Highly-Skilled but Unemployed: The Absence of Expat Wives from the Labor Market Cooking utensiles brought from (south) India by an Indian expat wife

Highly-Skilled but Unemployed: The Absence of Expat Wives from the Labor Market

“Highly-skilled migration” in the Netherlands is a largely male affair. This is especially true for Indians who make up the largest group of “highly-skilled” migrants to the country. This blog examines why many of the Indian “expat wives” stay unemployed.

The Dutch labor market is notoriously unfair to women, especially in its upper echelons. Although women’s labor participation, on the whole, is high, their jobs are often part-time ones that do not lead to higher level positions, and equal pay remains an issue of concern. Childcare in the Netherlands is also rather expensive and can form an economic barrier to full-time employment. Migrant women’s economic participation can be further hindered by racial and religious discrimination. Moreover, their qualifications, obtained in India or elsewhere, are not always recognized by employers.

Staying temporarily but expected to learn the local language

Highly-skilled migration to the Netherlands is not a controversial political issue but migration more generally has been highly politicized since the late 1990s. The development of integration policies targeted primarily at former blue-collar guest workers from Morocco and Turkey and their wives – brought with it a cultural fetishism for the Dutch language. Research on highly skilled refugee women found that they often believed they were not promoted because their “Dutch was not good enough”. Even in international companies and universities operating in English, fluent Dutch is often a job requirement for local candidates. Many of the Indian women we spoke to were told by potential employers that fluent Dutch was a requirement for employment. A lack of Dutch language skills was rarely ever an issue for their spouses.

“Expat wives” also find themselves in a position of structural dependence that employers may recognize. Their visa status in the Netherlands is dependent on their husband’s status, a status understood by the government, employers and many migrants themselves to be temporary. This temporal state may also discourage women from investing in the search for employment and in acquiring Dutch language skills. Furthermore, many Indian “expat wives” are expected to preserve “Indian culture” abroad through mothering, cooking, organizing religious practices, and maintaining contact with family in India. These domestic tasks all take a great deal of time.

An opportunity for self-development

While there are multiple structural constraints related to the particularities of the Dutch labor market, the nature of the international highly skilled labor market itself may be a factor in low employment rates of qualified migrant women. The neoliberal ethos underlying this market requires subjects to be continuously “self-developing”. Our research showed that despite being largely dependent on their husbands – due to their migration status and unemployment – that expat wives saw the experience of being abroad in and of itself as an opportunity for “self-development”. Paid employment is not always necessary for the acquisition of the cultural capital needed on the international labor market. Thus, several women we interviewed gave up on their job searches and gladly spent their time doing volunteer work, cultural activities or focused their energies on family life. Just being in Europe was enough to help them “develop” themselves.

Reasons for expat wives’ unemployment

The unemployment of many Indian expat wives in the Netherlands is due to both structural constraints in the Dutch labor market, cultural expectations, and the choices of the women themselves. Policymakers charged with improving the position of the Netherlands in the global “battle for the brains” should be concerned. The male bias in the recruitment of skilled migrants may mean that the country is missing out on the talents of many women. Furthermore, unemployed wives may encourage their husbands to leave the Netherlands sooner than planned so that they too can work. Even if some women are happy to enjoy life without a job, investment in lowering the threshold to active labor market participation should be a priority to those concerned with issues of migration, economic development, and emancipation.

(Editor's note: this blog has been reposted with permission from the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR). See can find the original article here.)


Kate Kirk

Bedankt Karo. Ja je mag het gebruiken . Groeten , Kate Kirk


Geweldige blog! Het is heel leuk om te lezen. Ik wacht ongeduldig op meer.Kan ik gebruik maken van een fragment van jouw blog? Www.wiebelter.info/blog

Kate Kirk

Thank you for your comments; they touch on the difficult issue of conceptualizing individual choice within a given socio-cultural context. This blog was inspired by empirical data collected among highly educated India women living in the Netherlands because of their husband's job. While many women did wish to work but could not, we also spoke to women who were happy not to work (please see the 4th paragraph).

While the bias of the anthropologist herself is always an issue we must grapple with and reflect on in our work, the ideas presented here are grounded in the empirical data collected on the perspectives of " expat wives" themselves. This blog also tries to explain their unemployment by presenting other findings on (migrant) women's labor market participation in the Netherlands. I do make the argument that this form of unemployment is problematic for individual women, the diversity of the Dutch labor force and the socio-economic growth stimulated by knowledge migration.

Women in other social/cultural contexts may indeed have very different ideas and motivations which should be understood and respected.

Koen Yap

It suprises me that as an anthroplogical blog that you don't go beyond our own western bias that women should work. From my own long time experience of living and working in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan I learned that many women preferred to not work and to allow the spouse to earn the family income. Even though many women I knew were well educated they preferred to stay home. An important reason was that is was status enhancing to do so because it showed that the man was earning more than enough to support the family which also increased the social status of the family.

Tjay-Koen Yap (social anthropologist and sociologist)

Add a comment