The women are leaving: The great female brain drain and why education isn’t enough

Alt text: Women and global brain drain
Multiple studies on skilled migration show an increasing number of global brain drain among talented women in developing countries. Source: Shah Marai/AFP

Smart women know when to leave. At least that’s what the latest statistics from the UN are implying, according to a recent report quoted in The Star. The figures released support an alarming trend that has been steadily growing: the global brain drain is increasingly female, and they’re not coming back.

In Malaysia, the topic has been a sore point of discussion for years, but one that can no longer be swept under the rug. An estimated 1.86 million Malaysian women are living abroad, taking second place only behind Thailand regionally in numbers when it comes to women migrating out of their countries. That number is approximately equivalent to 12% of Malaysia’s total female population of 15.6 million.

Recently, the appointment of Malaysian-born Penny Wong as Australia’s Foreign Minister in the new cabinet sparked a flurry of well-wishes from her compatriots at home but puts the issue of brain drain skilled emigration sharply into the spotlight once more. 

“A lot of people in the middle class have sort of given up on Malaysia,” Professor James Chin, an expert on Malaysian studies at the University of Tasmania told ABC News. Citing reasons such as discriminatory race-based policies against ethnic minorities and unfavourable socioeconomic conditions, the professor explained why many foreign-educated Malaysians end up leaving for greener pastures abroad. 

For women, there is also the added burden of gender discrimination hampering their careers. Malaysia has one of the lowest numbers of women participating in the workforce within South East Asia at just 55.3%, even though university graduates outnumber men at 61%. Left with little choice but to leave, many don’t look back once they’ve made the move and settle into countries that are more supportive of their talent and growth.

The global female brain drain phenomenon 

Education can be a great leveller for women, but simply getting a degree isn’t enough. Being highly-skilled does not always translate into empowerment, and female graduates face a tougher road ahead once they’re out of school. Due to gender bias in hiring and scant opportunities in occupying decision-making roles, women’s transition into the workforce and career progression are stalled by systemic inequalities. 

Add on cataclysmic events like economic recessions or a global pandemic, it’s women who are often first on the labour chopping block, no matter their qualification. From a survey done in 84 countries, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that there were 13 million less women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, while men’s employment recovered to pre-pandemic levels. 

Women and global brain drain

With more visa schemes by affluent countries drawing healthcare workers to fill labour shortages, more nurses are leaving their country of origin for better pastures abroad. Source: Pedro Pardo/AFP

Nearly half of the world’s migrants are women. If you’re a foriegn-educated woman who graduated from a Western university, you hold a trump card in global mobility. After all, why settle for less when you can get paid more elsewhere, especially if that country has better policies for women to take up space? 

The race to recruit the world’s top global talent has certainly opened up new avenues for educated women from developing countries to improve their work-life prospects. Rich countries like Canada, US, the UK, and Australia are introducing new visa schemes to lure some of the world’s best minds to fill worker shortages left behind by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nowhere has this become more apparent than in the global healthcare sector. In Nigeria, at least 7,000 nurses have left the country in 2021 alone, and 5,407 Nigerian-trained doctors are found to be working in the UK, greatly upsetting the patient-to-healthcare provider ratio in the country. 

Half of Egypt’s doctors have left the country in the past three years in an unprecedented wave of migration from its medical workforce. The data matches some findings from the UK’s General Medical Council in a 2020 report: a majority of the increase in the number of medical students in the UK are women, with more qualified doctors pursuing further studies from the Middle East. 

In Turkey, an extensive report from 2017 found that foreign-educated Turkish women were more likely to stay abroad than men due to push factors in the country, such as a shift towards a more conservative brand of politics and stark gender disparities in the labour market. 

The loss is catastrophic to developing countries: if all the competent women are gone, who is left to fill the gap that they left behind?