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OECD: More flexibility needed to get female refugees into work

OECD: More flexibility needed to get female refugees into work

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

There is a need for more flexible measures to integrate newly arrived refugee women in the Nordic region, according to the OECD. Research shows that after years of fleeing, birth rates increase dramatically. When women feel safe, they have children – but that also makes it difficult for them to benefit from labour market introduction programmes.

The OECD has studied why a clearly smaller fraction of refugee women join the Nordic labour markets, not only in relation to those who already live there, but also in relation to men who arrive as refugees.

“While men fairly quickly increase their employment rate during the first five to nine years after arriving, before participation reaches its peak, there is less of an increase for women. But the participation continues to increase for 10 to 15 years before it peaks,” Stefano Scarpetta, Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD, told the Nordic Council of Ministers’ conference on refugee women’s integration into the labour market on 13 April.

The OECD study has not yet been published, but Scarpetta presented some of its results. Determining which factors influence labour market participation for a refugee woman is a bit of a statistical nightmare, however, since there are so many different aspects to take into consideration:

  • Which country does the refugee come from?
  • What education does she have?
  • What has she been working with before?
  • How gender equal is her home society?
  • How does childbirth influence the situation?
  • What is her health situation?

Newly arrived refugee women usually have a worse starting point across all of these areas compared to male refugees. The only ‘positive’ aspect is that fewer women have sought asylum. Women make up 30 percent of all asylum seekers in Europe, but make up 45 percent of the refugee population. This is because the men often flee first, while women and children join them later through family reunion programmes. 

High education resulting in the wrong job?

Although it is difficult to determine which factor is most important, women who arrive from more gender equal societies have a greater chance of accessing the labour market. If they have a higher education, the chance increases dramatically – with more than 40 percentage points. At the same time, they run a great risk of ending up in jobs they are overqualified for. 

Since unemployment is low and welfare is high in the Nordic countries, you get a somewhat skewered picture if you only focus on differences in participation between immigrant women and native born women. The extreme case is Iceland, where immigrant women actually have a higher participation rate in the Icelandic labour market than native born women have in their respective labour markets in 13 EU member states.

The difference is also big compared to the countries from which they have fled.

Fleeing is better despite everything

“The women refugees often come from countries with poor education systems, low employment rates for women and a large degree of gender inequality. If you compare refugee women in their host countries to women in their country of origin, the former are doing better,” according to the OECD report. 

In the host country, however, they get less support than male refugees, both when it comes to language training and labour market measures. But things are about to change. Several OECD countries like Canada, Germany and Sweden are increasingly focusing on targeting measures at immigrant women. 

“Statistics from Sweden show that this has a positive effect on employment rates, even though the effect is lesser for women with small children and/or low education,” says Stefano Scarpetta.

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Stefano Scarpetta

Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD (above)


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