Unfolding various academic mobility experiences of Southeast Asian women

Pages 1-19 | Received 19 Dec 2016, Accepted 17 Aug 2017, Published online: 08 Nov 2017

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This article draws on data from a qualitative research study undertaken with the main aim of investigating the issue of the gender dimension of the academic mobility of Southeast Asian women. Our research describes Southeast Asian women’s experiences of mobility, narrating why they choose to be mobile, how the experience of going abroad was responded to and/or rejected by their family, how they experienced life in a different country, and what evaluations they make about these experiences in personal, familial, and professional terms. The article stresses the need to improve the understanding of the factors that are still determining the chances of women to be mobile and obtain fruitful gains from these experiences. For this to be attained, the article follows through an intersectional approach to mobility, considering it is of much use as it allows to comprehend that the disadvantages associated with gender are cumulative, multi-layered, resulting from effects of several variables, including of the emotional, social, economic, and political contexts.

Introduction

This article aims at analysing how mobility affects gender and how culture plays an important variable for understanding the experiences of displacement of Southeast Asian women who are motivated to develop their careers in their home countries and through international academic mobility. More concretely, it addresses the following questions: what does mobility mean for South East Asian women? How do they adapt to the demands imposed on women in their home countries, and as a foreigner in another country? How do these women value their gender and their foreignness when confronting factors that facilitate or disturb their paths? Do they end up winning the battle, or do they stay hostages of their own dreams? Academic mobility can happen for different and multiple motives, including political reasons, family motives, search for meaning and purpose, social recognition, or career advancement. Nowadays having a successful career means increasingly being more mobile and have multiple academic degrees. Yet, in countries where social inequalities are linked to gender inequalities, women are still more vulnerable at staying in social and professional lower positions. Academic mobility is then regarded as a manner to improve social mobility and to prevent them from staying with jobs poorly paid. Therefore, mobility means to agree with a continuous adjustment to their life plans. They soon know that they need to be prepared to persistently renegotiate gender identity, as well as dribbling gender patterns and expectancies, sometimes long before mobility takes place. They need to anticipate when and how they will do academic mobility and with what purpose. Sometimes, it also demands that they anticipate if they want to return, or stay abroad. Questions such as the duration of the mobility, the acceptance of their families, as well as the social recognition of their effort also make part of that anticipation. In addition, women also face the need to overcome the effects produced by their status as foreigners in a different country.

