Gender and Skilled Immigration: Challenges and Recommendations

By Dr Anna Boucher, University of Sydney

With population ageing occurring in all advanced industrial nations, immigration policy is one key way to augment the skill base of domestic labour forces. Though the economic benefit of skilled immigration for receiving states has been a central policy focus globally, the equity considerations of such policies have attracted less attention. Yet, in the global race for human capital, gender equality matters.

Research demonstrates that while women comprise an equal proportion of migrant stock globally, they are underrepresented within skilled immigration flows (Brücker et al 2013 and Piper and Yamanaka 2008). This is particularly true of women from key developing countries in the global South (i.e. Sharma 2006: 129). These data stand despite the increasing educational achievements of women globally, which suggests that governments utilise factors other than educational status to assess “skill” within selection criteria (Brücker et al 2013). As such, labour migration is segmented by both country of origin and by gender. Considering these factors is important for understanding intersectional equality as gender discrimination can operate alongside other forms of disadvantage.

Why should policy makers care about these immigration trends? We might argue that different rates of male and female migration result from individual choice and therefore do not present policy concerns for the governments of immigration countries. The relevance of gender in skilled immigration policy will seem opaque. Given prevailing state sovereignty over immigration selection, some will argue that gendered immigration policies are the prerogative of selecting countries and therefore unimportant in the design of skilled immigration policies. I argue that when states rejected discriminatory immigration policies in the 1960s and 1970s, they also rejected a system of selection that differentiated on the basis of people’s uncontrollable innate characteristics, including ethnicity and gender. The non-discriminatory principle that is foundational to modern immigration states imposes some limits upon the design of selection criteria.

Furthermore, the structural impediments in place within skilled immigration selection policies – impediments that reinforce the broader gender realities of the global labour market – reveal the policy dimension at hand and possible actions for policy makers. A review of 37 skilled immigration policies – with high numbers of flows – across 12 major countries of immigration highlights four ways in which female applicants can be supported or stymied in the design of skilled immigration policies:

1. Policy makers can enact policies that are subject to gender audits and that publish gender disaggregated data. On the other hand, they can overlook this requirement.

2. Policy makers can introduce policies that acknowledge general human capital. A general human capital model benefits women because this form of skills accrual is more responsive to career breaks over the key child bearing and rearing years. Alternatively and less gender-sensitive in their effects, specific-skill or employer-sponsored models are not adaptive to women’s more fluid career trajectories. Naturally, adopting a general human capital model represents a shift away from demand-driven selection. However, when this model was adopted in key jurisdictions, such as Canada from 2002-2012, the labour market outcomes were robust and the gender benefits were considerable (CIC 2010; Boucher 2016).

3. Policy makers can acknowledge occupation areas that are dominated more by female workers, such as caregiving. Or, as is more frequently the case, policy makers can categorise caregiving as “unskilled”, rendering migrant workers in this sector more likely to enter through low-skilled or irregular channels. Recognising care work as “skilled” might be based both on the training of care workers but also on years of practical on-the-job training.

4. Policy makers can introduce skilled immigration policies that ameliorate the differences that men and women face because of different career trajectories. They can introduce more generous age limits for skilled immigrant applicants and they can permit part-time and non-continuous work experience as admission requirements. They also can permit part-time work and career breaks following immigration entry (Boucher 2016: Chapters 2-3). Furthermore, requirements around full-time and continuous work in terms of access to sponsorship rights and permit maintenance also can disadvantage women at the settlement stage.

Against these gender equality indicators, the review of 37 skilled immigration visas revealed mixed gender outcomes. No country performs perfectly against these measures and many perform poorly, enacting policies that fail to accommodate life course differences, policies that only select those with “specific skills” in male-dominated sectors and policies that are not subject to gender audits. What are the implications of these findings?

First, gender equality principles are not well reflected in most existing skilled immigration selection policies. As argued above, this ought to be a central feature of immigration selection policy. Second, immigration policies that distinguish between high- and low-skilled programmes risk stratifying migrants into groups based on gender and country of origin. These programmes, in turn, carry different benefits and disadvantages for selected migrants. For instance, while high-skilled programmes may lead to permanent residency and naturalisation opportunities, low-skilled programmes can reinforce the social, economic and political precariousness of affected migrants (Ruhs 2013). Third, policy makers have the capacity to address these concerns by introducing more gender-sensitive skilled immigration policies.

