The contradictory impact of globalization and migration on gender equality by Professor Birte Siim

15. May 2009

The challenges from globalization and migrationGlobalization is contested, and the meanings of globalization need to be discussed within different contexts. Trans-nationalism challenges established research paradigms connected to the nation states.  One of the challenges of gender research is arguably to focus on diversities among women within and between nation states, for example between women in the North and in the South, East and West. As illustrated by the articles in this issue of Asia Insights, migration is a transnational phenomenon where people, capital, and civil society organisations increasingly move across borders.  Research has emphasised the important linkage between the external and internal dimensions of migration. Migration thus illustrates the growing interconnection between the global, national and local arenas, and migration processes can illuminate the linkages between classical social science concepts such as social rights, political practices and belongings. Migration is gendered in a number of ways. One obvious example is that push and pull factors related to migration are different for men and women. Women from the South often come to the North through family unification, marriage or as (sex) workers. Immigrant women are often the victims of globalisation and tend to constitute the most vulnerable groups as undocumented and legal immigrants and refugees.

‘The local-global dialectic’

The German sociologist Ulrick Beck has discussed the implications of the ‘local-global dialectic’ (2002). He defines globalization as” A non-linear dialectical process in which the global and the local do not exist as cultural polarities but as combined and mutually integrating principles. These processes involve not only interconnections across boundaries but transform the quality of the social and political inside nation-states” (Beck 2002, p. 17). Beck has convincingly argued that instead of investigating the global on an entirely abstract general l level, we should organize a ‘historically sensitive empiricism’ to study the ambivalent consequences of globalization in cross-cultural and multi-local research networks.

The local-global dialectic represents one of the crucial dilemmas of cosmopolitan societies due to the diaspora question: how will being at home far away – being at home without being at home – be possible? This is a complex issue which affects people differently and needs to be addressed from the perspectives of male and female migrants, of organizations, networks and  companies. The ‘multicultural dilemma’ represents another crucial dilemma, in that multiculturalism fosters an individual who remains dependent on his/her original cultural space. Beck’s notion of internal globalization is one way to integrate the two dilemmas that need to be explored in greater detail with a view to understanding the gendered implications of globalization.

Gendering globalization

Feminist scholarship has analysed the gendered effects of globalization,; European integration and migration (see Sassen 2001). One approach has addressed the implications of globalization on women’s position in the labour market, and has often emphasised convergent trends and negative effects of neo-liberal policies leading to the marginalization of migrant women workers and the feminization of poverty. Another approach has addressed political globalization and the barriers and potentials of global processes for gender equality, women’s empowerment and trans-national struggles.  This approach often focuses on the new transnational sites intended to strengthen gender equality and expand women’s rights across nation states, for example through the EU gender regime and human rights regime (Squires 2007).  The new global political reality raises many challenging issues for gender research.  One way to address these issues has been through diversity and intersectionality frames (Yuval-Davis 2007, Squires 2007).

The political theorist Judith Squires (2007) has recently analysed the contradictory logic of globalisation from a perspective of gender equality. Her book “The New Politics of Gender Equality” gives an overview of the global gender equality breakthrough by national governments, international organizations like the UN, and transnational structures like the EU. The main argument presented in the book is that there is a new global gender equality agenda, which is spread by three key strategies: gender quotas, women’s policy agencies and gender mainstreaming. The book gives an excellent illustration of the contradictory logic of globalization: it makes visible the paradox that gender equality can on the one hand be threatened by diversity, for example when immigrant groups in Denmark do not have the same rights as ethnic Danish groups.   On the other hand, globalization also presents new possibilities for gender equality, and has become part of a new transnational diversity agenda.  These new possibilities can for instance present themselves when Western NGOs move to Asia.  There is a tension between the diversity approach that focuses on inequalities along multiple axes of inequality, and the approach that focuses on women viewing gender (in)equality as the main problem. This tension has raised new questions and debates about how to create new forms of solidarity between women while acknowledging different experiences and positions, for example according to race/ethnicity, nationality and religion.

