Are jobs in U.S. harder to find for married women?

Marital status makes a much greater difference in a person's likelihood to be employed than whether they are immigrants or US natives, says Katharine Donato. "This is something we didn't know before." (Credit: Jose Carlos Castro/Flickr)

The term “double disadvantage” has been used for decades by social scientists to describe employment challenges faced by foreign-born women in the United States.

But new research suggests that being married puts American women—regardless of where they were born—at a unique disadvantage.

Researchers recently re-examined the double disadvantage concept in the United States and then factored marital status into the equation.

Then they studied whether double disadvantage—marital or otherwise—existed in a number of other immigrant destination countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, Spain, Greece, Israel, South Africa, and Malaysia—and found that it looks very different in other countries.

Using census and other demographic data from 1960-2010, the researchers first looked at how gender and nationality translated to labor market participation in the United States. They found that foreign-born women were indeed less likely to have a job than native-born women for the first half of the study period.

By 1990, however, foreign-born women were working just as much as native-born women—and even though their labor force participation remained lower than men’s, immigrant women’s disadvantage had disappeared.

Meanwhile, foreign-born men were slightly more likely to work than native-born men, and this held true for the entire 1960-2010 period.

On the whole, the labor force participation rate of all men averaged about 90 percent throughout the study, while the rate of all women rose to about 75 percent in 1990 and hasn’t varied much since then.

Married or single

But when the researchers added marital status into their statistical models, the picture changed significantly.


After accounting for other relevant factors, among both immigrants and natives, married men had higher rates of employment than their single peers, but married women had significantly lower rates of employment than single women.

The researchers were surprised to discover that marital status made a much greater difference in a person’s likelihood to be employed than whether they were immigrants or US natives.

“This is something we didn’t know before,” says Katharine Donato, professor and chair of sociology at Vanderbilt University.

In all cases but one, being US-born conferred a small advantage. The exception is for single immigrant men, whose labor force rates are significantly higher than US-born, unmarried men.

In fact, being US-born, single, and male was associated with one striking disadvantage: In 2000, the employment rate of single, US-born men was equal to or slightly lower than that for single immigrant and US-born women. That disadvantage didn’t last very long, however, and even at their lowest point these men still worked significantly more than married women.

In the United States, then, the true double disadvantage isn’t being foreign-born and female, it’s being married and female.

What about other countries?

“Migration has become a much more globalized experience,” Donato says. “So we thought,  ‘Let’s look at other immigrant populations around the world.'”

And they found that the pattern looks very different in other countries. Examining the most recent census data for each country, they found that in every case, men (married and single) have higher rates of employment than women (married and single). In Brazil and Canada, native-born workers have a clear advantage over foreign-born ones—classic examples of the double disadvantage as it has been understood for the past 30 years.

But in Malaysia, Venezuela and Spain, the reverse is true—foreign-born workers are more likely to be employed than native ones. In Israel, nativity doesn’t have a very strong effect on the employment rate of men, and in Greece and South Africa it has almost no effect on the employment rate of women.

The researchers then dialed in further and found that marriage helped explain these findings for Spain, Israel and Malaysia, compared those findings to the United States.

In Spain, married men—whether immigrants or natives—had similar employment rates and participated in the labor force more than either group of single men. In addition, foreign-born single men reported more labor force activity than native-born single men.

Yet, among women in Spain, single foreign-born women worked the most, followed by native-born single women, then foreign-born, and native-born married women.

In Israel, native-born married men, followed by immigrant married men, worked more than their single peers, whose employment rates were similar to married and unmarried native-born and immigrant women.

Of all the countries studied, marriage was the most significant stratifier for women in Malaysia. Although men’s labor force participation differed very little across nativity and marital status groups, married native- and foreign-born women worked significantly less.

However, unmarried women’s participation rates were much higher, with single foreign-born women working almost as much as single native-born men.

The findings are published in the journal International Migration Review.

Source: Vanderbilt University