Intersectionality at a Crossroads: How Migrant Status, Gender, Race, and Culture Effect Employment Opportunities for Resettled and Immigrant Women

Intersectionality at a Crossroads: How Migrant Status, Gender, Race, and Culture Effect Employment Opportunities for Resettled and Immigrant Women

The intersectionality of gender, race, immigrant status, and culture all pay a major role in disadvantaging women in the workplace in countries where they are resettled. Immigrant status and race disadvantage people because they contribute to differences in language, level of education, and availability of opportunities of employment for individuals. Gender and culture disadvantage individuals because cultural norms and gender roles and ideals may contribute to the type of work in which individuals engage. These factors are all combined for immigrant and refugee women, and this results in unique difficulties in employment opportunities as they move to a new place. 

Women are underrepresented in the highest paying jobs in the workforce (Cook & Glass, 2009). This is described as the glass ceiling effect, which is the phenomena of men easily rising to the top of the employment ladder, while women are trapped by a ceiling in lower paying and status jobs (Cook & Glass, 2009). Women may be able to see the top of the ladder, but they are unable to reach it. Barriers that make up the glass ceiling come in different forms. First, women are stereotyped to be more emotional and less rational, qualities unattractive in leadership. (Cook & Glass, 2009). Additionally, motherhood and familial gender roles acts as a barrier to women in employment (Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper, 2010). Women who have children may not receive high positions of employment because pregnancy and maternity leave take them out of work for periods of time (Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper, 2010). A woman on maternity leave may make the company less efficient, and therefore jobs are given over to men who would not take off work for their children. This contributes to the idea that women are more likely to prioritize their children over their jobs, whereas men are stereotyped as caring more about work and less about families. This stereotype is harmful to both men and women, and it greatly affects the employment opportunities for women. 

A lack of female mentors in high level positions is another barrier that makes up the glass ceiling (Cook & Glass, 2009). Without female mentors, employers do not have high achieving women who prove the stereotype that women are less likely to achieve in leadership positions (Cook & Glass, 2009). The stereotype of women lacking ambition and leadership remains and women will continue to be passed over for those positions to men. Additionally, without female mentors, women lack the support they need to be able to succeed in these positions (Cook & Glass, 2009). Without women who can offer encouragement, advice, and recommendation to other women striving to earn spots in high paying positions, women have no one to lean onto for support. Further, when race is taken into consideration, women of color hold even less high power positions than white women, meaning there are even less mentoring figures for minority women (Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper, 2010). This poses a major challenge in the advancement of women of different races. Further, if a minority woman also holds immigrant or refugee status, it’s even harder to find a mentor who understands your exact needs in employment (Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper, 2010). As a result, the intersectionality of race, gender, and migration status all pose major challenges to women in the workplace.  

Currently, over 65 million people, men and women, are displaced from their homes, the highest number of displaced people in history (Figures at a Glance, 2019). Those who displaced end up finding their homes in one of several ways. First, conflict may cease to exist in their home country and they return home (Boyd, 1999). Second, they start a new life in the country in which they sought refuge in (Boyd, 1999). Third, they could be granted resettlement and move to a new country to start a new life (Boyd, 1999). Percentage-wise, few refugees are resettled because host countries, like the United States, limit the numbers of people take in (Boyd, 1999). For those who are resettled, they may face even more hardship while adjusting to a new life, finding housing and employment and navigating specifics of a culture different from their own. (Boyd, 1999). When it comes to those refugees who are resettled, there is an average of 4 women to every 10 men (Boyd, 1999). Fewer women are resettled than men, and those women who are resettled are often married and move to the new countries with their husbands and children (Boyd, 1999). Very few single women seek resettlement on their own, posing further challenges for those women who are resettled who must now navigate their roles in their own culture along with the differences in a new country. 

Culture plays a major role in the problem of resettled women in employment. In Middle Eastern and African countries, where large numbers of refugees come from, patriarchal ideals dominate society (Lokort, 2018). As a result, women are mainly seen to possess solely mother and domestic roles. Whereas men maintain are present in the public sphere and serve as head of households and the breadwinners, women are stuck at home, away from the public (Lokort, 2018). In these societies, women are cared for by their fathers until marriage, then they become under the control of their husbands. There is little need for women to be educated or for them to be prepared to go into the workforce because they will be taken care of by the men (Lokort, 2018). Rather, women are expected to be mothers and care for their children, and they remain under the stereotype of being too weak and vulnerable for the workforce (Lokort, 2018). 

