). Contextualizing feminism – gender, ethnic and class divisions. Feminist Review, 15, pp. 62–75.

Asis, Marla (1995). Family ties in a world without borders. Philippine Sociological Review, 42, pp. 16–26.

Beauchemin, Chris, Hamel, Christelle & Simon, Patrick (2015). Trajectoires et origins (TeO). Enquête sur la diversité des populations en France. Paris: INED éditions.

Catarino, Christine & Morokvasic, Mirjana (2005). Femmes, genre, migration et mobilités. Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 21(1), pp. 7–27.

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Morokvasic, Mirjana (1987a). Emigration und danach: Jugoslawische Frauen in Westeuropa. Frankfurt: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern.

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Potot (2005); Keough (2006); Le Espiritu (2005).
Abadan-Unat (1977), IMR (1984); Morokvasic (1983, 1987a); Pessar/Mahler (2003) among many others.
Green (2012), Asis (1995).
Ogaya (2004).
Parrenas (2001); Ehrenreich/Hochschild (2003).
Menjivar (1999).
Morokvasic (1987b); Fibbi (1999); Grassmuck (1991), Beauchemin et al.(2015).
Ramírez (1999), p. 35.
Schmoll (2005).
Mozère (2005), Parrenas (2001).
Marx Ferree (1979).
Man (1995).
Leung (2004).
Morokvasic (1987b, c).
Lutz (2002).
Lyon (2006).
Friese (1995).
Kuzma (2012).
Pessar (1984).
Morokvasic (2007).
Giabiconi (2005), Levy (2015).
Schmoll (2005).
Morokvasic (1987a, 2004).
Cvajner (2011).
Keough (2006).
Scrinzi (2005, 2013).
Anthias/Yuval-Davis (1983).
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