Unlocking Potential: Addressing the economic participation of migrant and refugee women in Australia


Recognising overseas qualifications and prior learning is needed to help address Australia’s skills shortage while also providing more meaningful career options for migrant and refugee women.


That’s according to new research from Settlement Services Australia (SSI) which has found migrant and refugee women from low and middle-income countries are being prevented from achieving their economic potential, despite high levels of skilled work and education. 

The Untapped Potential research, commissioned by SSI  and conducted by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), at the University of Canberra, found these women often have greater or similar levels of education to women born in Australia yet are more likely to be employed in roles below their education and experience.

Women on Boards’ Chief Operating Officer, Nicole Donegan, said the SSI report’s findings are consistent with WOB’s recent Truth Be Told report, which found a lack of cultural diversity on boards across five sectors.

“The SSI report shows that women born overseas are on average better educated than Australian born women, but this is not reflected in our workforce participation rates. This is a fundamental issue impacting the flow through to board and leadership roles.”

Tadgh McMahon, Head of Research and Policy, SSI, says overcoming the barriers and unlocking the economic potential of migrant and refugee women would improve gender equity and deliver benefits for the broader economy. 

“Harnessing the potential of women from all backgrounds is an important part of building economic prosperity in Australia. This research points to where there is a need for targeted policy and programmatic responses to overcome barriers migrant and refugee women face in the workforce,” said McMahon.

The research found that rates of underemployment — women working part-time but wanting to work full-time — were highest among refugee women followed by women born in low- and middle-income countries. 

“Fulfilling employment is a key part of settlement and integration, and this research underscores that a more tailored response, focusing on the barriers refugee and migrant women face, could reduce disparities in labour market outcomes,” says Mr McMahon. 

“Actions to streamline overseas qualification recognition, provide English language learning that responds to women’s needs, along with subsidised entry into education, and greater opportunities for paid internships can help unlock a largely untapped cohort of skilled workers for the benefit of women themselves and the country.” 

The government is working on strategies to address the situation, including an employment white paper that recognises women's economic equality as a key priority for economic growth and productivity.

READ Women on Boards' Truth Be Told report.

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