Article: Women’s migration focuses on big cities, and it is not a surprise

Debates over demographic decline and the reduction in birth rates have clearly introduced a new phenomenon into the wider discussion of regional development principally concerning migration and the gender segregation of the population. Women and men seem to be living in increasingly different places. This is a phenomenon that has hitherto not been taken sufficiently into account in the field of regional development. What is the phenomenon and why is it occurring?

Significant reductions in the number of young women, in particular, have been observed in a growing number of municipalities and cities. At all ages, there are often more women because women live longer. Differences in the numbers of men and women are very significant in some places. The map below shows the number of women aged 20-29 in municipalities per 100 men of the same age. Eleven Finnish municipalities have fewer than 60 young women per 100 men. This end of the spectrum is represented by the small municipalities of Kustavi and Lestijärvi, with only 41 young women per 100 young men. On the other hand, as many as 11 municipalities have a majority of young women.

Young woment to 100 youn men in Finland.

These include large university cities and their surrounding municipalities, but we can also see a similar pattern in various tourist-areas in Lapland, some municipalities in Åland and two small municipalities in central Finland, Kannonkoski and Hankasalmi. Both in relative and numerical terms, the difference between the number of young women and men is highest in Helsinki, where there are 8095 more young women than young men. In size, this represents a number comparable to the entirety of Laihia-municipality.

The distribution of young women and men across the national territory has numerous consequences. Migration statistics suggest that most migration decisions are made before the age of 35. Most people do not move after that, and those who do are focused primarily on neighbouring areas. This is why young age groups are particularly important for demographic change. Study places and first jobs also strongly influence the location of the workforce and the availability of an available workforce in different sectors. These factors naturally affect relationships and birth rates. The decline in the number of young women is obviously linked to the decline in birth rates per municipality: children are born where young women decide to settle. For example, the demographic graph of the province of South Savo shows how the birth rate of the province reflects fluctuations in the number of young women resident in the early 2000s. The decline in birth rates is clearly cumulative and difficult to arrest.. Although the decline in birth rates is steepening the drop, the drop in the number of young women alone seems to explain a significant part of the decline in birth rates in the province.

South-Savo index.

Women are more likely to move both domestically and abroad

There are three main reasons for the difference between the number of women and men. Firstly, girls are, statistically speaking, born slightly less often than boys (representing about 49 % of all births). Secondly, young women are more active in terms of relocating abroad, while men generally move more within Finland. Thirdly, within Finland, women move at a younger age and are also more likely to move. In addition, women’s migration is also more strongly concentrated to the major cities.

The following map describes the migration patterns of young women aged 15-29 between 2010 and 2018. The violet colour marks those municipalities that benefited from a positive net migration flow directly attributable to young women. Across the country, only 22 municipalities received such a migration boost of this type. The remaining 289 municipalities suffer from variable migration losses in the migration of young women. Positive migration flows in respect of young women were strongly located in university cities, with the exception of Kittilä in Lapland, Ylivieska in Northern Ostrobothnia and Seinäjoki in Southern Ostrobothnia. The tendency for women to migrate is higher than that for men: although the proportion of women in the young age group is lower than that of men, of all young (15-29) migrants, the number of women was around 50 000 between 2010 and 2018. Only 48 municipalities (15% of all municipalities) saw more men emigrate than women.

Internal net migration of young women.

Women are more likely to relocate, not only within a country but also between countries. The proportion of women in the distribution of young emigrants is significant. Of all young emigrants, 59.3% were young women: in 2010–2018, almost 9 000 more women than men emigrated from Finland. Similarly, the proportion of young men among immigrants is slightly higher than that of young women. In terms of immigration, 51.3% were men while 48.7% were women.

