Why do young foreign-born women face difficulties on the Swedish job market?

Foreign-born young women, particularly those from non-European countries, struggle more in the Swedish job market than their peers, a new report by Swedish authorities suggests.

Why do young foreign-born women face difficulties on the Swedish job market?
Young foreign-born women may be held back by discrimination, non-recognition of foreign qualifications, language barriers or a lack of contacts, the report shows. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/

Sweden’s unemployment rate is higher among foreign-born people than Swedish-born, but there is also a gender aspect.

In the 20-29 age group, just 52 percent of foreign-born women in Sweden have a job. That compares to 67 percent of foreign-born men in the same age group, 73 percent of Swedish-born women and 79 percent of Swedish-born men.

And this is despite the fact that more young foreign-born women have higher education experience than foreign or Swedish-born men, writes the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (Myndigheten för ungdoms- och civilsamhällesfrågor, MUCF) in the report, which you can read in Swedish here. The employment rate for foreign-born women with tertiary education is lower than for Swedish men whose education finished before upper secondary school (usually age 16 in Sweden).

Among foreign-born women who work, their salaries are also on average lower than those of men or Swedish-born men or women. 

The report lists several potential factors, including that this group of women often look for health and social care jobs which first require training; and that they are expected to do more work at home and claim a lot of parental leave.

Many do have a lower level of education and face language barriers, and several women interviewed for the report say they often face discrimination to a greater extent than other women, for example if they wear a veil, even though discrimination on the basis of characteristics like gender, religious, and ethnicity is illegal in Sweden.

MUCF’s researchers also noted that foreign-born women with higher education may work part-time or on temporary contracts rather than permanent, and pointed to factors external to the workplace which may still influence employment rates, such as housing segregation and mental health issues. 

And among those with a high level of education, there may be difficulties having this recognised in Sweden. “Partly, it can be the case that the content of education is different between countries; partly it can be hard to have education formally recognised [in Sweden],” the report said. 

File photo of workers at a Volvo production site: Sofia Sabel/

There were differences linked to country of birth too: women born in Asia and Africa were the group with the lowest employment rate (45 and 47 percent respectively), while women from South America had the highest employment rate (68 percent).

MUCF noted that researchers have not found any difference in willingness to work between foreign-born and Swedish-born women, citing multiple studies that showed foreign-born people carry out job-hunting activities to the same extent as Swedish-born people, and that “the higher unemployment rate cannot be explained by differences in motivation to work or a higher acceptance for unemployment”.

But the longer that women had been living in Sweden, the higher the rate of employment and the smaller the gender gap. Women who had arrived since 2015 were the most likely to be unemployed, and to lack any registered income (meaning they did not study, receive parental benefits or other welfare benefits).

“Young foreign-born women are an important resource for society. Like everyone else, they have the right to a good, stimulating and secure professional life,” said Lena Nyberg, director general of MUCF.

“It is unacceptable and very serious that discrimination occurs. There is a lot of ignorance and prejudice that we must become better at dealing with and educating [people] about.”

The report put forward several proposals for addressing these issues.

For example, MUCF suggests stepping up work to stop harassment and discrimination of young foreign-born women, as well as further research into the problems, and practical programmes such as wider formal recognition of foreign qualifications, Swedish language education and apprenticeships with a language-learning element.

But the agency also argues that formal programmes will not be enough to close the gap completely, pointing out the role that housing segregation plays.

“Even if foreign-born women were to have the same conditions as other groups relating to level of education and work experience, their establishment [on the labour market] may be made difficult by the fact they lack the contacts and network that are important for getting a job,” the report noted. 

If you have a question or want to share your experience of the Swedish labour market as a foreigner, please contact our editorial team at [email protected].

Member comments

  1. Ridiculous article.
    There could be many reasons for this reported difference, including:
    – Swedish-born in general are more likely to have jobs because they are eligible for more “types” of jobs such as customer service jobs and sales jobs that require strong language skills and deep understanding of the culture. This may not be discrimination. But its more about job fit and local skills (to do sales in any country, for example, it helps to be good with the local language and culture)

    – If just 52% of foreign born women have jobs, are the remaining 48% looking for work? Are they being overly selective, while the men are “taking any job” in order to earn a living while the women are holding out for jobs in their given profession from back home?

