Source country characteristics and the labour market assimilation of immigrant women

Francine Blau , Lawrence Kahn , Kerry Papps

20 December 2008



A substantial rise in immigration to the US in recent decades has increased the foreign-born share of the population from 4.8% in 1970 to 11.1% in 2000. Perhaps more dramatic has been the compositional change during that time, as the share of immigrants arriving from Europe or North America decreased sharply (from 70.4% to 18.5%), while the share from Asia and Latin America rose (from 28.3% to 78.2%).   This change in source country distribution has resulted in an immigrant population that increasingly comes from poorer countries with lower levels of education. An additional, less frequently noted feature of the immigrant population is that these immigrants typically come from countries with a more traditional division of labour by gender than the US. If immigrant women’s labour supply behaviour mirrors that in their countries of origin, they will lower the US female labour force participation rate. On the other hand, if immigrant women’s labour supply eventually assimilates to US levels, this effect will be lessened.

Source country characteristics and immigrant women’s assimilation profiles

While some evidence suggests that source country female participation does influence immigrant women’s labour supply behaviour in the US (Antecol 2000), little is known about its effect on the assimilation process. The assimilation profile can shed light on what will happen in the long run as these women are exposed to labour market conditions and social norms in the US. This will have implications for the convergence of the group to comparable natives and may impact the labour supply behaviour of the second generation of immigrants as well.

Also at issue is the shape of the assimilation profile itself. A family migration model proposed by Baker and Benjamin (1997) predicts that immigrant wives will initially take dead-end jobs to finance their husbands’ human capital investments and eventually drop out of the labour market or reduce their labour supply as their husbands’ labour market outcomes improve. Rather than convergence, this view predicts a negatively-sloped labour supply profile for immigrant women relative to natives, a finding that has been observed by Baker and Benjamin for Canada. However, for the US, Blau, Kahn, Moriarty and Souza (2003) find immigrant women’s labour supply profiles to be upward sloping, much like those of immigrant men. Here we further probe this question to determine whether the predictions of the family migration model are observed for women coming from countries with a traditional division of labour by gender. If this is the case, women from more traditional source countries will fall further behind natives and immigrants from less traditional source countries as their time in the US increases.

Even if women from both traditional and non-traditional source countries have upward sloping profiles, it is unclear a priori which group is likely to assimilate more rapidly. Some considerations suggest that assimilation profiles of women from less traditional source countries will be steeper. This steepening may occur via wages if women from countries with higher participation rates are more career-oriented and hence invest more in labour market skills. Moreover, even controlling for wages, they may be better able to search for and learn about market opportunities. An additional scenario predicting a more rapid assimilation of labour supply for such women is one where, upon arrival in the US, all immigrants experience major disruptions in their labour market activity, regardless of their source country characteristics. For example, married immigrant women from both types of source countries may be “tied movers” (Mincer 1978), reducing their initial labour market activity. However, women arriving from countries with higher female labour supply may ultimately be planning on higher labour supply in the US, thus steepening their assimilation profiles relative to women from lower female labour supply countries. On the other hand, women from countries with more traditional gender roles may have higher rates of assimilation in that they may be acculturating to US norms as well as accumulating information about US labour market opportunities. In this latter case, any initial differences in labour supply between women from more and less traditional source countries will diminish over time, whereas in the former case, initial differences will be magnified.

Empirical results

To examine the impact of source country characteristics on immigrant women’s assimilation into the US labour market, we use the 1980-2000 US censuses, which we augment with an extensive set of source country characteristics data. These include two indicators of the extent of traditional gender roles in the source country: (i) female relative to male labour force participation and (ii) women’s completed fertility. In addition, we control for other source country characteristics that may affect immigrants’ labour supply behaviour in the US, including income (GDP per capita in constant US dollars), primary and secondary school enrolment rates, the fraction of immigrants to the US from the country who were refugees, whether the country is English-speaking and whether English is an official language of the country, and the distance from the source country to the US. Conceptually important features of our analyses are that we measure these characteristics at the time each immigrant came to the US and interact each of them with years since the immigrant migrated. This is appropriate, since we would like a measure of the tastes or economic incentives one left behind in deciding to migrate and changes in the strength of their effect over time in the US. We focus on married immigrants, since they are most likely to be impacted by traditional gender roles within the family, and on immigrants who migrated as adults (the majority of immigrants) since they are more likely to be influenced by source country characteristics.

