Engaging in “women’s work”? Experiences of Male Migrant Domestic Workers

Published 14 March 2024 / By Yu Furukawa, MSc candidate in Migration Studies, COMPAS

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Domestic work is typically associated with immigrant labour in more economically developed countries such as the United States, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia, with the majority of domestic workers in these regions being carried out by women. Within the field of migration studies research has extensively explored the intersection of migration and gender studies through the gendered experiences of female migrant domestic workers, but the male experience is underexplored.

Many studies (Anderson 2000, Hondagneu-Sotelo,2007, Parreñas 2001) delve into various aspects of the lives of female domestic workers, including transnational activities with families left behind in home countries, solidarity among domestic workers, and resistance against employers. However, the focus of these studies is on female migrant domestic workers, who make up the majority of the workforce, and often neglects the presence of male domestic workers. A limited number of scholars have delved into the experiences of male domestic workers internationally, but insights largely remain outside of the discipline’s gaze. In this blog I present insights from these scholars and offer an introductory guide to those interested in the effects of gender identity on immigrated domestic workers.

Masculinities in crisis?

What are the implications for migrant men engaging in domestic work overseas? How does this work affect self-perceptions of their masculinity?

It is commonly observed that male domestic workers can face challenges to their sense of masculinity and identity when engaging in domestic work – traditionally labelled as a "women's job" in their home countries such as the Philippines. They often internalise this perception and may even reinforce the notion that domestic work is inherently feminine, by mentioning the fact that it is typically carried out by their wives, mothers and daughters. Consequently, when confronted with the task of taking on domestic responsibilities, men may experience feelings of rejection and resistance.  

Additionally, working for a female employer can further challenge their perception of masculinity. As migrants, they are compelled to seek employment opportunities in a heavily saturated job market, which sometimes leads individuals into domestic work as job opportunities are easier to come by. In this line of work, individuals are typically employed by a single employer. Scrinzi (2010) observes how, when managed by a female employer, male domestic workers might struggle with taking orders and receiving critiques on their performance from a woman, especially if they are not accustomed to this dynamic or simply dislike being supervised by women.

Reconstructing Masculinities

Challenged masculinity can be reconstructed through strategic discourses related to domestic work, which I illustrate with the following two examples:

A first discourse strategy involves emphasising on their role in fulfilling economic responsibilities for their families. A male domestic worker who immigrated from the Philippines to Italy was observed reaffirming his masculinity by passionately discussing the house he had built before migrating and emphasising his role as the breadwinner for his family (Nagasaka 2021). Similarly Ogaya explores how male domestic workers from the Philippines who also moved to Italy - even in so-called "women-first" migration where their wives had already immigrated -  emphasised the aspect of serving as the family's economic provider rather than the fact that they moved because their wives were already in Italy (Ogaya 2018).

A second discourse strategy is to highlight their physical strength over their female counterparts. In the realms of gardening, furniture moving, repairs, and caregiving, which are sometimes included in their job description, emphasising the advantages of male physical strength and stamina can be viewed as an act of reaffirming and expressing one's masculinity within traditionally feminised domestic labour domains. (Kilkey 2010, Näre 2010, Sarti 2010, Scrinzi 2010).

Not All Domestic Workers Experience Masculinity Crises

It is also important to note that not all male domestic workers experience a crisis of masculinities. The extent of this crisis depends on various social factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and age. Understanding their construction and deconstruction of masculinities while pursuing work in this sector abroad requires consideration of these additional, intersecting factors.

Parreñas (2015) conducted research on Filipino male domestic workers in Rome. Some of the Filipino men she encountered did not necessarily perceive domestic work as inherently "feminine," and they did not consider entering domestic work as "entering women's work." Instead, many were more concerned with the greater employment opportunities available for Filipino women in the domestic work market in Rome.

Furthermore, several religions demonstrate a favourable stance regarding caregiving for both children and the elderly. Notably, older Latin American migrant men who identify themselves as devout followers of Catholic or Evangelical faiths often perceive caregiving as a religious obligation and calling, fostering intimate connections with those under their care (Gallo and Scrinzi 2016). 

Additionally, age plays a significant role in shaping perceptions of domestic work. For instance, Miguel, a 45-year-old Peruvian man employed in Genoa, Italy, embodies the characteristics of older, established immigrant men as outlined by Gallo and Scrinzi (2016). These individuals leverage their prior experiences caring for elderly relatives or their own children, allowing them to seamlessly embrace domestic roles in childcare or elderly care without any reluctance. 

Thus, the process by which male domestic workers' masculinities are threatened and reconstructed is context-specific and cannot be generalised. It closely intersects with social factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, and age. The dynamics of intersection among these social factors can be observed individually through exploring multiple case studies, such as that of Filipino male domestic workers in Rome, Italy (Parreñas 2015). 

Furthermore, continued discussions regarding the sense of masculinity among male domestic workers will uncover how they navigate their gender norms, relations, and structures. Shedding light on the gendered dimensions of their experiences will enrich research agendas at the intersection of migration and gender.