The feminization of migration

It has become relatively common to speak about the changing role of women in migration and, in particular, of the fact that they are more and more taking the lead in migration, with their spouses joining them later. This is in contrast to the traditional view of the male worker going first, becoming established and bringing in his family once the employment and living situation has stabilized and he has saved enough to pay their way. A second traditional pattern is for the family to migrate as a unit, with the male spouse being the so-called “principal migrant”, that is, the one who arrives with a job or who enters the labor market upon arrival. Such family migration patterns are of course not the only kind observed; migration also takes place among single persons, for which there is no subsequent family reunification, except perhaps in cases where the migrant returns to the origin country to find a spouse.

One reason for the perception that migration patterns are changing, aside from the fact that women are more present in the labor market generally than in the past, is the fact that certain jobs available to immigrants are in occupations which have tended to be more taken up traditionally by women than men. This is especially the case for household occupations, particularly those involving care, whether of children or the elderly, or those related to domestic service.

Still, for most countries of the Americas, the immigration of women from other countries of the Americas remains a minority phenomenon, with 45% of immigrants overall being women, approximately the same percentage as for immigrants from the rest of the world (Table 2). Only in Chile and Costa Rica do women constitute a majority of immigrants. At the other end of the spectrum, women account for less than 40% of all immigrants in Canada, Peru and Colombia.

Table 2. Women’s share of total immigration in the Americas, 2012-2013

  Total Family Labour
  From the Americas From the rest of the world From the Americas From the rest of the world From the Americas From the rest of the world
  (percent of immigrants who are women)          
Canada 29.827404143757 47.510976948408 54.259974259974 56.419209282338 18.661196166979 42.515555438128
Peru 34.318996415771 38.83696780893 63.636363636364 51.672862453532 25.562913907285 32.315112540193
Colombia 36.707207337958 35.105768726051 36.647727272727 24.799196787149 33.16303027765 28.943014705882
Paraguay 40.802550159385 33.505687693899 na na na na
Bolivia 44.020383823051 40.869793031176 49.212598425197 43.915343915344 37.510008006405 40.866610025489
Barbados 45.596069610513 33.692052980132 ns ns 30.029052876235 21.555448871819
El Salvador 46.12517166961 39.591078066914 na na na na
Mexico 46.247397263112 40.316593672055 62.777539314005 56.7698561601 32.460822555259 25.343602988654
Guatemala 47.091508942525 36.580238262088 na na na na
Ecuador 48.935081184065 33.326693227092 56.115376015503 43.643701354857 42.207749490165 26.246692448606
Argentina 49.668993314446 40.195284832541 59.877906325508 52.172984516818 28.092524304392 26.5693722511
Chile 50.819267383615 37.046656154346 57.17803030303 47.316267547481 49.321030042918 33.28558504222
Costa Rica 57.644366671154 50.077232004943 ns ns 76.593493784713 42.857142857143
All countries 45.001201864926 46.256107292883 58.537711031319 55.909493110858 31.847130449237 40.408113529846


As family members arrive in destination countries to join the original migrant, there is a natural tendency for the balance between the two genders to equalize.  A surer indication of the extent to which the traditional pattern is changing is to look at the relative presence of men and women in family and labor migration, respectively. But here as well, one observes the traditional pattern of a significantly greater presence of women among family migrants (59%) and a lesser presence among labor migrants (32%, Figure 5). The traditional pattern is stronger among immigrants from the Americas than among those from the rest of the world.

Figure 5. Women among labor migrants in the Americas, 2012-2013

Indeed, there are only two exceptions to this in the statistics shown in Table 2, namely family migration in Colombia, where women are a distinct minority, and labor migration in Costa Rica, where women account for more than three fourths of all labor migrants. In addition, family migration in Bolivia and labor migration in Chile tend to be about evenly split between the two genders. The percentage of women among labor migrants is lowest in Canada, where the percentage of women among temporary foreign workers, including in particular agricultural workers, was scarcely 9%.

Thus, if the traditional pattern of migration into countries of the Americas is indeed changing, it is, with some exceptions, still far from a situation in which the genders are playing on average the same role.