Immigrant Households and Gender Dynamics

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Editor: Jodi O'Brien
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Gender and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 451

Immigrant Households and Gender Dynamics

For many years, only migrant men captured the interest of researchers. It was presumed that men, as heads of households, would migrate to find work in cities or other countries to support their families. The argument was based on economics: Men are the breadwinners, and if they cannot find work in their community, they will migrate. For a long time, migration research ignored women and either only asked men about their wives or did not include them at all. Women migrants were portrayed as passive participants who did not play a large role in migration and settlement/return decisions. This has shifted during the last 30 years as women have become a central focus in migration research. Migration of women is increasing and even outnumbers the migration of men to some countries. Women migrants either come with their husbands, follow their husbands after they have secured a job, or come by themselves because their skills are sought in the country of destination.

Because of the gender division of labor in the private and public sphere, women migrants offer different skills than men do. Women offer their housecleaning and child care skills or, because of shortages in some occupations, can rely on their educational skills. For example, nurses from the Philippines migrate to the United States because America is experiencing a shortage of nursing professionals. The emerging research on gender and migration sheds light on these women migrants and their families. This research shows that there are substantial gender differences in the migration experiences, which then influence gender roles and settlement/return decisions. This entry focuses on migration of women and men and its impact on household dynamics.

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Development of Gendered Migration Research

Patriarchy is the main reason why researchers ignored women migrants for many years. It also reflects the traditional model of households where the man is the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the children. Women were portrayed as passive, and not actively participating in the migration decision. The term tied migrants, which is commonly used in migration research to describe women migrants who move with their husbands, exemplifies this thought. Feminist research in the 1970s criticized the exclusive focus on men because it only accounted for half of the experiences so gender was added as a variable to fill the gap. However, treating gender just as a variable was not helpful in explaining the differences in the migration experience of women and men. The next step was to focus extensively on women but researchers were still unsuccessful in accounting for gender differences in migration decisions. The breakthrough happened during the 1980s and 1990s when interview-based approaches slowly started to change migration research by shedding more light on women's experiences and why women and men migrants have to be analyzed differently and comparatively.

This theoretical shift from a men-oriented economic approach to an inclusive gender approach spurred two more important developments in migration research. First, the role of the larger family, or the household: Page 452  |  Top of ArticleMigrants often come by themselves and leave families behind in the country of origin, also called the sending country. Those family members can be spouses and children but often include extended family members such as parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well. By interviewing migrants about their experiences, researchers became aware of the important role of these households and their support for, or opposition to the migration of family members. For instance, families who struggle to make ends meet might select a son or daughter to find work somewhere else and then support the household through remittances. These remittances are mostly monetary and place expectations and pressure on migrants to provide for family members back home. By analyzing household migration strategies, researchers gain more conclusive insights about why and how people migrate, and the influence of extended family in the sending country.

Second, researchers realized the role social networks play for some migrant groups in the receiving or host country. Social networks include other migrants in the receiving country who are from the same country or from the same region or community. For some migrant groups, social networks can be viewed as an extension of the household in that they provide strong bonds between the sending and receiving community. These networks function as a support system in the new culture and can provide shelter, information, and job opportunities for migrants in the beginning. Migrants from developing countries who have low skill and educational levels and poor language knowledge of the host country especially profit from these networks. These social networks provide important services to the migrant community, but they can also be a source of hierarchical order and exploitation. Skills and education are defined as human capital, and the less human capital migrants have, the higher their risk of exploitation. Middle- and upper-class migrants seem to rely less on social networks because they often have secured a job before their arrival in the receiving country and move where the work is. However, some migrants are highly skilled but cannot find employment in their professions in the host country because their degrees are not recognized, so they end up in low-skilled jobs.