In this article, we hypothesize that deep into its realm, mobility for women (involving the places to where they go, for how long and in what conditions) depends on how they perform gender at their community of origin, including how they negotiate social and cultural constraints imposed on them because of their gender. It also examines how they are treated and received in the host countries (França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]) and how they overcame difficulties linked to the way others perceive and evaluate their condition as foreigners. In some cases, authors explored why women have less worldwide mobility, accentuating that family responsibilities, linked to marriage and care for children can inhibit women from doing mobility (Ackers 2004Ackers, Louise2004. “Managing Relationships in Peripatetic Careers: Scientific Mobility in the European Union.” Women’s Study International Forum 27 (3): 189201.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Araújo and Fontes 2013Araújo, Emília, and Margarida Fontes2013. “Mobilidade de Investigadores em Portugal: Uma abordagem de género.” [Mobility of researchers in Portugal: a gender approachRevista Ibero-Americana de Ciência Y Tecnologia23: 943. [Google Scholar]). They also point out that short-term mobility can be, due to cultural barriers, particularly attractive for women (Ackers 2004Ackers, Louise2004. “Managing Relationships in Peripatetic Careers: Scientific Mobility in the European Union.” Women’s Study International Forum 27 (3): 189201.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Canibano, Otamendi, and Andújar 2008Canibano, CarolinaJavier Otamendi, and Inés Andújar2008. “Measuring and Assessing Researcher Mobility from CV Analysis: The Case of the Ramón y Cajal Programme in Spain.” Research Evaluation 17 (1): 1731.10.3152/095820208X292797[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The fact is that women’s academic and geographical mobility echoes manifold and intersectional effects brought about by a set of variables which determine gender performances (Mählck 2013Mählck, Paula2013. “Academic Women with Migrant Background in the Global Knowledge Economy: Bodies, Hierarchies and Resistance.” Women’s Studies International Forum36: 6574.10.1016/j.wsif.2012.09.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Mirza 2013Mirza, Heidi Safia2013. “‘A Second Skin’: Embodied Intersectionality, Transnationalism and Narratives of Identity and Belonging among Muslim Women in Britain.” Women’s Studies International Forum 36: 515.10.1016/j.wsif.2012.10.012[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The intersectionality approach as developed by seminal authors (Crenshaw 1991Crenshaw, Kimberlé1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43: 12411299.10.2307/1229039[Crossref][Google Scholar]; França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]) gives us an account of the fact that inequalities are dynamic realities and that they result from several accumulative effects of different variables dependent on the social and political contexts (Cerqueira and Magalhães 2017Cerqueira, Carla, and Sara I.Magalhães2017. “Ensaio Sobre Cegueiras: Cruzamentos Intersecionais e (In)Visibilidades nos media.” Ex Aequo35: 920. [Google Scholar]). Gender inequalities are not lived and experienced the same way by all women or men, as they emerge from several matrixes of power and dependence. Therefore, when analysing decisions to go abroad, as well as the experience itself of being outside, one needs to assume that there are several variables intersecting with gender, making this more or less salient and influential (França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]). Culture, religion, and ethnicity, for instance, are constitutive of the modes in which women are treated both at home communities and in the receiving countries (Ang 2016Ang, Sylvia2016. “Chinese Migrant Women as Boundary Markers in Singapore: Unrespectable, Un-Middle-Class and Un-Chinese.” Gender, Place and Culture 114.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Mählck 2016Mählck, Paula2016. “Academics on the Move? Gender, Race and Place in Transnational Academic Mobility.” Nordic Journal of Studies on Educational Policy 2: 29784. doi:10.3402/nstep.v2.29784.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Mählck and Fellesson 2016Mählck, Paula, and Mans Fellesson2016. “Capacity-building, Internationalisation or Postcolonial Education? Space and Place in Development-Aid-Funded PhD Training.” Education Comparee 15: 7118. [Google Scholar]). But their power of influence varies according to their age, their status as well as their condition before the family. In this line of thought, mobility and gender should be conceptualized as dynamic realities, dialogically co-produced, in enduring interaction with each other, making women more capable of agency. Following the seminal actors who have problematized the concept, (Giddens 1979Giddens, Anthony1979. “Agency, Structure.” In Central Problems in Social Theory4995BerkeleyUniversity of California Press.10.1007/978-1-349-16161-4[Crossref][Google Scholar]), for ‘agency’ in this case we mean the ability of women to overcome the weight of social and cultural constraints inscribed in the form of habitus and imagine a different situation for their life that they can see as possible to reach.

This article is divided into three parts. The first part covers the literature review. This is strongly focused on showing the interrelationship between gender, mobility, and ethnicity. After a methodological note addressing the process of data gathering and analysing, the article gives an account of the results obtained, discussing these in the light of the existing literature. Some remarks are made on the final point, for addressing the contributions of the article for an understanding of the mobility in a gendered perspective.

Conceptual framework

The core idea to follow in this text is that incentives towards collaborating and sharing the contexts of education and knowledge production coexist with diverse cultural processes that may be discriminatory, even in the so-called globalized transnational world, particularly for women.

Academic international mobility is a major motor of globalization and transnationality in science. However, according to Kim (2009Kim, Terri2009. “Transnational Academic Mobility, Internationalization and Interculturality in Higher Education.” Intercultural Education 20 (5): 395405.10.1080/14675980903371241[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar], 397), academic mobility is a result of the ‘neoliberal policy and market‐framed research competition’. In the same line of authors such as Ylijoki (2013Ylijoki, Oili-Helena2013. “Boundary-work between Work and Life in the High-speed University.” Studies in Higher Education 38 (2): 242255.10.1080/03075079.2011.577524[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Vostal (2015Vostal, Filip2015. “Academic Life in the Fast Lane: The Experience of Time and Speed in British Academia.” Time and Society 24 (1): 7195.10.1177/0961463X13517537[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), and Muller (2014Muller, Ruth2014. “Racing for What? Anticipation and Acceleration in the Work and Career Practices of Academic Life Science Postdoc.” Qualitative Social Research 15 (3).http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2245 [Google Scholar]), we could argue that people feel increasingly more a need to finish academic degrees fast (instead of prioritizing thoughtful, creative research and learning) in order to catch the job opportunities, as they also face increasing competition in selective labour markets. The fact is that academic international mobility is often regarded as a means to ameliorate employability skills. Now, the questions are then: how are people adjusting their lives to these ‘demands’ for mobility? Until what extent is mobility a cultural project, and what kinds of cultural conditionings are sculpting it? And how does gender enter that equation?

