Australia's shifting immigration policies, which increasingly favor admitting high-skilled workers while retaining a focus on family reunification, are leading to greater inflows of women. Moreover, these female arrivals, while still facing migration-related challenges, appear to be becoming less fixed in the gendered roles of wife, mother, or daughter.
In 1989-1990, women accounted for just over 40 percent of those classified as "principal applicants" for settlement in Australia. The eligibility of these individuals to immigrate was assessed, and if successful, other members of their immediate family were then allowed to enter as dependents. A decade later, the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia showed that the figure for the comparable category of primary applicants had increased to 48 percent. But four percent more, 51.6 percent of the 88,900 settlers who arrived in Australia in the year to June 2002, were women. (In all cases, percentages provided are for women and girls).
Australia's reliance on immigration for economic development and population growth has traditionally favored family migration. From this policy perspective, families have an inherent geographical and social stability. They produce and nurture the next generation of Australian workers and consumers. Women have a necessary role in this emphasis on the family's contribution to nation-building.
Further strengthening women migrants' potential contribution has been economic restructuring and the shift away from manual labor. These have increased the occupational choices open to women migrants, while opening doors to Australia through policies that encourage high-skilled workers. Shifts in Australia's immigration selection since the 1980s to give greater prominence to skilled, well-educated workers have indirectly favored the selection of women immigrants. The earlier emphasis on selecting as the "breadwinner," or head of the family unit, men who could supply the labour market's need for manual labor ensured that most women were granted immigrant status as dependent wives or daughters of their menfolk. Well-educated and skilled professional women can now more easily apply to migrate to Australia based on their own attributes, rather than those of their husband or father.
Yet another contributing factor to the rise in Australia's population of women immigrants is the erosion of traditional social constraints on these women in their countries of origin. These increases reflect the breakdown of such constraints on women's domestic roles that kept them at home while their fathers and husbands ventured overseas.
Despite the overall increase in number of female migrants to Australia, in most entry categories, there has been little difference in the numbers of men and women immigrating. The major exception was for those selected under the family reunification program in the year to June 2002, when 61.7 percent of the 23,344 arrivals were women. Men slightly outnumbered women in all the other entry categories. The largest disparity was among those selected as "independents" — where 46.3 percent of the 21,850 arrivals were women.
The continuing prominence of women among the family arrivals suggests that many continue to migrate as what are viewed as "followers" or "trailing spouses." However, this characterization ignores women's involvement in developing their family's strategy for emigration, as well as the strategy whereby some individual women establish marital relationships with Australian men as a basis for migrating.
In this context, women's roles often appear to be tied to conditions in their country of origin. The pattern of establishing marital relations, for example, is most frequently associated with the Philippines-born population, 66 percent of whom are women. This association stems from the fact that a large proportion enters as partners of Australian residents. These are rarely fraudulent marriages; rather, they have tended to involve men who are less successful in the local "marriage market" because of their age, rural residence, or both. This strategy also exists, if less prominently, in other countries where opportunities for women to emigrate to Australia are limited. This is the case because Australia lacks the popular entry route via domestic work that exists in Canada and elsewhere.
While changes in selection policy have decreased women's reliance on their gendered roles of wife, mother, or daughter, the daily reality of their lives in Australia ensures that these roles continue to affect their post-arrival experiences. Many earlier immigrant wives only entered the paid Australian labor market to assist their family's economic integration. Among the more skilled recent arrivals, the experience of re-establishing their career has often been delayed until their husband and children have become settled in work and schooling. Migration thus continues to represent a challenge in women's economic and family roles, as well as in their usual pattern of relations with husbands and children.