Are Canadian immigrant women secondary workers?

Alicia Adsera, Princeton University
Ana Ferrer, University of Waterloo

A popular explanation of the differences between the labour supply behaviour of immigrant and native-born women points to the role of women as secondary (or lower-wage) earners in the household. In this context, economic theory suggests that financing primary worker’s investment in human capital or skill is an important determinant of secondary worker’s participation decisions. As immigrants often have to acquire host-country specific skills upon immigration, it follows that the patterns of participation should differ between immigrant and native-born secondary workers. We explore the question of whether immigrant women behave as secondary workers, remaining marginally attached to the labour market and experiencing little career progression over time. We use four waves of the Canadian Census to follow the labour force participation of female immigrant cohorts from 1991 to 2006, using the occupational skills embodied in the jobs they perform to assess their career progression relative to native born women. Occupational skills offer a new dimension in the analysis of assimilation not previously explored. We find no evidence supporting the idea that Canadian female immigrants are secondary workers in terms of labor force participation, or wages. There is however, some evidence of slower skill mobility and of low status job-traps for low educated migrants.

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Presented in Session 41: Work-family dynamics among immigrant populations