Transnational Mobility of Academics in the Early Stages of their Careers: Transforming or Reproducing Gender Regimes?

Prof. Janine Dahinden, Dr. Alina Toader, Martine Schaer (Maps)

In the context of global social transformations, increased migration and mobility worldwide and enhanced transnationalization of social realities, new issues emerge that pose new challenges to equality between men and women and for which we do not possess the scientific knowledge to fully understand the gendered mechanisms at work. One of these emerging issues is the growing transnational mobility of early career researchers and their gendered effects regarding academic career paths. Mobility is often presented as an indispensable element in the career trajectories: A stay – or multiple stays – abroad at other universities or research institutes is today often considered as a normative requirement of a successful academic career, in Switzerland or beyond. In other words, transnational mobility is an important pre-condition of career progression, and many young scientists do not just do a ‘stint’ abroad, but make several moves that take them into their late thirties. Once primarily associated with areas such as physics and biology, recent trends suggest that the demand of mobility is becoming a more generalized dimension of academic careers. At the same time, a set of studies brought to light that this institutionalization of mobility of young academics has important effects on (re)producing gender inequalities and overall that mobility has a highly gendered character. Constraints on mobility are gendered and research has notably shown that parenting hinders the mobility of women to a greater extent than it does men, further impeding their career progression. However, little is known to this day of how we can fully understand the mechanisms by which these gender regimes are (re)produced, contested or transformed in daily practices, social networks, partnerships and family relations, and within universities.
This lack of understanding is due to different research gaps: First, research on highly skilled migration – young academics comprise category – often render families and social networks invisible (problem of ‘methodological individualism’) and therefore remains highly undertheorized. Second, the diversity of practices among women and men is not sufficiently taken into account, thereby not eliciting practices which move away from hegemonic normative conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Finally, there is an overall lack of a gender approach which would focus on the mechanisms of gender differentiation and not reduce the differences between men and women to terms of mere variables.
The proposed research aims at tackling these gaps while asking: In which ways is gender articulated with mobility patterns of young academics (men and women) and, conversely, how does this specific type of mobility reinforce or transform gender regimes? We follow a gender approach that understands gender as a relational and analytical category: Gender and gender regimes are actively reproduced in social practices and interactions (‘doing’ and ‘undoing’ gender) and are therefore open to change. Furthermore, we argue that we can best understand the gendered mobility patterns of young scientists by mobilizing three interrelated theoretical perspectives: A life-story approach, a social network approach, and a ‘social field’ approach to academia. Methodologically, we follow a mixed-method approach conducting research in three universities from different countries. We intend first to conduct an online survey with young academics from the selected universities. Second, we will conduct biographic-narrative and network interviews with young academics experiencing a transnational mobility and, when they are coupled, we will interview their partners as well.
The scientific originality of our project is twofold: First, we contribute to the ongoing debate within gender studies showing the mechanisms by which gender regimes under conditions of transnationalization are at the same time stable but also modified by actors. Second, by understanding the mobility of highly skilled young researchers as a specific form of migration, we aim at linking two different fields of investigation – international migration and highly skilled mobility – which are only rarely articulated.


Funded by:  Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
Duration: 2013-2015