Ipswich: Does gender influence the way we think or talk about immigration?


Women’s panel in Ipswich

The way we think about immigration is complicated, determined by a number of factors such as where we live, who we interact with, our education, where we work, and what is happening around us at any one time. We heard a lot about divides in the ways older and younger people see immigration after the EU referendum, and that people with higher education qualifications are more likely to share positive attitudes.

But the role of gender in shaping attitudes to immigration is not well understood, and research into attitudes to immigration has often been contradictory. Some studies have shown that women may have more empathy to refugees, while being more anxious than men about local impacts of immigration on their everyday lives. Other studies have argued that gender in itself makes little overall difference to attitudes, and that other factors such are much more important in driving attitudes.

The National Conversation spent two days in Ipswich, a Suffolk town of 140,000 people on the Orwell estuary, where we sought to explore this.  We were interested if men and women talk about immigration differently.  We held two separate citizens’ panels; one with women and one with men, to understand more about how gender affects how we see immigration.

Responses to issues such as refugee rights or the treatment of undocumented migrants were talked about with more emotion on the female panel, whereas men tended to spend more time debating the impact of immigration on the economy. When given a case study of an undocumented migrant, men tended to weigh up potential economic contribution against risks to make a decision about how the case should be handled. The women’s panel applied greater empathy to these issues, sharing concerns about the exploitation of undocumented migrants and the risks they face: “you can imagine being a female in that situation”.

The female panel included a number of public sector workers, so many shared worries about the impact of immigration on services already put under strain by budget cuts. Many were mothers and this framed much of the conversation, as people shared concerns about the treatment of the impact of migration on schools. The male panel focussed more on welfare benefits and work.

It would be easy to overestimate the differences between our gendered panels, however both our male and female panels mostly saw the same benefits of immigration, and shared many concerns. Both panels wanted to see a migration system that is fair and works for everyone.

What emerged on our gendered panels was not so much what was said, but how.

We have noticed in our mixed panels that men tend to be more dominant, but separating our panels by gender gave us a real insight into how immigration is talked about. The discussion on the men’s panel was lively and people challenged each other on different aspects. Participants spoke very openly, often for lengthy periods, although self-regulated using caveats such as “it doesn’t affect me personally, but…”. At times the conversation was confrontational, but the panel did find common ground on most issues through sharing their views.

The female panel had a far more equitable discussion and the group generally met a consensus on key issues. Participants listened to each other more, and there weren’t the one or two voices that dominated the debate. However, at times it felt as if our panel participants were holding back. Many on the condemned the negative representation of migrants in the media, and we were told that there had been fall outs among mums on the school gate when discussions around immigration became polarised. As we left the meeting, on female participant asked us, “do you think people really said what they wanted to?”.

The National Conversation aims to open up discussions on immigration that includes all voices, and understanding how gender can affect the way we talk about immigration is key to this. Immigration is clearly an important issue to many, and as one participant in Ipswich said “we don’t talk about it enough”. We hope to offer people a space where they feel they can speak openly, but in doing so we need to work to include all voices including those who are quieter in debates.

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