So, what is the way forward? Consider five recommendations:1

1. Policy makers should publish gender-disaggregated data for all aspects of skilled and unskilled immigration selection policies. Gender and country of origin (and examining possible interactions between gender and country of origin) should be included as relevant controls in all statistical studies of immigration outcomes. For example, studies on the employment outcomes of recent migrants do not always consider opportunities for both men and women separately for both principal and secondary migration applicants, making an analysis by gender difficult. While longitudinal studies may include both genders in their analysis, often these studies are not disaggregated along primary and secondary lines, meaning that dependent spouses who do not meet selection criteria are considered alongside primary applicants who do. This aggregation is misleading as to the true proportion of women who meet the selection criteria, as they generally are secondary applicants.

2. Policy makers should select skilled immigrants as a couple (where relevant) rather than as individuals, with a trailing spouse accompanying the main applicant but not having her (or his) skills assessed. Each couple should be able to contribute equal points to skilled immigration selection assessments. At present, no country undertakes this option. However, both the Australian and Canadian points test include some points for spouses. As such, a revised points test is plausible that expands this small allocation of points to equal points for both spouses. Single applicants could apply under a separate points test, and governments could administer a quota for migrants under each separate points test to ensure that neither couples nor singles face discrimination.

3. Policy makers should introduce provisions for career breaks that permit an age stop for the purposes of skilled immigration if an applicant engaged in child rearing activities immediately before applying. While this policy is currently not in practice, Canada does stretch out the period that applicants can gain work experience for skilled immigration selection if they show prior caregiving responsibilities. Such a revision would apply a similar logic to the ways in which age limits are set for skilled immigration applicants.

4. Policy makers should consider entry opportunities under skilled streams for care workers, whose skills could appropriately be viewed as “skilled.” This reform can operate alongside efforts to raise the wages of workers in this sector, which is sometimes presented as an argument against their categorisation as skilled workers (for a discussion see Cangiano et al 2009).

5. Policy makers should carefully monitor skilled temporary immigration schemes to ensure intersectional diversity in terms of gender and source country (see Boucher 2016, Chapter 7). This is an area of selection where entry statistics appear to be most skewed in favour of men from Western nations. To date, such analysis has not been undertaken sufficiently, but several governments, including Australia and Canada, produce such data. Thus, further analysis could be pursued easily.

In short, gender is a central fulcrum of skilled immigration selection. However, present analysis of the impact of such policies upon gender outcomes of applicants is implicit rather than explicit in government policy making. Bringing a gender lens to bear on immigration policies in a transparent and consistent fashion will improve the chances of skilled immigration entry for women and individuals from key source countries. This would enable equitable outcomes in this increasingly important policy area. At the same time, it will ensure that all applicants irrespective of their gender identity will have equal opportunities to apply for, and succeed at, skilled immigration entry.

Development Matters
is kicking off the New Year with a series of blogs that focus on international migration and development. This is the third and final blog in the series.

Read the first blog of this series: Migration: An overlooked tool for local development.

Read the second blog of this series: Human migration, environment and climate change.

Find out more about the work of the OECD’s Development Centre on Migration and its Perspectives on Global Development.


Boucher, A. (2016) Gender, Migration and the Global Race for Talent, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Brücker, H., C. Stella, and A. Marfouk. 2013. ‘A New Panel Data Set on International Migration by Gender and Educational Attainment.’ In Migration: New Developments, Spring 2013, NORFACE , 31–2 .

Cangiano, A., I. Shutes, S. Spencer, and G. Leeson . 2009 . Migrant Care Workers in Ageing Societies: Research Findings in the United Kingdom. Oxford: COMPAS.

CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) . 2010 . Evaluation of the Federal Skilled Worker Program: Evaluation Division . Ottawa : CIC, Research and Evaluation Division.

Piper, N., and K. Yamanaka. 2008. ‘Feminised Migration in East and Southeast Asia and the Securing of Livelihoods.’ In New Perspectives on Gender and Migration: Livelihoods, Rights and Entitlements, edited by N. Piper, 159–88. London: Routledge.

Ruhs, M. 2013. The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Sharma, N. 2006. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada. Toronto University Press.

1.See the author’s book, Gender, Migration and the Global Race for Talent, for more details on the arguments and recommendations summarised in this blog. The book presents a fuller, peer-reviewed, academically evidenced analysis with further references.