Skilled female migrants in the discourse of labour migration in Europe

Bosnian woman searching for work at a job centre
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Bosnian woman searching for work at a job centre


by Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram

Though migrant women’s educational levels are only slightly lower than men, they form both a minority of female migrants and of skilled, and especially highly skilled, migrants.   At the same time, they have been relatively under-studied. Academic research and media stories of migrant women’s employment usually focus on migrant women who enter the lesser skilled sectors of the labour market, such as sex work, domestic work, and more recently care-work, and ignore the many other sectors of the labour market where women are also present, including the more skilled sectors.

In contrast, much of the literature on skilled migration pays attention to the contribution of skilled migrants to the knowledge economy, and in particular the science, information technology, financial and managerial sectors which are seen to be the driving forces behind global wealth creation.  These occupations are the most valued in monetary terms and are consequently also designated as highly skilled, rather than just skilled, and are therefore increasingly privileged in immigration policies in European states, such as Germany, Netherlands and the UK. Skilled female migrants tend to be concentrated in female dominated occupations, such as education, health and social work, which are regulated by professional bodies and states and often classified as skilled rather than highly skilled.

In this paper, we first examine the presence of women in skilled and highly migration flows. Second, we consider some of the major reasons why female skilled migrants have hitherto received little attention in the academic migration literature and by policy makers. Third, we discuss two of the key issues affecting skilled migrant women: the ways in which immigration regulations shape gendered migratory flows and in particular restrict the proportion of women amongst the skilled, and the high levels of deskilling of migrant women with tertiary qualifications.

Skilled Female Migrants

Until recently data has not been sufficiently disaggregated to demonstrate the significance of skilled female migrants. The OECD has begun to address the issue of data deficiency in relation to skilled migrants and labour markets (SOPEMI 2007) and the gender brain drain (Dumont et al. 2007).

The data suggest that migration has become more feminised, including the highly skilled (defined as those possessing a tertiary degree), which has become more or less gender-balanced. The share of women immigrants holding a tertiary degree in OECD countries is only three percentage points below that of men. Moreover, many highly skilled women enter as the spouses of principal applicants, as is the case in Canada.

In European countries, there are relatively high rates of female skilled migrants amongst the foreign-born (UK, Ireland, Hungary). At the other extreme, due to high levels of deskilling migrant women in most Southern European countries are concentrated in less skilled sectors and there are markedly lower proportions of migrant women in skilled occupations.

Table 1: Percentage of women in highly skilled occupations by origin, 15-64 in selected European countries, 2004
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“-“ indicates that figure is not significant
“..” no explanation
SOURCE: Table I.15. SOPEMI 2006.

Since the late 1990s, reduced investment in states like Australia, Canada and the UK in doctor, nurse and teacher training led to significant shortages in the education, heath and social work sectors which cannot be met locally, forcing these and other states to recruit labour abroad. Women's employment in these sectors has therefore significantly contributed to altering the gender balance in skilled migration. Some of these sectors, such as nursing employ large proportions of women. For example, over 90% of migrants in this sector are women and in many countries this constitutes the largest single health profession. They are also increasingly present in flows that were previously predominantly male, such as with doctors, but have become more gender balanced in recent years. In some countries such as the UK, the use of migrant labour has fallen sharply as the number of nationally trained health staff has increased together with financial cuts in the public health sector.

Women also form a small but significant minority amongst migrant Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals entering any of the major countries of immigration in any year. However, the small proportions of women must be set within the context of large total numbers (and in most countries until recently, rapidly rising) entering through this category (Raghuram, 2004, 2008).

Explanations for the Lack of Interest in Skilled Migrant Women

Despite the importance of skill-selectivity in global migration regimes, there has been little interest until recently in the gendered composition or the disproportionately high deskilling that female migrants face (Kofman 2000; Raghuram 2008; but see Dumont et al. 2007; Rubin et al. ch. 2009). In European states, gendered data on skilled sectors exists but where published often receives scant commentary, as in the studies of highly skilled migrants and health professionals (European Migration Network 2007a, b).