With effect, it is our view that academic mobility needs to be regarded from an intersectional approach when the objective is to discuss gender. Recent studies on academic mobility have stressed the weight of auxiliary characteristics in dictating the success of researchers to enter scientific networks (Wagner 2015Wagner, Izabela2015. “Entre a dupla ausência e o profissional transnacional – o “não dito” da mobilidade científica.” Comunicação e Sociedade 28: 379399.10.17231/comsoc.28(2015).2287[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Parker and Bozeman (2015Parker, Marla, and Barry Bozeman2015. “Desenvolvendo uma teoria repertório – colaboração, raça e género tal como aplicada à política em CTEM.” Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais 3 (2): 161174. [Google Scholar]) have problematized the intersection between gender and race. The authors state that, when combined, they influence the intensity and the quality of collaboration in between researchers. The fact is that contexts of migration are rich ethnic and intercultural terrains pervaded of successive reconfigurations of identities (Yang and Welch 2010Yang, Rui, and Anthony R. Welch2010. “Globalisation, Transnational Academic Mobility and the Chinese Knowledge Diaspora: An Australian Case Study.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31 (5): 593607.10.1080/01596306.2010.516940[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ho 2011Ho, Elaine Lynn-Ee2011. “Migration Trajectories of ‘Highly Skilled’ Middling Transnationals: Singaporean Transmigrants in London.” Population Space and Place 17 (1): 116129.10.1002/psp.v17.1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). For instance, Wagner (2015Wagner, Izabela2015. “Entre a dupla ausência e o profissional transnacional – o “não dito” da mobilidade científica.” Comunicação e Sociedade 28: 379399.10.17231/comsoc.28(2015).2287[Crossref][Google Scholar]) posits that international mobility reminds what Sayad (1999Sayad, Abdelmalek1999La double absence. Des illusions de l’émigré aux souffrances de l’immigréParisLe Seuil. [Google Scholar]) classifies as the double condition of strangeness lived by migrants. In her view, scientists in mobility are at the risk of being marginalized both in their countries of origin (that do not recognize them anymore as full members of their origin communities), as at the receiving countries (as far as they are as well not recognized as full legitimate members of that communities). Murakami (2014Murakami, Yukiko2014. “Influences of Return Migration on International Collaborative Research Networks: Cases of Japanese Scientists Returning from the US.” The Journal of Technology Transfer 39 (4): 616634.10.1007/s10961-013-9316-9[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) had referred to cultural affinities. She states that these affinities are linked to historical relationships and that they affect the constitution of networks. It is a fact that academic mobility still happens between countries which had shared historical dependency relations. And, theoretically, it would be expected that mobility for educational and scientific purposes would inscribe individuals in transnational lives preserving them way from discriminatory practices. However, academic mobility shows similar features of a typical migratory path which implies social integration processes, in the general society, and the academic contexts. Fahey and Kenway (2010Fahey, Johanna, and Jane Kenway2010. “Thinking in Mobility, Knowledge, Power and Geography.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31 (5): 627640.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) discuss relevant concepts – such as ‘geographies of power/knowledge’, ‘empires of knowledge’, and ‘edges of empires’, to comprehend the complex net of interests and power relations that define international fluxes of academic mobility. This means that academic mobility spreads into several axes of theorization that always need its conceptualization around the factors that turn that into a positive or into a negative event.

In sum, we can understand that international mobility entails a complex and powerful network of variables that go shaping differently the people’s experiences and the way they deal with its demands. Therefore, when analysing women’s stories, we need to assume that the women are not all in the same position. There are structural features of politics and social classes, and other referring to culture, values and religion that affect differently their live prospects as well as the extent to which they are able of agency. As stated, the purpose of the article is to highlight how gender relates to academic mobility. We analyse the cases of southern Asian women. These live in countries where the situation of women is largely dependent on the social class of origin.

