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Migrant Women and Jobs in Focus

How can the share of foreign-born women be increased in the Nordic labour market? This was the key question discussed when the Swedish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers arranged a conference in mid-April. Several new reports and Nordic collaborations around the theme were also presented.


Sweden is heading the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2018 and has identified gender equality in the labour market as a key issue for the year. A conference on the entry of immigrants into the labour market, with a particular focus on women, was arranged in mid-April. Sweden’s minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson, opened the event by bringing up the issue of discrimination and the view of foreign-born women.

‘I recently met a Somali woman who grew up in Uppsala, Sweden. She told me that in Uppsala, she was a lawyer, but in Husby, an immigrant-dense Stockholm suburb, she became a Somalian. This was just another indication that we tend to define people based on ethnicity rather than competence, and I suspect that this is a problem that affects women more than men,’ she says.

The purpose of the conference was to present the latest research in the area and discuss challenges and appropriate policy changes. A new OECD report was presented by Stefano Scarpetta from the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the OECD. Among other things, the report addresses what the refugee flows to the Nordic countries as well as the employment rates for immigrant women and men have looked like in recent years.

‘The Nordic countries are facing a more difficult challenge than other OECD countries since you are accepting more migrants. A lot of work is being done, but more measures are needed as a large share of these individuals remain unemployed,’ he says.

Scarpetta’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion where the Nordic labour market ministers as well as Åland’s deputy head of government talked about political solutions to the problem.

All Nordic countries have a larger female share of the workforce than the EU average. At the same time, a large portion of the foreign-born women are unemployed. The conference also included a presentation of a recently published report about the entry of newly arrived women into the labour market. The report was written by Oxford Research at the request of the Nordic Council of Ministers and gives an overview of the support newly arrived women are offered to facilitate their transition into paid work in the Nordic countries as well as experiences regarding the effectiveness of these tools.

The Nordic co-operation was a central theme at the conference. Towards the end of the day, the conference guests listened to a presentation of a project titled Enhancing Labour Opportunities for Women in the Nordic Countries and funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ gender equality fund, which is administered by Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK). The project is a collaboration between the University of Akureyri in Iceland, the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, and Nordregio in Sweden. The aim of the project is to carry out a comparative study and share examples of best practice in order to improve the integration of migrant women in the labour market.

‘A study we did in Akureyri shows that many migrant women end up in low-status jobs that don’t correspond to their level of education. This can partly be attributed to a lack of support, which in turn is partly due to the fact that Iceland lacks a tradition of immigration,’ says Markus Meckl, professor at the University of Akureyri.

According to Meckl, the Nordic co-operation in the project is important, not least in order to learn from each other. The marginalisation problem is not unique to Iceland. Meckl feels that being both a woman and a migrant in the Icelandic labour market implies a double disadvantage.

‘Iceland, with its shorter history of migration, can learn from Sweden’s experiences. I think it is also good that we are creating networks and raising the public’s awareness about these issues,’ he says.

Updated 2 July 2020