As shown in Figure 1, we find that, controlling for personal characteristics, women from high female labour supply countries work more than those from low female labour supply source countries and that this gap is substantial and roughly constant with length of residence in the US.2 The work hours of women from both types of source countries do however assimilate dramatically over time relative to comparable natives. Women from high female labour supply countries (at the 75th percentile of the distribution) work 279 hours less than comparable natives on arrival but work roughly the same number of hours as natives after 6-10 years and work at or above the native levels thereafter. Women migrating from low female labour supply countries (at the 25th percentile of the distribution) reduce their deficit from 403 hours on arrival to 126 hours (12% of the mean work hours) by the 21-30 year mark. These findings suggest that growing up in a country with less traditional gender roles facilitates the labour market assimilation of women, perhaps by giving them higher (unmeasured) human capital levels or a stronger work orientation. Men’s labour supply levels and profile slopes are unaffected by source country female labour supply, results that suggest that the female findings reflect notions of gender roles rather than overall work orientation.

Figure 1: Female immigrant labour assimilation profiles

Findings for another indicator of traditional gender roles, source country fertility rates, are broadly similar, with substantial and persistent negative effects of source country fertility on the labour supply of female immigrants, except when we control for presence of children. When we do control for children, we obtain some partial support for the family migration model: labour supply of women from high and low fertility countries converges after 6-10 years at about the level for comparable natives, but then diverges, with work hours of women from low fertility source countries hovering at around the native levels, while work hours of women from high fertility source countries progressively decrease relative to both immigrants from low fertility source countries and comparable natives. Despite this, women from high fertility countries continue to work more than they did on arrival, in contrast to a strong version of the family migration model which predicts maximum female work hours upon arrival in the US.

The nature of gender roles in source countries for immigrants to the US is changing in potentially offsetting ways. On the one hand, fertility rates are falling dramatically elsewhere relative to the US, potentially raising immigrant women’s labour supply here. On the other hand, while relative female labour force participation grew around the world between 1980 and 2000, it grew even faster in the US. These trends could potentially widen the relative gap in labour supply between native and immigrant women. However, more recently female participation rates in the US have levelled off, suggesting that source country rates may begin to catch up to the US rate. Thus, the future assimilation patterns of immigrant women into the US labour market will depend on the strength of these opposing forces.


Antecol, Heather, “An Examination of Cross-Country Differences in the Gender Gap in Labour Force Participation Rates,” Labour Economics 7, no. 4 (July 2000): 409-426.
Baker, Michael and Dwayne Benjamin, “The Role of the Family in Immigrants’ Labour-Market Activity: An Evaluation of Alternative Explanations.” American Economic Review 87, no. 4 (September 1997): 705-727.
Blau, Francine D., Lawrence M. Kahn, Joan Moriarty, and Andre Souza. "The Role of the Family in Immigrants’ Labour-Market Activity: An Evaluation of Alternative Explanations: Comment,” American Economic Review 93, no. 1 (March 2003): 429-447
Mincer, Jacob, “Family Migration Decisions,” Journal of Political Economy 86, no. 1 (October 1978): 749-73.

This column draws on Francine D. Blau, Lawrence M. Kahn and Kerry L. Papps, “Gender, Source Country Characteristics and Labour Market Assimilation Among Immigrants: 1980-2000,” NBER Working Paper 14387 (October 2008).

1 US Bureau of the Census website:
2 The figure shows simulated assimilation profiles for adult immigrant women married to adult immigrant men who came to the US from the same country and at the same time; we assume the sample averages for a set of cohort arrival dummies and the source country characteristics apart from the female relative activity rate.




Topics:  Labour markets Migration

Tags:  assimilation, US immigration, women labour supply

Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics at Cornell University

Professor of Labor Economics and Collective Bargaining at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations

Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Economics and Nuffield College, University of Oxford