Is the ‘highly skilled’ definition in Germany’s Immigration Act gender proof?

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During the negotiations about a future coalition government in Germany, the trio consisting of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals have declared their intention to modernise skilled labour migration to Germany. The aim being twofold, a greater number of skilled workers and better conditions upon arrival. Is this enough? In this blogpost, I suggest that Germany’s coalition government should take this opportunity to revise a gender-bias of the regulatory design for highly skilled immigration. Currently, the indicators that are used for assessing ‘high skills’ according to the Immigration Act are easier to fulfil for und thus preferential of male labour immigrants. Indeed, two years after the adoption of this Act, in 2007, just one fifth of the ‘highly skilled’ migrants were female.

Five biases to be addressed

While much of the public debate about labour immigration assumes that ‘skill’ can be neutrally defined, ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ migrants cannot be easily distinguished from ‘highly skilled’ migrants. Instead, skill is a social construction and as such susceptible to various biases, including those created on the basis of gender. Currently, the German Immigration Act defines highly skilled workers as all those who are either scientists ‘with special professional knowledge’ or teaching and research staff ‘in a prominent position’ or special and senior employees ‘receiving a salary amounting to at least twice the contribution assessment ceiling of the statutory health insurance scheme’. Applying the scholarly work of Anna Boucher, who compiled a list of different grounds of discrimination of migrant women through regulatory designs, this definition holds five biases.

The first two biases are due to the specification of who counts as a ‘highly skilled’ worker. Without a certain degree of education and employment in a specific sector, it is difficult to become a scientist, teaching or research staff or special or senior employee. Yet, in many regions of the world it is harder for women to access education, while other working sectors with a high proportion of women tend to be devalued.

The other three biases are related to the use of indicators like ‘special knowledge’, ‘prominent position’, and a monetary benchmark. Even though ‘special knowledge’ may look like a neutral criterion for assessing the ‘skills’ of a person, in practice expertise more common to women is rarely perceived as extraordinary. Considering the occupation of a ‘prominent position’ as ‘skill’ neglects that women may find it more difficult than men to embark on career-enhancing opportunities due to penalties for motherhood responsibilities. Finally, the usage of a monetary benchmark fails to recognise enduring wage disparities between the genders, even when men and women have the same level of education, experience, and employment.

For as long as the demand to manage migration will remain, the need of some sort of ‘skill’ definition will probably persist. Some of the problems linked to the use of those indicators discussed above may disappear as gender inequalities begin to narrow down: The proportion of women with a high level of education is constantly increasing and occupations typically dominated by women have been revalued through the COVID-19 pandemic. The transition to a knowledge centred economy requires talents that are more common to women, while the gender pay gap slowly starts to shrink. Until then, however, ‘skills’ cannot be simply defined at the expense of women.

An opportunity for reform? 

Indeed, there are reasons to expect that this coalition will be attentive to such gender biases. For the very first time as many women as men sit in the cabinet as men. Important positions like the Interior and Foreign Ministries are staffed by females. As UN Women states, there is ‘great potential in terms of gender equality’. For this very reason, the new coalition might not only adopt additional legislation for ‘semi-skilled’ immigration, like the previous coalition did in 2019, but may also go to the bulk of the problem, revising the Immigration Act of 2004 and its ‘highly skilled’ definition.

Final thoughts 

The indicators used for assessing ‘high skills’ under the current Immigration Act in Germany are easier to obtain, and thus preferential to men. As many women immigrate to Germany as men, but the current design of policies does not always allow them to work. This holds the risk of reproducing gender inequalities, leaving immigrant women to childcare and household responsibilities. The coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals could therefore consider a revision of the current ‘high skill’ definition in the Immigration Act as key element for a modern skilled-labour-immigration approach in Germany.

Melina Boin is a master student at the Central European University and an exchange student at the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute. She is particularly interested in the topics of public policy and equitable policy design. This blogpost is part of our forum on the transnational governance of migration. The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own.