The main causes of gendered migration relate to the education and labour markets

The proportion of women is statistically over-represented in only a few municipalities, but most of these are large university cities, especially Helsinki and to a lesser extent Turku. In general, there are more young women living in provincial centres than in the province as a whole and this is particularly evident in relation to smaller suburban or rural municipalities. Often, the primary cause of relocation is to study. This tends to see women and men relocate to different areas. Women are much more likely to graduate from a university or university of applied sciences than men. The difference is magnified in respect of the younger age groups: according to data from 2017, 43% of women and 28% of men aged 25-34 had a university degree. Similarly, the share of males was however higher both in upper secondary education and at the researcher level. With higher education institutions predominantly located in major cities and secondary education being more evenly distributed across the country, educational geography is highly likely then to account for part of the differentiated migration patterns in respect of women and men.

In both large and medium-sized cities, young women are attracted not only by educational opportunities but also by labour market opportunities relating in particular to the existence of more female-dominated sectors. This point illustrates the continuing high level of gender segregation in the Finnish education and labour markets, even on a European scale. In the Finnish labour market, 40% of women work in education, health and social work, compared with only 9% for men. Similarly, 42% of men and only 8% of women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For education, the figures are even more widely distributed: 51% of women and 8% of men study in education, health and social work. With these figures, Finland is ranked sixth last among the EU Member States in respect of the gender segregation of the labour and education markets.

When labour markets are strongly differentiated by gender, it is generally the case that this is in cities, where the importance of the service sector (eg. Social and health sectors) as well as the role of the specialised high-skilled labour force, is emphasised. The smallest number of young women are to be found in rural municipalities or suburban cities which are heavily industrialised. Rural municipalities do not have much to offer in terms of education, thus ‘pushing’ young people into larger cities, while the rural municipality’s industrial structure generally relies heavily on agriculture and forestry, both of which remain heavily male-dominated.

The existence of the gendered Finnish labour market seems therefore to be a basic result of this unequal distribution, rather than simply relating to the issue of access to education, as the gap is not evened out in the working-age population. Less gender-disaggregated information is however available on the importance of housing preferences, access to services and leisure facilities in terms of the residential and relocation choices of young men and women. It is presumed however that softer factors of attraction will be emphasised, especially in those sectors that suffer from labour shortages, either now or in the future. For example, access to labour in respect of social and health services may prove to be more difficult than expected in some municipalities. At worst, this can create a self-reinforcing ‘death spiral’ in terms of shrinking areas, where service sectors and, for example, jobs in early childhood education and training are declining, leisure time provision is declining and the living environment is shrinking, pushing young women outwards in a search for better labour market opportunities and more attractive neighborhoods, further eroding birth rates and reinforcing the cycle of contraction.

Is gendered migration a problem?

In Finland, the individual has freedom of choice in respect of where to live. There is no obligation to remain in one’s place of birth. At the national level however, labour mobility has been specifically identified as ‘a problem’. Migration for work and education is almost always profitable, both for the individual and for the economy. Higher education jobs, in particular, are highly concentrated in large urban areas, with markets for specialised industries and a large pool of specialised skills. It is also noteworthy that, in the gendered labour market, women workers are particularly concentrated in the service sectors. Service jobs are also heavily concentrated in cities, both for comprehensive wellbeing services and other services sold to clients. Here the concentration of women’s employment opportunities is quite strongly linked to education.

The same applies to moving abroad. Women are more likely to emigrate and to return less often than men, but on the other hand, there are interesting career opportunities abroad, for example for highly educated people, including social and health professionals, the majority of whom are women. In the age group of 15–29, women are 1.5 times more likely to move abroad (Statistics Finland, Statfin: Population, Migration).

From an individual’s perspective, moving to interesting cities and towns where there are opportunities for both work and a good life is unproblematic and a straightforward welfare enhancing choice. The more important question is why women are choosing to live in big cities and whether education, labour markets and living conditions in other areas could be strengthened so that attractive and suitable places of residence can be found elsewhere. Putting on our Gender-Goggles enables us then to view regional development from a whole new perspective.


Rasmus Aro ja Kirsi Siltanen