Research Findings of Immigrant Households

Whereas men are free to go wherever they want to, women might be restrained by their native cultures not to migrate. Families might be concerned about their reputation when daughters are moving by themselves, which in turn influences women's migration choices. The same can be true for return migration when women have stepped out of their traditional culture. Women migrants who have experienced more freedom in the receiving country might not want to return to a culture where their life choices will be limited again. For example, research from the United States shows that couples that migrate from countries with a traditional division of labor between husband and wife can experience a shift in their gender roles when both work outside the house. Men will perform more housework than in their country of origin because the wives also have jobs and household duties have to be shared. Whereas in the country of origin the men would be ridiculed by helping with household chores, it is more common in the receiving country and perceived as normal. Therefore, women in some migrant groups gain gender equality by migrating to another country.

Nevertheless, these changes in gender relations might not be permanent, depending on the culture of origin and class status. For instance, couples from the Dominican Republic residing in the United States change back to a more traditional division of labor when they have achieved middle-class status. In the beginning, the husband and wife will both work in the labor force to establish a life in the new country, but when the husband becomes more successful and the family does not need the wife's income anymore, Dominican women will retreat to the private sphere. It is viewed as a sign of success when the wife can stay home and does not have to work outside the house. This is contrary to the notion in American culture that women who work outside the house are more independent than are women who stay home.

Research about Japanese professional migrant families shows that corporations can also influence gender roles. Middle-class Japanese wives come with a defined role as the caretaker of the family. Their responsibilities in the United States are clearly focused on providing a distinct Japanese atmosphere at home. By defining the role of professional wives, the companies hope that a return to Japan will be easier than for families who have taken on an American lifestyle that might include a change in gender roles with, consequently, wives becoming more independent. The social distance between Japanese and American culture regarding gender relations is perceived as different and therefore a return to Japan could be more difficult. Interestingly, the social networks of the Japanese Page 453  |  Top of Articlewives are structured hierarchically depending on age and the position the husbands have in the company.

The social network ensures that the wives obey those unwritten norms. The Japanese women also view middle-class lifestyle as a status symbol that allows them to stay home with no need to work outside the house. In turn, they acknowledge the husband's role as the breadwinner and the head of the household.

When women migrants gain gender equality, it means that men lose some of their status and power, and men migrants react differently to those challenges. Some men from traditional, patriarchal cultures want to return to their native country to regain their old status and power, but other migrant men try to find a niche where they can have more power than their wives in the host country. For example, research on migrants from India who are professionals in the United States shows the influence of social networks to oppose shifts in gender roles. The husbands use social networks that are based on religion to undermine the power that their wives have gained. Even though the women have become successful in their careers, the men control leadership positions in the larger religious organizations and thereby reduce the women's power and advancement. Only a careful analysis and comparison of gender roles of different migrant groups can show how gender equality develops over time. Reshaping gender roles through migration causes stress and tension in the family and might even lead to separation and divorce when spouses are unable to negotiate changes in their gender roles.

Globalization and Gendered Migration

Migration movements take place in different locations. Migration can happen in the same country when women and men migrate from the countryside to cities to find work. One of the concerns of researchers has increasingly become the exploitation of less-educated women in brothels or sweatshops in Asia, Central and South America, and African countries. Often, the families who stay in the rural communities are unaware of the life and work the young women are exposed to, but they rely on the financial support these migrant women provide.

Globalization dynamics and companies that operate transnationally have created a culture of cheap labor and exploitation, thereby promoting migration from rural communities to cities, leading to questionable outcomes for women and men. Research has shown that women are viewed as easier to employ because they are not as confrontational as men based on a cultural system of patriarchy and subordination that ranks women below men. In addition, companies know that these young women support their families and depend on the work in the factories. Because the labor force in developing countries is cheap and readily available in high numbers, the women are almost powerless to change their situation. Furthermore, even though these jobs provide income, the salary is extremely low for the long working hours, and there are no benefits and no chance for advancement. When the women are laid off, they are literally back on the street.

The same pattern of a gendered labor market is true for gender differences in migration to other countries regardless of social class. Presumably, highly skilled women and men migrants should have the same opportunities to renew their careers in the host country and rise to higher-level management positions. Unfortunately, this is not true. Highly skilled men migrants do better and are more successful than are highly skilled women migrants. Institutionalized practices of discrimination based on sex and race prevent gender equality in the workplace around the world.