Putting immigrant status aside, a study by Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper (2010) demonstrates the barriers that Middle Eastern women face in the workforce that result from cultural ideals. Similar to barriers of United States women that create a glass ceiling, Middle Eastern women face barriers of family commitment, lack of support, and lack of mentors (Hutchings, Metcalfe, & Cooper, 2010). Where Middle Eastern women differ from white women comes from the influence of Islam the ideas in culture that are built from Islam being the dominant religion. Equality does not result from an equal opportunity in the working environment, but rather it comes about from employment opportunities that are separate but equal. As a result, there is a type of segregation that develops between the roles of men and women in the work place. The ideas of separate but equal play a role in barring women from attaining a role in certain jobs that are male dominant. This concept is can be explained by social role theory, where gender stereotypes arise from the different roles that men and women have occupied in their work (Bosson, Vandello, & Buckner, 2019). For example, stereotyping women as nurturing because they fulfill the roles of teachers. In a separate but equal work environment, women may still be stereotyped into certain roles and may not actually end up in somewhat equal positions as the men. For those women who do break the sphere of gendered work, there a very few women they can look up to for support, and so it may be a challenging to achieve any job outside their gendered work.

Further, resettlement status disadvantages both men and women from employment opportunities in a country they are resettled in. A study by Bevelander (2009) looked into the realities of employment of resettled refugees in Sweden. Sweden’s total population consists of thirteen percent foreign born individuals. In this study, it was found that those that migrate to cities and already have a higher-level of education achieve higher paying jobs than those with little education (Bevelander, 2009). It was also found that those who are characterized as resettled refugees, earned less overall in their salaries than native born Swedes. Even with a college degree, resettled refugees maintained lower levels of employment than native Swedes. On average, it took up to 20 years or more for resettled refugees to catch up to the employment level of native Swedes, meaning that it may take up to retirement age for a refugee to make as much as a native person (Bevelander, 2009). Major barriers to gaining better employment include not knowing the language and either not having an education, or not having a college degree that counts at the same level in the resettlement countries as in a person’s country of origin. Finally, this study found that refugee women specifically were ranked the lowest in employment compared to all groups in the study. This demonstrates that immigrant status disadvantages individuals in employment, and adding gender to this status disadvantages an individual even further.  

Even worse, adding gender with immigrant status adds even more challenges in the workplace. A study by Hsieh, Sönmez, Apostolopoulos, & Lemke (2017) looked into issues affecting immigrant women in the workforce in the country they move to. This study focused on Latina hotel workers in the Southeast of the United States. The Gulf Coast is a highly trafficked tourist area, and it results in a high demand for hotel housekeepers and laborers. Latina migrants to the United States take on these low skill level jobs. This study was composed of qualitative interviews of the immigrant women hotel workers and set about to uncover themes of issues that affect the Latina workers (Hsieh et. al., 2017). This study found that many of the housekeepers they interviewed complained about feeling like they were being taken advantage of by their employers. Women interviewed had the commonality of being forced to work overtime without pay. They were performing work that had been taking a toll on their bodies, but they were not being paid for sick days or medical coverage (Hsieh et. al., 2017). Additionally, Latina women felt that they received harsher treatment from their managers than other women on staff received. This harsh treatment was especially prevalent coming from other Latina women who served as managers, demonstrating that housekeepers received less support from their bosses who shared a similar background. Further, women felt unsecure in their jobs. The idea that the women were easily replaceable in their unskilled work meant that women feared being fire and were discouraged in fighting for better treatment from their employers.  

This study demonstrates several underlying issues for immigrant women in employment. First, lack of language skills and security in their jobs mean that their position is vulnerable. As a result of their lack of language skills and possible lack of education, immigrant women may be unqualified to move into higher paying and more secure job roles. Additionally, while in the study there were Latina women working in higher paying roles, these women do not serve as mentors towards the housekeepers. Cook and Glass (2009) argued that women in positions of power can be mentors to women of similar backgrounds helping to advance in their workplace, however, the Latina managers of the Latina hotel workers actually provided no support. Rather, they made it harder for the women to advance or feel secure at work (Hsieh et. al., 2017). The Latina managers may backlash against the Latina workers because of their fear of falling into stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the fear of confirming a negative stereotype of one’s group that one belongs to (Bosson, Vandello, & Buckner, 2019). Since the Latina workers may already be viewed negatively, the Latina managers may try to separate themselves out of the grouping of being Latina which results in the harsh treatment of the hotel workers. They may also negotiate with their own identity. In order to protect their own status for a job that they have worked to succeed in, they denigrate women of their same background. They begin to identify less as Latina working women and closer to the white working women and male managers. This type of identity negotiation makes them less likely to help others climb up to secure job roles. This reality is seen in the Hsieh, Sönmez, Apostolopoulos, & Lemke (2017) study focusing on Latina immigrants, but can be translated to women of other refugee status and women of other racial backgrounds. 

