Women’s Higher Education and the Brain Drain in Iran - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Women’s Higher Education and the Brain Drain in Iran

Middle Tennessee State University
The start of the new century marked a point in Iran’s history that put the country at a cusp, a watershed moment that decided its future direction. In the past decade, Iran’s economy rose about 5 percent each year with investments to infrastructure and education driving the growth. Yet the new millennium holds widespread challenges for Iran’s youth, especially for young women who are paradoxically facing a fast changing yet still conservative Islamic culture that cultivates a male-dominant society. Not surprisingly, many educated young people are leaving the country in droves for better professional opportunities. A recent study cites Iran’s percentage of tertiary educated people leaving each year, or the country’s brain drain, around 15 percent. Field research using a multitude of different statistical methods put the range of Iran's brain drain from 15 to 25 percent.[1] This article aims to illuminate the relationship between the rise in Iranian women’s participation in higher education and in the country’s labor force and the out-migration of Iran’s brightest and most educated. As the article will reveal, over the past three decades, Iranian women emerged to a more prominent position in the labor force, but these gains have been undercut by traditional trends that oppress women inside the system that aids their advancement.

An Iranian college classroom
photo by Hessam Armandehi, 2006

In today’s Iran, more and more women are gaining education opportunities as Iran makes efforts to meet the demanding challenges posed by the new global world. The promises of economic independence and financial mobility push female college enrollment up in the face of traditional opposition. By 2003, six of every 10 Iranian college graduates  were women and more than 60 percent of all Iranian college matriculates were women. The most recent statistical data analysis of the 2006 Iranian census suggests that education has come to have a large impact on the labor force participation (LFP) and employment rates of women aged 25−54. Attainment of a primary education lowers the likelihood that women will participate in the labor force by 11 percent. Secondary educational attainment for Iranian women raises women’s LFP by 2 percent. A high school diploma raises the probability by an additional 8 percent, an undergraduate degree by 15 percent more and a graduate degree by another 3 percent. Therefore, for Iranian women, holding a graduate degree makes it 28 percent more likely they will be willing and able to work in the labor force.[2]

However, increases in women’s educational attainment levels and educated women’s increasing willingness do not mean an absolute improvement on their position in the labor market. Often externalities arise that keep women in an oppressed position. Even if education and LFP rise in union, economic empowerment for women may not. As women gain a foothold in the workplace the society’s conservatism remains. This sometimes results in non-living wages, discrimination in the workplace, and exploitation of women’s labor. As the state continues maintaining its Islamization of the educational system, the secular education of the Pahlavi Dynasty has been made compatible with Islam. The template purports women as mothers and wives under Islamic ideology, decreasing  the percentage of women in the labor force after the Revolution.[3] Thus although modernized and Westernized education resulted in an improved quality of life, the relative advances did not inspire any challenge to the male-female gender divisions in Iranian society, as seen in the fact that merely a quarter of  female university graduates join the Iranian labor force.[4]

The educational system treats women in the same vein as broader Iranian society. On the campuses women wear makeup and fashionable hijabs to stick it to the college administrators who vehemently oppose such liberties and individual rights. Inside the classrooms, male-dominated discourse forces women into traditional Islamic roles. Once the women graduate with a diploma, Bachelor’s or higher degree that account for 12.3 percent of women in Iran, the majority of them return to the role of housewife and mother.[5] Even though the women gain “an understanding of their own self—one that stems from being on their own,”[6] it seems that the Islamic state filters them into a singularity. Women have benefited from a broader picture of society that hinges on increasing independence for women, but they are still within the pervasive system. 

Many of the obstacles facing greater Iranian women’s empowerment go against Iranian society’s self-interest. At Tehran Polytechnic University, one administrator said that even though they prefer to hire women, the jobs are given to men. The men hired often have to work more than one job to support their families. This results in decreased productivity for all the men that must work a second or third job, as it is increasingly necessary to do so. Perhaps economy and social biases are more important reasons for the preference than religion or tradition. Still, female college graduates feel demonized by the “superstitious” characteristics of Islamic dogma and patriarchal society, which remain obstacles to female empowerment.[7]