The multicultural dilemma

One way to deal with the diversity of religious and cultural groups is through the multicultural paradigm. Will Kymlicka’s work on Multicultural Citizenship (1995) presents a defence of ethno-cultural group rights for indigenous peoples, such as Aboriginals in Australia and Indians in North America, and the poly-ethnic rights of new immigrant groups. The multicultural paradigm was criticised by Susan Moller Okin in the provocative article “Is multiculturalism bad for women?” (1999). She claimed that there is a contradiction between multiculturalism, defined as protection of the cultural rights of minorities, and women’s rights. This provoked an intense debate in the US, which spread to Europe.

In his response to Okin, Kymlicka argued that feminism and multiculturalism are potential allies in a struggle for a more inclusive concept of justice, based upon a combination of individual and collective rights, which takes account of both gender-based and ethnic diversity. Okin was heavily criticised by different scholars, including many feminists, who argued that her approach was based upon an essentialist perception of ‘culture’ and that her analysis forced minority women to chose between ‘my rights and my culture’. Okin has later modified and contextualised her position em
phasising that she is not against collective rights per se and that one of her main points was that women should have a voice in negotiations between the majority and minority cultures about group rights (2005; 88-89).

There has recently been a growing concern in political and gender theory framed as “the paradox of multicultural vulnerability”, i.e. that vulnerable social groups’ needs and interests can be undermined by group rights.  The concern has especially been about ensuring that women and other vulnerable groups have a voice and influence in both minority cultures and in society (see for example Eisenberg et. al. 2005). Feminist scholarship agrees that women in minority cultures need to be respected both as culturally different from the national majority and also need to be treated as equals by both the majority and minority cultures.  For example, immigrant women from Asia living in the Nordic countries as students, workers or spouses either by marriage or family unification must have their equal and cultural respected.

Rethinking gender justice in times of globalization

It is important to rethink gender justice in times of globalization and to overcome the tensions in gender justice between equality and diversity.  All social and cultural groups must be included in negotiations about social justice. One solution to overcoming the tensions is to extend the emphasis on gender inequality to multiple inequalities. Intersectionality has become an influential theoretical approach that has contributed to conceptualizing the intersections of gender with other differences and inequalities such as ethnicity/race, sexuality and religion. Nira Yuval-Davis has conceptualized intersectionality from a trans-national perspective in her analysis of gender and nationality, citizenship and ‘politics of belonging’ (2006) focusing on the intersections of gender, ethnicity and nationality. This approach points to a multilayered framework of citizenship, which is democratic, feminist and able to link the national and trans-national levels in what she defines as ‘a politics of belonging’. This vision needs to be explored further through practical research, for example by looking at migration from Asia to the Nordic countries, focusing on how gender intersects with ethno-national and cultural belongings for women of Asian backgrounds living in different Nordic localities.


Beck, Ulrick (2002).”The cosmopolitan society and its enemies”, Theory, Culture and Society

Eisenberg, Avigail & Jeff Spinner Halev eds. (2005). Minorities within minorities. Equality, Rights and Diversity,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kymlicka, Will (1995). Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kymlicka, Will (1999). “Liberal complacencies”, pp. 31-34 in Okin, Susan Moller with Respondents (1999). Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Okin, Susan Moller with Respondents, ed. By Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard and Martha Nussbaum (1999), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Okin, Susan Moller (2005).”Multiculturalism and feminism: no simple question, no simple answers” in Eisenberg, Avigail & Jeff Spinner Halev (2005). Minorities within minorities. Equality, Rights and Diversity,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 67-89.

Sassen, Saskia (2001). “The global city: Strategic site/new frontier”.

Squires, Judith (2007). The New Politics of Gender Equality, Palgrave/Macmillan.

Yuval-Davis, Nira (2006). “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics” in European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol 13, 3; 193-209.