Authors have discussed that capitalism consented with and collaborated in the masculinization and hegemonization of life course concept. Walby (2007Walby, Silvia2007Gender TransformationsLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) has vehemently criticized neoliberal principles for their linearity and masculinity for them being too authoritative about what women can do with and for their lives. This author also claimed against the rhetoric of the gender mainstreaming, considering that there is no room to think about women as a universal subject. From a geopolitical perspective, also Massey (1999Massey, Doreen1999. “Spaces of Politics.” In Human Geography Today, edited by Massey DoreenPhil Sarre, and John Allen279294CambridgePolity Press. [Google Scholar]) had dealt with this same issue proposing the existence of inequalities of power derived from different geographies of capital that shape space and territories as well as the opportunities of women in them. Also for the case of mobility, Brooks and Waters (2011Brooks, Rachel, and Johanna Waters2011Student Mobilities, Migration and the Internationalization of Higher EducationBasingstokePalgrave MacMillan.10.1057/9780230305588[Crossref][Google Scholar]) asserts that ‘gender politics of scales’ is a neoliberal project, as far as it has ignored the potentially discriminatory processes attached to mobility and displacement, particularly when considering the set of variables, besides scientific or technical capitals in a game. From this perspective, mobility should not be regarded as a matter of individual choice in face of taken for granted patterns, or an open territory of expectations individually achievable. It needs also to approached as an intersectional complex reality (França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]).

In fact, many studies consider that academic mobility is more difficult for women than for men. They must attend to role expectations, mainly those referring to care to children and to male partners (Ackers 2004, 2015Ackers, Louise2004. “Managing Relationships in Peripatetic Careers: Scientific Mobility in the European Union.” Women’s Study International Forum 27 (3): 189201.
Ackers, Louise2015. “Moving People and Knowledge, the Mobility of Scientists within the European Union.” International Migration 43 (5): 99129. 
; Araújo and Fontes 2013Araújo, Emília, and Margarida Fontes2013. “Mobilidade de Investigadores em Portugal: Uma abordagem de género.” [Mobility of researchers in Portugal: a gender approachRevista Ibero-Americana de Ciência Y Tecnologia23: 943. [Google Scholar]). Following a gender intersectionality approach, one could state that within this context, women are to face even more complex conditionings (França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]). Besides cultural barriers, they also face the limitations biological temporality (Araújo and Fontes 2013Araújo, Emília, and Margarida Fontes2013. “Mobilidade de Investigadores em Portugal: Uma abordagem de género.” [Mobility of researchers in Portugal: a gender approachRevista Ibero-Americana de Ciência Y Tecnologia23: 943. [Google Scholar]) that makes the women have to face even greater difficulties during academic mobility. In a way, we could state that gender is itself conditioned by mobility, and most of the women willing to be mobile feel they need to redefine their trajectories and their life projects according to mobility demands (Scheibelhofer 2008Scheibelhofer, Elisabeth2008. “How and Why Are Mobilities Gendered? Gender Still Matters: Mobility Aspirations among European Scientists Working Abroad.” In Gendered Mobilities, edited by Tanu Priya Uteng and Tim Cresswell115–128AldershotAshgate. [Google Scholar]; Leemann 2010Leemann, Regular Julia2010. “Gender Inequalities in Transnational Academic Mobility and the Ideal Type of Academic Entrepreneur.” Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 31 (5): 609625.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Pettersson 2011Pettersson, Helena2011. “Transnational Plant Scientists. Negotiating Academic Mobility, Career Commitments and Private Life.” Gender 1: 99116. [Google Scholar]; Leung 2014Leung, Maggi W. H. 2014. “Unsettling the Yin-Yang Harmony: An Analysis of Gender Inequalities in Academic Mobility among Chinese Scholars.” Asian Pacific Migration Journal 23 (2): 155182.10.1177/011719681402300202[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Ackers’ ideas underline that mobility is a specific trait of academic careers. She calls them ‘peripatetic’, saying that these types of careers are subjected to high levels of variability and uncertainty along time. Other authors such as González Ramos and Vergés Bosch (2012González Ramos, Ana M., and NuriaVergés Bosch2012. “International Mobility of Women in Science and Technology Careers: Shaping Plans for Personal and Professional Purposes.” Gender, Place and Culture 20 (5): 613629.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) have shown that women in science and technology anticipate early soon in their lives the difficulties raised by their gender condition. Therefore, they tend to plan mobility in a such a manner that they can make mobility and respond to other personal and family demands (Ackers 2004Ackers, Louise2004. “Managing Relationships in Peripatetic Careers: Scientific Mobility in the European Union.” Women’s Study International Forum 27 (3): 189201.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Araújo and Fontes 2013Araújo, Emília, and Margarida Fontes2013. “Mobilidade de Investigadores em Portugal: Uma abordagem de género.” [Mobility of researchers in Portugal: a gender approachRevista Ibero-Americana de Ciência Y Tecnologia23: 943. [Google Scholar]). This is one of the strongest ideas defended in this article, as it shows that women make choices that may not be entirely in accordance with their ‘habitus’, by making decisions that somehow put in cause the so called ‘feminine duties’.