The difference in whether a person has refugee status or immigrant status may also affect the ability for individuals to find jobs. Resettled refugees are often aided by outside organizations that help people find housing and employment when they first arrive to a new country (Allen, 2009). Additionally, resettled refugees often receive some assistance when they are first resettled, meaning that even before they find employment, they are supported economically (Allen, 2009). Immigrants, on the other hand, may not receive the same kind of support that resettled refugees receive. Immigrants migrate to countries without the aid of organizations. They receive no financial support or aid in finding houses and jobs. While there are organizations that immigrants can reach out to for help, they do not have the same luxury as resettled refugees as being already connected to those organizations. As a result, employment opportunities may be even harder to find for immigrant women than for resettled refugee women. 

There are ways that access to good employment opportunities can be promoted for immigrant and resettled women. Culture can play a role in helping resettled and immigrant women find employment. Large networks of resettled women in an area create a large support system for women who are new to a country (Allen, 2009). For example, women with children who are too young for school can still find employment without worrying about childcare because other resettled women in their community may be able to help watch their children while they interview for jobs (Allen, 2009). Further, a large social network of women can be beneficial because of the shared background that the women may share. Resettled refugee and immigrant women may understand what it is like to navigate families, a new culture, and finding employment. They form their own group identity, and having this group support system can aid in the empowerment of the women to want to go outside the home and find work.

Lack of education is a major barrier to gaining employment when women immigrate to a new country. Worldwide, education for girls is less available than for boys. In refugee camps, education for both boys and girls is even less because of a lack of funding and resources (Her Turn, 2019). Only 61 percent of children living as refugees have access to education (Her Turn, 2019). However, education for refugee girls is an extremely important in solving issues in employment after they are resettled. First, education in camps help girls to find work, work to stay healthy, and keep a level of hope while living away from their home (Her Turn, 2019). Going to school helps keep girls more hopeful because it establishes a level of stability in their lives while living in a place where there is little stability. Additionally, education provides women with better job opportunities. In places that have equal opportunity for boys and girls in education, the average income is increased by 23 percent (Her Turn, 2019). Educated women may also make up to 20 percent more than uneducated women (Her Turn, 2019). Providing education to girls also empowers women. Education helps girls be more confident and become more aware of their rights (Her Turn, 2019). They may speak out against unfair treatment and empower them to want to enter the workforce, gaining more opportunities for women living in dominant patriarchal societies. Finally, women who have received an education are more likely to send their daughters to school and so that they can receive an education (Her Turn, 2019). The promotion of education for girls results in a positive cycle in which more and more girls can eventually receive and education. 

Educating boys and men on the importance of education for girls is also extremely important for aiding women to go into future employment (Lokort, 2018). By promoting education for girls, ideals of gender roles for women may be broken. For example, by seeing that girls can get an education and work, the stereotype that women are weak and vulnerable is broken (Lokort, 2018). Men may value the role of women working outside the home. In resettlement, this value is important for families starting a new life with very little financial support. Husbands would value the work women perform in order to support their families outside of just motherhood. 

The intersectionality of immigrant status, gender, race, and culture creates unique barriers for women entering the workforce. Patriarchal ideals and family life keep women out of the workforce and at home. Immigrant status creates less opportunities for women to go into the workforce, and when they do, they are often stuck doing low pay, unskilled work with little room for advancement. However, educational opportunities in refugee camps and programs in countries women move too can help improve employment prospects for women. Further, support systems of other women and their husbands help empower and provide the opportunity for women with families to enter the work force. An increase in immigrant women in the work force also result an increase in women who can then mentor other women looking for employment. By increasing education and empowering women, there are more opportunities for them to succeed in jobs after resettlement or immigration, even with the barriers of intersectionality affecting them.


Allen, R. (2009). Benefit or burden? Social capital, gender, and the economic adaptation of refugees. International Migrant Review, 43(2), 332-365. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7379.2009.00767.x

Bevelander, P., Hagström M., & Rönnquvist, S. (2009) Resettled and included? The employment and integration of resettled refugees in Sweden. Holsmberg, Sweden: Malmö University.

Bosson, J. K., Vandello, J. A., & Buckner, C. E. (2019). The psychology of sex and gender. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publishing.

Boyd, M. (1999). Gender, refugee status and permanent settlement. Gender Issues, 17(1), 5-25.

Cook, A. & Glass, C. (2014). Women and top leadership positions: Towards an institutional analysis. Gender, Work, and Organization, 21(1), 91-103. doi:10.1111/gwao.12018

Lokort, M. (2018). Syrian refugees: thinking beyond gender stereotypes. Forced Migration Review, 57, 33-35.

Hsieh, Y. C. J., Sönmez, S., Apostolopoulos, Y., & Lemke, M. K. (2017). Perceived workplace mistreatment: Case of Latina hotel housekeepers. IOS Press, 56, 55-65.

Hutching, K., Metcalfe, B. D., & Cooper, B. K. (2010). Exploring Arab Middle Eastern women’s perceptions of barriers to, and facilitators of, international management opportunities. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(1), 61-83. doi:10.1080/09585190903466863

UNHCR. (2019). Figures at a glance. Retrieved from

UNHCR. (2019). Her turn. Retrieved from