For some of Iran’s conservative male base, women’s educational advances threaten the status quo. In February 2008, the Majles Research Center reported on women’s educational advances as a problem in need of a solution. Even though closing the educational gender gap has been a goal for the Islamic Republic, some believe women take up valuable university spots needed for men. Since a large percentage of women do not go on to work in the Iranian labor force after graduation, conservatives are starting to argue for affirmative action for men in higher education; they see the issue as economic. Women are less likely than men to use their degrees to work in Iran, so men should have greater access to higher education. Women’s advancements, particularly the “feminization” of higher education in Iran, are standard consequences of economic development. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani predicts that constraining the number of Iranian women in the university system would be detrimental to the country. Affirmative action for men is likely to be viewed as discrimination against women rather than an issue of economic concern for the nation.[8]

Iranian Women College Students
source: IOTPHRI archives

Under such situations, it is understandable that Iranian women with the lack of job prospects after education are more eager to leave the country, which further intensifies the trend of Iranian out-migration. Consequently, the Iranian brain drain creates a vast economic and social void in the country. Many out-migrants end up in the United States. According to  research, the brain drain is comparable to America receiving 28.7 billion U.S. dollars in foreign aid from Iran per year, an estimate that does not account for external advantages for the receiving society. The 1990 U.S. census disclosed that more than 50 percent of Iranians in the U.S. held a bachelor’s degree or higher, a percentage behind only India and Taiwan. Out of all the Iranian out migrants, 42 percent held managerial and professional jobs in America, while 35 percent held technical and administrative jobs. The Iranian health care sector exemplifies the problems caused by the brain drain. From 1978 to 2002, the percentage of all Iranian doctors that out-migrated to the U.S. rose from 15 to 20 percent. The Iranian populace suffers from the transference in many ways. For instance,  urban areas have doctor to citizen ratios well below the international average, while rural areas are much worse.[9]

Clearly, the trends of the past few decades signal that the traditional Islamic culture did not hold the development of women’s education and societal advances as some would believe. However, for a more secular and liberal educational system to actually be transformative for women’s oppression and exploitation in Iran, the system of oppression may have to be fully subverted. Only a few components still need amending for real gains to become reality. In a country with modernized and westernized education, a university system that would see women as more than just a wallflower in a men’s academic world, and economic incentives to keep the most educated from leaving the country, there would be significant benefits to women’s agency.   Acknowledging the gendered brain drain, finding demographic policy to improve women’s labor force participation, and maximizing the utility of Iranian women’s contribution to the country’s halls of higher learning, are small steps in this process.

About the author

William K. Sham attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison from '07-'10, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a B.A. in History in August of 2011. He will be teaching English in Japan starting in April 2012.

Recommended citation

William K. Sham, “Women’s Higher Education and the Brain Drain in Iran,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no. 1 (Jan. 2012).


[1] Akbar E. Torbat, “The Brain Drain from Iran to the United States,” The Middle East Journal 56, no. 2, (Spring, 2002): 277; William J. Carrington and Enrica Detraiache, “Working Paper of the International Monetary Fund: How Big Is The Brain Drain?,” International Monetary Fund, (July, 1998), http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/wp98102.pdf
[2] Esfahani and Shajari, “Gender, Education, Family Structure, and the Allocation of Labor in Iran,” Draft (July, 2010): 4−7.
[3] Roksana Bahramitash, “Myths and Realities of the Impact of Political Islam on Women: Female Employment in Indonesia and Iran,” Development in Practice 14, no. 4, (June, 2004): 515.
[4] Hammed Shahidian, “The Education of Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Journal of Women’s History 2, no. 3, (Winter, 1991): 7−10; Mitra K Shavarini, “Wearing the Veil to College: the Paradox of Higher Education in the Lives of Iranian Women,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 38, no. 2, (May, 2006): 189.
[5] Mitra K. Shavarini, “The Feminisation of Iranian Higher Education,” International Review of Education 51, no. 4, (July, 2005): 331.
[6] Shavarini, “Wearing the Veil to College,” 197.
[7] Ibid., 206−7.
[8] Salehi-Isfahani, “Are Iranian Women Overeducated?” The Brookings Institution, March 5, 2008, http://www.brokings.edu/opinions/2008/0305_education_salehi_isfahani.aspx
[9] Torbat, “The Brain Drain from Iran to the United States,” 277−9.
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