Working Paper

Family Migration in a Cross-National Perspective: The Importance of Institutional and Cultural Context

Published: 2015

Non-Technical Summary:

In post-industrialized countries gender plays an important role in couples’ decision to undertake long-distance residential relocations, or family migrations. Typically, men initiate family migrations to improve their work careers, while women follow their partners and experience negative impacts on their employment and earnings. Given that men’s careers tend to be prioritized in family moves, it is not surprising that more traditional male-breadwinner couples (i.e. couples with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker) migrate more often than less traditional dual-earner couples (i.e. couples in which both the male and female spouse are employed).

We revisit this issue using a cross-national comparative perspective and argue that national levels of support towards female employment and normative expectations about gender roles should influence the relationship between couple type and family migration. In countries in which women’s employment is highly supported and gender attitudes are more progressive decisions to migrate should be more gender egalitarian than in countries in which women’s employment is not well supported and gender attitudes are more traditional. Hence, all else being equal, we expect that the difference in family migration rates between male-breadwinner and dual-earner couples will be smaller in the former compared to the latter.

To test this, we use harmonised longitudinal data from four large-scale datasets from Australia, Britain, Germany and Sweden covering the 1992-2011 period. This constitutes the first time in the literature in which family migration patterns are analysed consistently for four different countries with distinct institutional and cultural practices.

Consistent with prior research, we find that male-breadwinner couples migrate more often than dual-earner couples in all countries, suggesting that traditional gender structures affecting family migration operate across very different contexts. After adjusting for theory-based factors, we find no difference in the prevalence of family migration across couple types in Sweden, where institutions most actively promote female labour force participation and gender egalitarian practice and attitudes are dominant. We take this as evidence that institutional and cultural contexts that support female employment encourage gender equity in family migration decisions.

Our study contributes to the family migration literature by illustrating how cross-national comparisons are a valuable methodological approach to place prevailing micro-level explanations of the relationship between female employment and family migration in context. The gendered opportunity context in which family migration decisions take place plays an important part in determining the conditions under which family migration occurs.


Centre Friend

Francisco Perales
Maria Brandén

Centre Friend

Philipp M. Lersch

Centre Friend

Sergi Vidal