We argue that there are three major reasons for this continuing neglect. The first is that the literature on female migration   has increasingly come to focus on their role in the domestic and caring sector where the growth of labour in the household and in residential homes has occurred across all types of European welfare regimes. And through the global chains of care, which Hoschschild (2000: 131) defined “as a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring” (p. 131), migrant women from the South provide necessary physical and emotional labour in homes in the global North. It thus allocates women low positions in supporting roles for the provision of welfare.

Secondly, the economic benefits of migration are often only analysed in the context of male-dominated occupations in knowledge-based industries such as finance, science and technology. They are seen as the driving force of globalization, productivity and wealth creation, and are therefore promoted by the EU and states (Kofman 2007). In particular, ICT, a male-dominated sector, epitomises the mobile worker at the forefront of the new knowledge economy (Caviedes 2009) and the driving force across Europe for a partial breach of closed labour markets. Thus the association between female migration and skills is rarely made.

The third reason is the unwarranted assumption that migrant women not employed in skilled sectors do not possess skills (Dumont et al. 2007). This particularly applies to spouses who enter as dependants in family migration programmes. Their presence is not analytically linked to the world of production or to skills but related to social, welfare and integration issues. The lack of interest in women’s skills also applies to those who undertake employment in less skilled sectors.  The evidence on educational qualifications of spouses in settler countries demonstrates otherwise (CIC 2006) as does the very high levels of deskilling of migrant women in EU countries (Dumont and Liebig 2005; Rubin et al. 2009) which we address in the subsequent section.

Some Key Issues

The issues that face skilled women in the labour market are complex. Gender shapes the migration process in many different ways. In countries of origin gender discrimination in access to education can mean that fewer women than men have the ability to acquire the skills that are necessary to migrate. On the other hand, gender discriminatory employment practices in origin countries can encourage some women to migrate. In this section we focus on two specific issues that skilled migrant women face: the impact of immigration regulations on entry, and the extent to which skilled migrant women are actually able to use their skills in their labour market after entry into the destination country.

Immigration Regulation Frameworks

Immigration regulations have considerable influence on skilled women’s ability to migrate. Since the late 1990s the classic states of immigration (Australia, Canada, USA) and the UK began to position themselves in the global competition for skilled labour, altering their immigration regulations to facilitate the entry of skilled migrants. However, the particular criteria adopted for filtering in skilled people have varied across different countries and have influenced migrant women differently.

In Northern Europe, the opening up to skilled labour has been far more limited than in settler societies and has used a mix of criteria for selecting skilled people. In particular, salary levels in the country of origin (UK) and in the country of destination (Germany, Ireland, Netherlands) are important or even dominant criteria. In the UK, the substantial number of points given to postgraduate qualifications is another important criterion determining the entry of highly skilled migrants in the Points Based System (Kofman et al. 2009).

Given that women are globally confronted by a gender pay gap, that is equally applicable to skilled women, the emphasis on salary levels, compared to a more broadly based points system in which education and other human capital elements are considered, may particularly work against skilled women. The EU Blue Card, adopted on 25 May 2009 (EU Council Directive 2009/ 50/EC) (EuroActiv 2009) unfortunately relies largely on earnings above the average income levels as an indicator of skills and of the value of a migrant to the economy and society.

The recession has also led to a clearer demarcation between the highly skilled, better remunerated and largely male sectors, and the ordinarily skilled, often feminised and more poorly remunerated sectors, who are brought in to fill identified labour shortages. They are increasingly seen as in competition with national labour and thus requiring labour permits restricted to an employer and close monitoring (Tannock 2009).

The only country that has begun to recognize the inherent gender-selectivity involved in skilled migration programmes is Canada. Gender-sensitive labour migration policies have been defined as ‘policies recognizing that both men and women migrate for economic reasons and better employment opportunities, and that the migration experience of men and women may differ significantly’.

These policies also recognize that female migrant workers may experience more disadvantages and discrimination at all stages of the migration process due to employment categories/sectors offered, educational requirements and stereotyping, which is often further magnified by the intersectional interplay of age, class and ethnicity (OSCE 2009).

Analyzing the gendered effects and outcomes of immigration policies requires full datasets and intensive qualitative research so that the effects of education, income, sectoral employment patterns and age, for instance, can be considered as they operate alongside gender. For instance, do women who take career breaks due to child-bearing and rearing find it harder to enter as skilled migrants?

