Mexican Women and Work on Both Sides of the U.S.-Mexican Border

Article excerpt

Mexican-born women in the United States appear to participate in the labor force at rates substantially higher than do Mexican women resident in Mexico. Recent measures of Mexican women's labor force participation include the ILO (2007) report that 41.7 percent of women in Mexico over the age of 14 were "economically active" in 2006 and the 32.9 estimated by the Mexican Census of 2000 of women and girls 12 and over. In contrast, the U.S. Bureau of the Census reports a 57 percent labor force participation rate among women of Mexican origin over 15, whether foreign or native born (Ramirez and de la Cruz 2003) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2004) indicates that 57.8 percent of foreign-born Hispanic women--among whom Mexicans are by far the largest group--are in the labor force.

It is difficult to establish precisely the labor force participation rate of Mexican-born women in the U.S., partly because over half of them are estimated to be undocumented and therefore probably imperfectly captured in U.S. statistics (Hanson 2006). However, estimates of the labor force participation rate of Mexican women resident in the U.S. appear very comparable to the 59.4 rate of all women in the U.S. over the age of 15 reported by the ILO (ILO 2007; Passel 2006; Pew Hispanic Center 2006). Indeed, the BLS estimates that 70.6 percent of foreign-born Hispanic women with children between the ages of 6 and 17 are in the labor force, as are 50.8 percent of women with children under the age of three (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004).

Based on these figures, Mexican women in the U.S. appear between 37 and 76 percent more likely to participate in the labor force than Mexican women in Mexico. The aim of this article is to explore the sources of this discrepancy. The first section reviews both what is known and what is controversial about Mexican women's evolving labor force participation rates in Mexico and in the U.S. The second section presents an empirical investigation based on data from than 2000 Censuses of Mexico and the U.S., available from IPUMS-I (Intergrated Public Use Microdata Series--International), focused on the distinctive differences between binary probit models of labor force participation of Mexican women in both countries. The third section concludes.

Throughout the article, I will use the terms Mexican, Mexicana, and Mexican-born to refer to women in the U.S. who were born in Mexico, and Mexican-American or Chicana to describe women of Mexican origin who were born in the U.S. The terms Latina and Hispanic refer to Spanish speaking groups more generally, including Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Latin Americans.


The idea that Mexican-born women in the U.S. may work in proportions as high as those for women in the U.S. as a whole contradicts the widely held notion that Mexican and Mexican-American women in the U.S. are committed to more traditional gender roles than are American women on average. In part this view is based on history; according to Joan Kahn and Leslie Whittington (1996: 45), "the proportion of Latinas (ages 16 and over) [in the United States] who are employed outside the home has increased in recent decades from only 35 percent in 1960 to over 52 percent in 1992." Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn (2007) have recently reported that first generation Mexican immigrant women have increased their labor force participation over time, and that second and third generation Mexican-Americans work more than first generation and very nearly as much as non-Hispanic white women. Blank and Shierholz (2006: 23) find that "all else equal, race and Hispanic ethnicity have no differential effect on labor force participation among less-skilled women," by which they mean women with a high school education or less, or the vast majority of Mexican-born women in the U.S.

However, estimates of labor supply that have focused on hours worked have probably underestimated Mexicana labor force participation rates in the U. …