No. 15: January-June 2016

Speranta Dumitru

Skilled Migrant Women

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of skilled migrant women?

Nowadays, more than half of the skilled migrants are women and their proportion is increasing. This phenomenon is not contingent on origins: while women represent 53 % of the skilled migrants from developed countries they represent 51 % of the skilled migrants from developing countries.

Feminization of skilled migration is a confirmed statistical trend but it remains invisible to the general public and sometimes, to the researchers in social sciences, too. Paradoxically, some feminist scholars are helping to keep this trend invisible when they focus on two different topics: “feminization of migration” and “care drain”.

Feminization of migration” has become a buzz word that dominates the research on migrant women so that almost any article on migrant women begins by reminding the “feminization of migration” phenomenon. However, the available data showed that there was no such phenomenon as a “feminization of migration”: the proportion of women in international migration is not higher than the proportion of men nor is it increasing. This fact is known since 1998 when the UN Population Division provided the first estimates of international migration disaggregated by sex. As Hania Zlotnik, then Head of the Population Division, showed, the share of women has remained stable since the 1960s and accounts for 47-48 % of the total international migration. While the proportion of women has been stable for five decades, the number of migrant women is increasing. But so too is the number of migrant men: would this be a reason to theorize  about masculinization of migration ?

The second way to hide the feminization of skilled migration is to view migrant women as “care drain” and more generally to associate them with gendered, lower skilled, activities. An important strand of literature focuses on migrant women as domestic workers, nannies or sex workers. In doing this, some feminist scholars seek to establish the existence of a gendered international division of labor. Inspired by the neo-Marxism theory of “global economic restructuring”, they argue that global expansion of capital produces a new division of labor which is gendered. Just as in the old division of labor European countries extracted raw materials from the colonized peoples to transform them in their homeland, the developed countries now extract care and emotional resources (that is, women) from developing countries. On this account, migrant women are construed as care drain, rather than brain drain and their qualifications are made invisible. On the one hand, women are reduced to their traditionally gendered roles and their skills are considered insofar as they benefit their children or countries of origins. On the other hand, while migrant women, especially from non-OECD countries, end up doing care work, the problem feminists should have is not that the North extracts care and emotional resources from the South. The problem is rather that migrant women from non-OECD countries are more likely to be hired in jobs for which they are overqualified.

While more than half of skilled migrants are women, their qualifications remain invisible on the labor market, too. In all OECD countries except Slovenia, overqualification rates are higher for migrant women than for native women (OECD, 2015). However, the phenomenon is not linked to global expansion of capitalism: overqualification rates of foreign-born women is almost twice in less “capitalist” countries such as Greece (63,7 %) and Italy (53,4%) than they are in the United States (37,7%) that can be considered more “capitalist”, however this term is defined.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

If the trend continues, the number of skilled migrant women will increase. Indeed, during the last three decades (1980-2010) the number of migrant women possessing a tertiary level of education increased on average by 5,6%. It is noteworthy that the increase is higher than for migrant men with tertiary education (4,6 %) and for migrant women with less than tertiary education (0,7 %).

We can describe this trend in a different way: qualification provides a passport. This is especially true for persons born in low-income countries: for instance, 40% of migrant women from the African continent have a tertiary level of education. Conversely, the emigration rates of people with less than a tertiary level of education are tiny, regardless of sex. However, qualification offers a passport more to women than to men. This is especially true for Sub-Saharan Africa where emigration rates of skilled women are higher than those of skilled men. But migrant women of all origins (except European) have higher rates of emigration than men when they are educated.

In the next 5 years, the number of women with tertiary education will certainly increase. This is also part of the commitments recently adopted in the UN agenda for development for the next 15 years (see the sustainable development goals). But as international mobility is also severely restrained by the States, it is difficult to see by how much the feminization of skilled migration will increase.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

Labor mobility provides a mechanism of allocating resources efficiently. Economist estimate that if borders were open the world GDP would increase by 50% to 150% (for a review of literature, see Clemens (2011)). Recently, Kennan (2013) showed that the estimated net gains from open borders are about the same as the gains from a growth miracle that more than doubles the income level in less-developed countries.

One could speculate that women’s entry on the global labor market is announcing a slow but deep change towards a more egalitarian, open borders world. Just as women’s participation to the domestic labor markets prefigured the acquisition of full economic and political rights, in the same way, the increasing participation of women to the global labor market could signal a slow change towards an open borders world where equality of opportunity is respected regardless of sex and national origin.

However, one could speculate in the opposite sense. The last time when women represented a majority in the immigration flows to the US were in the 1930s a period of drastic restrictions upon immigration from Europe (Willcox, 1931). One possible explanation is that in times of scarce possibilities to migrate feminization of migration appears more tolerable.


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Speranta Dumitru is an Associate Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Paris Descartes and held the Excellence Chair in Social Ethics at CERLIS, CNRS. Her articles include From “brain drain” to “care drain”: Women's labor migration and methodological sexism and Skilled Migration: Who Should Pay for What? A Critique of the Bhagwati tax .

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