NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Culture and Norms Affect Immigrant Women's Work

The effect of source-country female labor supply on an immigrant woman's work hours in the United States remains strong and positive even after the researchers control for her own labor supply before coming to the United States.

The share of the U.S. population that is foreign-born has risen from 4.8 percent in 1970 to 12.2 percent in 2009. Furthermore, the combined Asian and Latin American share of U. S. immigrants was 81.1 percent in 2009, a fact that may be important because the culture and norms surrounding the issue of women's work outside the home in a woman's home country influence whether she will be employed in the United States.

In Substitution between Individual and Cultural Capital (NBER Working Paper No. 17275), authors Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn analyze data from the New Immigrant Survey. They find that women who migrate from countries with relatively high levels of female labor supply work more once they arrive in the United States. Furthermore, the effect of source-country female labor supply on an immigrant woman's work hours in the United States remains strong and positive even after the researchers control for her own labor supply before coming to the United States.

The researchers also find that source-country female labor supply has a much stronger effect for those who did not work for pay in their home country than for those with prior work experience. Moreover, there is a stronger impact of pre-migration work experience on work in the United States for women from source countries with low female labor supply than for women from high-female-labor-supply countries.

The discovery of this negative interaction effect between a female immigrant's previous work experience and the prevalence of female labor supply in her home country in predicting immigrant women's U.S. work hours and wages suggests that cultural capital can substitute for individual job-related human capital in affecting preparedness for work in the United States. The large positive effect of source-country female labor supply on the work hours of women who did not work before migrating suggests that there can be substantial cultural or social capital effects on immigrant women's labor supply.

In most economic analyses of labor supply, an individual's preparedness for work depends on traditional measures of human capital, such as education or prior work experience. But by comparing immigrant women who come to the United States from different countries with different gender roles, and with or without prior experience, this research suggests that cultural capital -- that is, women's work roles in the source country -- is also an important source of labor market skills, as well as an influence on preferences for market work.

--Lester Picker

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