A woman’s-eye view of immigration

A male immigrant is not the same as a female one. Researchers from the FEMAGE project (Needs for female immigrants and their integration in ageing societies) have studied the integration issue from the dual gender perspective of women nationals from the host countries and the women immigrants who have come to join them. The aim of the FEMAGE project is to propose possible political and social solutions that take into account the distinctive characteristics of these voluntary or involuntary female exiles.

Immigration is a universal phenomenon that meets with a mixed reception, positive or negative, depending on the host countries’ historical and socio-economic background, their integration policy, the cultural differences between foreigners and nationals, and many other factors. One such factor is gender. “The experience of men is different from that of women. Most of the women who have come to European Union countries in recent years have followed their husbands as part of a family reunification strategy. When immigrant women are plunged into this new sociocultural context, family roles change significantly. Many women become dependent on their husbands. Relationships with their children are not always easy. They encounter a series of obstacles to work, training, social integration and learning the host-country language. They worry about their future”, explains FEMAGE research coordinator, Dragana Avramov.

This tricky female immigration issue is at the heart of a survey that FEMAGE project researchers conducted in eight EU countries, five of them new Member States (1). The survey was coupled with a mirror-image data analysis to ascertain European women’s views about the presence of immigrant women (see box). “While European women’s attitudes to immigration and integration reflect those of their home country, there is a very clear divide between Eastern and Western Europe.” (2) Austrian and Finnish women have the most positive attitudes. Women from reunified Germany take an intermediate position, whilst the former socialist countries are the most hostile to “outsiders”.


Why such hostility? Very often it stems from fear of economic competition. More than half of the European women interviewed in Poland, the Czech Republic, former East Germany and Hungary view immigrant women as job-stealers. “In this country, working women are considered to be stealing men’s jobs. As both women and immigrants, we are ill-regarded on both counts”, says one immigrant woman. In Austria and former East Germany 25% and 30% of women respectively are of this opinion. However, the conventional wisdom is that foreigners are essential to fill jobs that nationals no longer wish to do. This is the view of 3 to 4 of the six women respondents interviewed in Slovenia, the former West Germany and the Czech Republic, compared with one in 10 in Hungary.

Jobs in the personal service sector (elderly care, a range of domestic services, and so on) have been open to immigrants (mainly female) for a number of years. “Many immigrant women working in these sectors are overqualified, which poses a real problem. Some are unable to get their qualifications recognised and are forced to accept jobs unrelated to their skills. This depreciation of their skills culminates in a loss of human capital, which is detrimental not only to the women themselves but to society as a whole.”

Many Russian immigrant women in the EU are in this situation, as one such woman testifies: “We have to earn a living, so we take the first job that comes along in the hope that it will only be temporary. As time goes by, our work experience becomes devalued. We also lose our self-respect. In the end we don’t even know who we are any more.”


Who we are… “This notion of identity is certainly the most complex and painful aspect of immigration. It is perceived differently according to factors such as sex, race, religion and age. Different generations of immigrants view the issue in a different light. Any wellconsidered integration policy should take the different types of situation into account.”

The FEMAGE surveys also reveal that European women (apart from western Germans) are less than keen on multiculturalism. Although West German women are in favour (more than half the women respondents found cultural exchanges interesting), only three out of 10 women in the Czech Republic and Estonia are of the same opinion. Certain “visible” characteristics (physical and behavioural traits and ways of dressing) heighten the sense of a divide between nationals and foreigners. Nationals are quick to interpret cultural signs of differentiation as a desire to remain aloof, or even as scorn for the hostcountry culture (3). But this is far from true… Researchers cite the example of Turkish and Moroccan women who enjoyed social status in their homeland before emigrating. However, when they receive no recognition from the citizens of their host country, it strengthens their conviction that only their ethnic group values them. Although they did not start out with this intent, they end up shutting themselves away in their own private sphere.

Other types of female immigrant are presented with alternative prospects, with different consequences. Teenagers and young women wish to study and earn qualifications, not just to get a job but also to embark on a career. Many such women meet with opposition from their own families, which want them to stay at home and be wives and mothers. “They face a huge struggle to succeed professionally. After that, they are unable to find a partner from their own ethnic group and run the risk of rejection by their families if they marry a foreigner. This means they have to choose between work and family.”


As with many previous integration surveys, both the European and immigrant women interviewed for FEMAGE see learning the language as the foremost factor of integration. More than 80% of the women interviewed in Estonia, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria believe that foreigners should be obliged to learn the language of the country where they settle. One of the countries in the FEMAGE study – Germany – has introduced a very simple measure: it allows immigrant women to follow remedial language classes along with their children. This gives the women an opportunity to get involved in their children’s schoolwork, meet other mothers, talk with teachers and immerse themselves in a different environment.

“Such socialisation is important because integration is not restricted to language and work. It must be seen from a wider and more complex perspective. Socialisation involves participation in the community. While individual immigrants are often held up as models of successful integration, clearly no group engages in real communication with the host society as a whole.”

Christine Rugemer

  2. All unattritubted quotes are from Dragana Avramov.
  3. It is not surprising, then, that most European women (except for Finnish women) do not consider immigration to be the solution for the population problems of an ageing continent. The process would need the acceptance of a larger number of foreigners, and we are a long way from that.


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One research project, two surveys

The FEMAGE project was implemented in eight countries with a widely differing percentage of immigrants. It ranges from 0.1 % in Poland to 25.8 % in Estonia. The percentage is between 1.5 % and 2% in Hungary, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, 8% in Germany and 10% in Austria. The researchers employed comparative, quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. They started by mining the data from the International Population Policy Acceptance Study (IPPAS). This extensive survey, based on a large sample of respondents, analyses opinions and attitudes on a number of social issues, including demography, family and kinships, and population policy. The researchers selected the IPPAS survey responses from women aged between 20 and 59 years to compare their attitudes on immigration with those of women immigrants of the same age. For this they interviewed nearly 250 female migrants from nine different ethnic groups who had been living in one of the survey countries for at least three years. Although this dual approach does not allow “scientific” comparisons of data to be made, it does give an idea of how nationals and migrants view integration and discrimination. On this basis, national and European discussion groups with experts, stakeholders and immigrant women can be set up. The ultimate aim is to provide politicians with possible ways for facilitating the social and economic integration of female immigrants.


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