    – Of the 67% of foreign-born men who have jobs – how many of these are doing heavy-labour related work that would be undesirable to most woman (outdoor labour with heavy objects and/or tools)?

    Need some definitions and info here. Otherwise it is just nonsense.

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For members


EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden's central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden’s central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

How soon can I get a pay rise to compensate for high inflation? 

Probably not for a while. 

About 90 percent of workers in Sweden are covered by the collective bargaining agreements made between employers and the country’s trade unions. The last round of salary deals was negotiated at the union-employer level back in 2020, and most of them will remain valid until March or April next year.

This means that most employees in Sweden will not see their salaries adjusted to take inflation into account for at least nine months. 

“Under this special model that we have, we already have a level for the wage increases for this year, so you can’t get compensation for the inflation right now,” Krieg explained. 

You might be able negotiate a pay rise in addition to what the unions have agreed in your personal salary review, she added. 

“Of course, you have that freedom. Whether you work in a small company, or a big company, a company that has a collective agreement, or one that doesn’t, you always have the freedom to ask for a salary rise,” Krieg said. 

The only issue is that most unionised companies only offer personal salary reviews once a year, and for the majority of employees, the window of opportunity passed in the spring. 

“You have to find out when you have a salary review as part of the collective agreement you have at your own workplace,” Krieg recommended. “For most collective agreements, that is in the spring, although some collective agreements have it in the autumn.” 

What if I’m not part of a union? 

If you are among the 10% of workers not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, you can ask for a pay rise whenever you like, but unlike union members, you have no right to a pay rise. The decision is wholly up to your employer. 

Gunilla Krief is the central ombudsman for the Unionen union. Photo: Patrik Nygren/Unionen

So will the unions eventually negotiate above-inflation pay increases? 

Probably not. 

Unions in Sweden have historically been quite responsible, and understood the risk of creating a wage-price spiral by demanding wage increases that match or exceed inflation.

“Twenty-five years ago, we had a really high wage increases in Sweden, and we had very, very big inflation, so people got more money in their wallets, but they couldn’t buy anything, because inflation went up much higher than wages,” Krieg explained, putting the union perspective.

“We always take responsibility for the entire labour market, and that’s good in the long term,” she added. “There’s been much more money in the wallet for employees in Sweden over the past 25 years. That’s why we think we should we should not panic because of inflation. It may be that for one year it will mean less money in the wallet, but in the long run we benefit.” 

Can I argue for an inflation-busting pay rise in my salary review? 

You can certainly argue for a pay rise of 8 percent, or even more, but you don’t cite inflation as a reason for it. 

“Everything is individual, so you can, of course, negotiate up your salary, and there is no limit to how much you can ask for,” Krieg explained.

“If you have a job or an education for which there’s a shortage on the Swedish market, then you can get a much higher wage increase. Up in the north of Sweden, where we have [the battery manufacturer] Northvolt, and we have mines and the steel industry, they are looking for a lot of competence right now, and there you can have a much higher rise in wages.” 

But, particularly if you’re covered by collective bargaining, you can’t really cite inflation as justification, as that is one of the factors that unions and employers are supposed to factor in during their negotiations. 

What’s the best way of getting a big pay rise? 

The best way to get a pay hike of as much as 5,000 kronor or 10,000 kronor a month, Krieg suggests, is to apply for other jobs, even if you don’t end up taking them. 

“You can get offers from other companies, and then you can tell your employer that ‘I really liked it here, I enjoy this work, and I want to stay here, but now they are offering me 10,000 kronor more at another company, and if you can raise my salary like that,  of course I will stay here’,” she said.

In a normal salary interview, she adds, it’s important to be able to demonstrate your results. Look again at your job description, and what your goals are for the year, and identify concrete achievements that meet or exceed these goals. If you have any additional duties, you can cite them to argue for a higher salary. If you’ve done any courses, or learned any skills, you can cite these. 

At any time in the year, if your superiors praise any work you have done, keep those emails, or write it down, so that in your salary review, you can say, “you said that this report I did was ‘the best you’ve ever seen’,” or such like. 

Finally, you should find out in advance if there are any salary criteria being applied, so that you can argue that you exceed them, and so demand a higher raise than that agreed for the company as a whole with the union.