This kind of intersectional approach can also be used to study the effect of nationality. For example, the proportion of skilled female migrants to major destination countries from China and India differ markedly but this can only be understood through careful study.


Although, deskilling is a common experience among all migrants, women face a particularly high level of deskilling. Thus, one study (Dumont and Liebig 2005) on migrant women in the OECD clearly demonstrates that women were more likely to be overqualified for their jobs than men. The very high levels in a number of Southern European countries are likely to be due to shortages in less skilled sectors, especially domestic labour, highly protected skilled sectors and non-recognition of non-EU qualifications.

There are two possible reasons for the tendency to deskill: professional women are working in sectors other than their original training; and they work at levels below their qualifications within the occupation e.g. nurses working as nursing aides. Both point to barriers that female migrants face which are independent of their individual education (Rubin et al. 2009).

Moreover, the level of ‘brain-waste’, i.e. under-use of the qualifications that migrants possess, was higher for women who migrated from non-OECD countries than for those who migrated within the OECD. Within Europe, women migrants from the Eastern European accession countries were also affected by deskilling. They are now covered by EU regulations concerning the recognition of qualifications but it is not yet clear to what extent, as they improve their language and settle in, they will be able to move into more qualified employment reflecting their educational level.

Table 2: Percentage of women (15-64) in jobs for which they are overqualified by birth status 2003-2004
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SOURCE: Table I.16 SOPEMI 2006

This deskilling is particularly apparent in the highly feminised sector of nursing. A study of international nurse recruits in the UK, mainly from Europe, Australia, Africa and Philippines found that many nurses felt that their skills were not appreciated or respected and that they confronted racism and xenophobia (Allan and Aggergaard Larsen 2003). Nurses also experienced a considerable degree of downgrading of their skills as they entered the labour market at levels well below that which they occupied before migration. Furthermore, their experiences varied considerably depending on whether they worked in the private or public sector.

Deskilling also operates among doctors. In the UK this deskilling is institutionalised through the creation of a cadre of posts where doctors work in hospitals but are not seen as independent operators. Overseas qualified doctors dominate in these grades. However, the level of deskilling is higher among migrant women who qualified outside the EEA (Raghuram and Kofman 2002).

Some of the factors that lead to deskilling of migrants are common to both men and women. Recognition of qualifications for non-EU countries is frequently a major problem for labour integration and re-skilling may be too complex, lengthy, costly and discouraging for qualified immigrants. Dominant stereotypes exist, even amongst professionals that tend to classify qualified immigrants and their skills by their country of origin. The lack of support structures for newly arrived qualified immigrant also often forces them to rely on informal networks whilst the lack of affordable, accessible and appropriate professional language courses for qualified immigrants may pose another barrier.

However, some of these factors influence women more than men. For instance, the ability to attend professional language courses may be more limited for women who have childcare responsibilities. The loss of social networks, personal and professional, after wo-men migrate can be worse for women if they also have less ability to go out and access new networks. Women’ need to re-skill or to get accreditation may also be given less priority by families when there is a gender hierarchy within households. Eventually, lengthy periods out of the labour market and under-employment harm the self-esteem of such migrants and increase deskilling.


The emphases on migrant women in lesser skilled sectors of the labour market and on the more masculinised sectors of the skilled labour market have together acted to obscure the significant presence of skilled migrant women in the labour market.  However, as the majority of immigration receiving countries encourage and facilitate the flow of skilled migrants, it is important that we begin to pay more attention to female skilled migrants. In this paper we have laid out some patterns of skilled female migration and outlined some of the issues facing skilled migrant women, both in terms of entry due to the effect of current immigration policies as well as because of the difficulty they have in validating their skills.

We would also suggest the need to improve the way in which women’s skills are accredited. Some of this may involve providing them with more help with childcare, improved access to language classes and greater formal support to access the labour market in more appropriate ways. Other steps would involve the use of less gender biased methods for identifying skills. We believe that these are important first steps in improving the experience of skilled women migrants globally. 



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Dr. Eleonore Kofman is Professor of Gender, Migration and Citizenship and co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University, UK. Dr. Parvati Raghuram is lecturer in Geography at the Open University, UK.