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Report: Finland trails Nordics in employing immigrant women

Highly-educated migrant women have better job prospects but rarely find work that corresponds with their training.

Close-up of two people shaking hands.
Current statistics suggest that slightly more than 50 percent of immigrant women in Finland are employed. Image: Yle News / Mark B. Odom

Finland has not performed as well as its Nordic neighbours in terms of getting immigrant women into the workforce, according to a paper published by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment on Tuesday.

While almost all Nordic countries struggled with employing Somali- and Syrian-background women, Finland performed worst. In Finland, just 17 percent of Somali-background women were able to find work, compared to nearly twice as many in Sweden -- 33 percent.

Migrant women’s poor employment prospects affect their families’ financial situation. Nordic society is largely based on a two-income model, so the lack of employment opportunities for immigrant women is seen in relative poverty among these groups, the report noted.

Last week, Labour Minister Tuula Haatainen singled out migrant women as one of the groups that could be targeted to help the government reach its employment target of 75 percent by the end of its term in office.

Current statistics suggest that slightly more than 50 percent of immigrant women in Finland are employed. The government is considering focusing employment measures on groups that have found it more difficult to enter the labour market. These include migrant women, young men and over-55-year-olds.

Even highly-educated women find it difficult to get a foothold in the job market in Finland. According to ministry specialist Liisa Larja, in 2018 the employment rate among women born abroad was 55 percent, compared to 72 percent for women born in Finland.

The employment rate among migrant men in 2018 was 70 percent – not far from the rate among the native population.

Country of origin makes a difference

Women who hail from Estonia appear to have been most successful finding work in Finland. Women coming from North America, Asia and other European countries also do relatively well in the labour market, according to the review.

By contrast, women from North Africa and the Middle East, particularly migrants from Somalia and Iraq, find it hard to secure a job. One reason for the discrepancy may be the reasons for relocating to Finland.

Many Somali and Iraqi nationals come to Finland as refugees and asylum seekers, while for the most part, migrants from Estonia come to Finland specifically for work.

According to Marisel Soto Godoy, of Monika, the women’s multicultural association, motherhood may also affect employment prospects. Regardless of their country of origin, the comparison found that childless women were more likely to hold down jobs than mothers.

"It’s perhaps more natural to stay at home when the children are still very young. However returning to work happens in different ways. After having children, many Finnish women return to their previous jobs. These women [migrants] did not have a job in Finland before they became mothers. Getting into the workforce is much more difficult," Soto Godoy noted.

Highly-educated women under-utilised

While many immigrant women struggle to find work if they are not highly-educated or don’t speak Finnish, it came as a surprise to the authors of the report that a strong educational background did not ease migrant women’s path to employment.

According to the paper, 43 percent of foreign-background women between the ages of 25 and 54 have completed advanced degrees, a proportion that outstrips educational attainment in migrant and Finnish men in the same age group.

However data suggest that overall, 17 percent of immigrants have only a basic education and five percent have not completed primary school. Roughly 40 percent of refugees have no upper secondary school qualification.

The report also referenced a study the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL, which mapped health, welfare and service usage among Russian, Somali and Kurdish-background migrants. It found that 10 percent of Somali and Kurdish-origin women had trouble reading Finnish or did not read it at all.

While highly-educated foreign-background women had better employment prospects than other migrant women, they were rarely able to find work that corresponded with their level of education.

Finnish skills more essential for women

Monika’s integration programme provides Finnish-language courses and IT training as well as coaching in Finnish society and social services.

"For some people Finnish might be the obstacle to finding work, but that’s not the case for everyone. Nor is education an impediment. They may also be very well-educated. Depending on when they came to Finland they may also lack a good understanding of Finnish society," Soto Godoy added.

Foreign-background women may also need better Finnish-language skills than migrant men because of the kinds of jobs they may land in the labour market. In Finland, women are more likely to work in social and health care professions, or in other service jobs as salespersons, customer service representatives or as teachers – all roles where Finnish is essential.

Men on the other hand, may find work as engineers, as well as in construction and transport, professions where Finnish is not necessarily the only language used.

Overall, immigrant women may see their job prospects improve the more time they spend in Finland. However employment rates among this group never catch up with that of native Finns, even after they have spent 15 years here. In the case of migrant men, however, it takes just three years to close the gap.

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