Maryam Mirzakhani was born in Iran in 1977. Showing an early gift for mathematics, she received a degree from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. After moving to the US, Maryam earned her PhD from Harvard before becoming a young professor at Stanford. Last summer she was awarded the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. Maryam was the first women to win the medal, unofficially referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”. Since it was established in 1936, all previous winners have been male. The story of Maryam is not only one of an unusually talented individual. It is also in line with a wider social phenomenon, where upward-striving Iranians rely on a winning mix of eastern culture and western institutions. This success however, has been easier to reach in some western nations than others.
In 2003, administrators at Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering Department were reportedly startled. The notoriously difficult entrance exam for PhD studies had been aced by a group of foreign students. It was no surprise that smart kids from Asia were on top. What was more unexpected is that the majority originated from one place – the same Sharif University where Maryam had studied. Stanford is not an isolated example. Iranian top students are doing well in the international Science Olympiads, and flourishing in foreign universities.
This achievement wouldn’t be surprising if Iran was anything like Singapore, Korea or Taiwan. Pupils in the latter countries outperform the rest of the globe in mathematics, according to the survey Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Iranian pupils on the other hand have considerably lower scores than in developed countries such as the US or in Western Europe. How can a country with poor school performance export so many talents? One explanation is that Iran has an elitist school system, where talents such as Maryam are identified early and sent to a few top high schools. The country has a competitive higher education system and few opportunities for those who do not succeed. To make it in life, many young Iranians study hard in high school. The dream is often to venture abroad. Since the 1979 revolution Iran has been characterized by continuous brain‑drain.
A couple of generations ago, it was quite uncommon for Iranians to leave their native land. During recent times however, an Iranian diaspora of around 4 to 5 million individuals have evolved abroad. One example is the Iranian community in the US. According to the US census in 1990, 221 000 persons of Iranian ancestry were at the time residing in the country. Slightly less than a quarter were born in the US from Iranian parents. Almost half of the remainder had resided in the country for less than ten years. Still, the group was thriving economically. The poverty level amongst Iranians was only marginally higher than the national average. In fact, the median house income of Iranians was 22 percent higher than the national average. One explanation is that some Iranians migrants had brought wealth with them. Likely more important is their stock of knowledge capital. Amongst Iranians over 25 years of age, fully 26 percent had graduate degree or higher. At the time, this was almost four times the US average.
According to the 2013 American Community Survey, the number of Iranians had grown to some 460 000 (the true population might be considerably higher, since many do not identify themselves as “Iranian” on the census). The median household income of Iranians was $64 752, compared to a national average of $52 250. Adjusting for household size, the per capita income of Iranians was $43 334, far higher than the national average of $28 155. The share with bachelor’s degree or higher was 61.9 percent amongst Iranians, compared to 28.8 percent for the average American.
Culture plays a key part in the Iranian success story. To begin with, knowledge is treasured. This is apparent in the Persian language, where occupation-bound terms of address are common. Someone who is a doctor, a “mohandes” (engineer) or “vakil” (lawyer) is addressed as such. Having a good degree is not merely a source of pride for the individual, but for the family as a whole. The culture prevalent amongst the Iranian diaspora also emphasizes individual achievement, wealth accumulation and business-ownership. Iran itself still lacks the education system, market based economy and high levels of trust needed for these cultural attributed to bear fruit. Western countries as the US however do. By adapting to western society, Iranians also leave behind some cultural traits: such as low trust for strangers and old-fashioned gender roles. Mehdi Bozorgmehr and Daniel Douglas conclude that the children of Iranian immigrants in the US have a more balanced achievement across gender lines: “in terms of educational attainment and labor force participation, females have quickly closed the gap with their male counterparts.”
The success of Iranians in the US can to some degree be explained by the fact that some of the rich elite fled Iran to New York and Los Angeles. In this regard, Canada differs from the US. Over the period 1978 to 1990 Iranians mainly came as political refugees. Later arrivals include refugees, family immigrants as well as students. According to the 2006 census, some 121 000 individuals of Iranian origin were at the time residing in Canada. One in six was born in Canada, while the remainders were immigrants. Nearly 30 percent of the immigrants had arrived in Canada during the last five years. This explains why 34 percent of Iranians lived below the low-income cut off before tax in 2006, almost three times the national average. With time however, integration occurs in the Canadian economy. The same census shows that full year working Iranians had merely twelve percent lower median incomes than the average Canadian – a good outcome for a group with many recent arrivals. The situation is quite different in another snowy part of the world: the Nordics.
Sweden has received a large influx of migrants from Iran. Today, Iranian immigrants and their children make up nearly one percent of Sweden’s population. As in Canada, the group has a strong educational background. A study has however shown that in 1999, around 15 years after the average Iranian migrated to Sweden, a large segment was still trapped in welfare dependency. Merely a third of Iranianhouseholds supported themselves mainly through work at this time. The households were either depending on public support or low incomes from work. Another study has calculated the income from work between 1993 and 2000 for those born in Iran. It is shown that this amounted only to 61 percent of the average work income of a native Swede. With time, the situation of Iranians in Sweden has improved. But amongst the first generation, many have not been given the opportunity to fulfill their potential. A similar situation exists in neighboring Norway. A study by Statistics Norway has found that Iranians in Norway have unusually high educational level compared to other immigrant groups. However, fully 41 percent of adult Iranians surveyed responded that they were unemployed and actively seeking work at some point during 2006 – well before the global financial crises.
It is no coincidence that the US and Canada offer greater opportunities for upward social mobility of Iranian migrants. The economic structures in Sweden and Norway – based on strict wage-setting, rigid labor laws, high taxes and generous benefits – makes it more difficult and less rewarding to enter the labor market. Interestingly enough, welfare‑entrapment has not fully eroded the Iranian success story. Most young Iranians in Sweden have grown up supported by welfare handout and/or low work incomes. Yet, no group is as keen on earning a higher education as young Iranians. A study has shown that 45 percent of native Swedes have started higher education at the age of 25. This is considerably higher than 37 percent amongst the average immigrants. Iranians are a clear outlier, since 60 percent have begun higher education at the same age
Countries such as Sweden societies have created higher obstacles to labor market inclusion than the more free‑market based Anglo-Saxon societies. For immigrant groups such as Iranians, the effect is greater entrapment in social poverty through welfare-dependency. At the same time, Sweden offers fully publicly supported education to their citizens. Some young Iranians remain in the socially marginalized class that their parents were trapped in. Many more have begun climbing the social ladder through primarily education, but also business ownership and hard work. The social reward for becoming a doctor, a “mohandes” or a “vakil” remains strong in the group. Young Iranians are still encouraged to make their parents proud by earning a higher degree or founding a successful business. In Sweden, as well as in Canada and the US, the intermarriage between eastern culture and western institutions creates a route to up-ward social mobility.