Many migrants view migration as temporary with the goal of returning to their native country at some point. The number of families who do not return and instead remain in the host country, however, shows that this goal often cannot be reached. Because problems in sending countries, such as unemployment and salaries that cannot sustain families, do not change, migrants have no incentive to return. In addition, family members in the sending country rely on the support provided by the migrants, and children often have better chances of a good education in the receiving country.

Gendered Experiences of the Second Generation

Migration splits many families and is often especially difficult for mothers when they leave their children in the care of family members in the sending country. Current research focuses on the complexities of women migrants who must leave their own children to come to developed countries to take care of children of middle- and upper-class families, thus creating a cycle of dependencies between their native culture and their host culture. The children who are left in the care of family members or other women in the native country grow up without their mother or parents being Page 454  |  Top of Articlepresent. Rare home visits by the parents do not make up for the lost time. Therefore, women migrants are confronted with the problems that their children develop because of lack of supervision. Grandparents can be overwhelmed with raising their grandchildren and sometimes lack the authority or influence to handle problems well.

Some parents decide to bring their children to the host country, which can create a new set of tensions. Migrants who depend on low-skilled jobs often hold two or three jobs to fulfill their financial obligations to their own and extended families. This workload cuts family time, and children are left to themselves. Parents worry that children could end up in unhealthy relationships or be influenced by drugs and alcohol. Often these worries are perpetuated by cultural differences between the native and host country. Parents have a difficult time understanding their children because the new culture might not instill the same traditional and differential attitude toward parents as the native culture does, thereby leading to different outcomes for girls and boys.

Research has shown that migrant boys are raised more freely than are girls in some migrant communities. Girls are controlled with curfews, and parents carefully decide what activities girls can or cannot attend. These distinctive gender differences in some migrant communities in the United States affect the children's future prospects. Girls realize that one way to get out of the traditional culture and gain acceptance by the host culture is to focus on their education. Overall, girls from migrant families receive better grades than do boys and more girls plan to attend college. Boys do not show the same strategies to deal with issues brought on by migration. For example, studies of second-generation youth from the Caribbean found that boys and girls develop different mechanisms to overcome racism in the host country. Girls use education as a strategy whereas boys create an oppositional culture and are lagging in educational achievement. Hence, gender influences the migration experiences of the second generation, too. Girls and boys are influenced by their native and host cultures and the different strategies they apply determine their future success.


What these examples show is the influence of gender in the migration experience and its outcome for individual households. Fortunately, researchers have realized how important it is not just to include gender but to make it a focus point that organizes the lives of women and men migrants in specific ways. The amount of research about different migrant groups has contributed to a greater understanding of the gains and losses of gender equality through migration and its impact of households. Migration is a complex and intricate web involving two cultures, the sending and the receiving, and the gender norms emphasized by both shape the migrants themselves and their children, the second generation determining their future in the host country. In contrast to the first settlers in the United States, migration in today's world occurs on a much faster pace, thereby challenging older migration theories, such as assimilation theory. The information flow between the sending and the receiving country strengthens transnational bonds and migrants can participate in two cultures more easily. The future will show how these transnational bonds affect the sending and receiving communities regarding gender roles and gender equality. Globalization forces largely determine migration flows on the macrolevel, but women and men migrants are not passive recipients; instead, they are active agents on the microlevel.

Astrid Eich-Krohm

Further Readings

Foner, N., Rumbaut, R. G., & Gold, S. J. (Eds.). (2000). Immigration research for a new century: Multidisciplinary perspectives. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Grassmuck, S., & Pessar, P. R. (1991). Between two islands: Dominican international migration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hardill, I. (2002). Gender, migration and the dual career household. New York: Routledge.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (Ed.). (2003). Gender and U.S. immigration: Contemporary trends. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kurotani, S. (2005). Home away from home: Japanese corporate wives in the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Levitt, P. (2001). The transnational villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pessar, P. R. (1999). The role of gender, households, and social networks in the migration process: A review and Page 455  |  Top of Articleappraisal. In C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz, & J. DeWind, The handbook of international migration: The American experience (1st ed., pp. 53–70). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3073900232