BRINGING HOME NEW NORMS: Evidence from the Middle East of how return migration affects gender beliefs

Migration is responsible for new gender norms spreading across the world, according to research by Michele Tuccio and Jackline Wahba, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016. But their study of temporary migration from Jordan to more conservative and highly unequal neighbouring countries suggests that these norms can encourage even greater discrimination against women.

The researchers analyse data from the 2010 Jordan Labor Market Panel Survey, which covers around 5,100 households and 25,000 people. They find that women in households where somebody has returned from a more conservative country become more conservative themselves.

The values on which women became more conservative range from equality of opportunity in education and employment to whether women need permission to visit friends and relatives to women''s rights to make decisions for the family. The study also looks at outcomes for women such as employment, school dropouts and fertility. The authors comment:

''Although our findings may reflect a negative impact of international migration, they also imply that migrants moving to destinations with better institutions and norms would bring back better norms.''


Exposure to different practices and ideas through international migration can be a powerful tool to modify norms in source countries. In fact, when migrants visit or return home, they bring back norms and attitudes that they assimilated abroad, and those may spread around their origin communities.

In their study, Michele Tuccio and Jackline Wahba show that international return migration is a powerful channel of gender norm transmission. Remarkably, however, they find that return migrants may also transfer discriminatory norms from highly unequal destination countries.

The study focuses on Jordan, a Middle-Eastern, non-oil middle-income economy where both gender inequality and emigration rates are high. Although women''s educational attainment has gradually reached the level of their male counterparts, Jordan still has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world at 15% in 2010, and women''s economic role in Jordan does not correspond to the pattern seen in similar middle-income countries.

The authors ask to what extent temporary migration to more conservative neighbouring countries drives discriminatory gender norms in Jordan.

Using the Jordan Labor Market Panel Survey 2010 (JLMPS), a nationally representative dataset covering about 5,100 households and 25,000 individuals, the authors measure three different sets of gender norms exploiting rich information on:

(i) the self-perceived role of women in the society, such as equality of opportunity in education and employment;

(ii) women''s freedom of mobility, including whether women need permission to move, go to the local market or visit friends and relatives;

(iii) female decision-making, both in terms of purchasing day-to-day goods as well as bargaining power and agency within the family.

In addition, the authors study female outcomes such as employment, school dropouts and fertility.

Taking into account the non-randomness of return migrants, the study finds that women with a returnee in the household are more likely to bear discriminatory gender norms than women in households with no migration experience. Similar findings are obtained when examining women''s freedom of mobility and decision-making power. Moreover, the impact of return migration goes well beyond perceptions and negatively affects women''s outcomes as well.

Interestingly, the results are driven by returnees from more conservative Arab countries, which have a high level of gender inequalities. This confirms the authors'' initial hypothesis of a transfer of gender norms through return migration. But in their case study on Middle East return migration, this does not promote better institutions at home, but instead encourages greater discrimination against women if the returnee has lived in a highly conservative destination.

These findings suggest that migrants absorb destination norms even if those norms are not more democratic or equitable. Although this may reflect a potential negative impact of international migration, it also implies that migrants moving to destinations with better institutions and norms would indeed transfer superior norms.

Notes for editors: ''Can I Have Permission to Leave the House? Return Migration and the Transfer of Gender Norms'' by Michele Tuccio and Jackline Wahba, IZA Discussion Paper No. 9216, 2015. Available at: http://ftp.iza.org/dp9216.pdf. Michele Tuccio and Jackline Wahba are at the University of Southampton.

Prof Jackie Wahba

Council member (until 2025)