Charrad (2010Charrad, Mounira2010. “Women’s Agency across Cultures: Conceptualizing Strengths and Boundaries.” Women’s Studies International Forum 33: 517522.10.1016/j.wsif.2010.09.004[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as well as and González Ramos and Torrado Martin-Palomino (2014González Ramos, Ana, and EstherTorrado Martin-Palomino2014. “Familia e investigación: estrategias familiares y de género de las investigadoras españolas.” Feminismo/s 23 (166): 183205. [Google Scholar]) have explored the different angles of structural barriers faced by cross-border women and how these women use an agency to achieve their dreams and seek emancipation. Kõu et al. (2015Kõu, AnuLeo van WissenJouke van Dijk, and Ajay Bailey2015. “A Life Course Approach to High-skilled Migration: Lived Experiences of Indians in the Netherlands.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41 (10): 16441663.10.1080/1369183X.2015.1019843[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) declare that migrant biographies are construed differently across time, depending on the importance that the events have on their lives. Basengkham (2015Basengkham, Inleusa2015Girls out of School: State, Culture and Education in Poor Rural Lao People’s Democratic RepublicBragaUminho. [Google Scholar]), for instance, enlightens that in the Laos Democratic Republic, the increased educational levels and academic international mobility have little impact on women’s careers, when they return to their home countries. This happens because, in these hierarchical societies, the educational capitals count less than gender or social class for social mobility.

Mobility makes women to face of several cultural shocks, with constitutive influence in their identities. França (2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]) emphasizes the importance that cultural and social dimensions have for understanding the complex process of geographical mobility as being experienced by academic women. On the line of other Mählck (2016Mählck, Paula2016. “Academics on the Move? Gender, Race and Place in Transnational Academic Mobility.” Nordic Journal of Studies on Educational Policy 2: 29784. doi:10.3402/nstep.v2.29784.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) as well as Mählck and Fellesson (2016Mählck, Paula, and Mans Fellesson2016. “Capacity-building, Internationalisation or Postcolonial Education? Space and Place in Development-Aid-Funded PhD Training.” Education Comparee 15: 7118. [Google Scholar]), the author notes that the women are exposed to several processes of cultural discrimination, both at origin and reception countries. She says that part of them are yet conditioned by colonial-constituted representations (França 2016França, Thaís2016. “Mulheres, Imigrantes e Acadêmicas: Teorias da Interseccionalidade para Pensar a Mobilidade Científica.” Tomo 26: 203240. [Google Scholar]).

There is some research on academic women’s mobility in Asia but there is not much research done about women in Southeast Asian countries. Wild (2007Wild, Kirsty2007. “Aid, Education and Adventure.” PhD diss., Massey University. [Google Scholar]) wrote her doctoral thesis about Thai women who have done their academic degree in New Zealand by exploring the narrative sources of data to deepen the diverse cultural, social education and developmental aspects of women scholars. In fact, literature in an Asian context like Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste, stress the great difficulties women have in acceding and progressing in education when compared to men, and this becomes especially acute for women in lower social classes.

However, the studies which focus somehow on the cultural fences inhibiting women to make annexe mobility also give an account of the strategies women may adapt to respond to that. With effect, Glen (1994Glen, E. Helder1994. “Time, Human Agency, and Social Change: Perspectives on the Life Course.” Social Psychology Quarterly 57 (1): 415.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), argues that human agency is a product of time ordering, therefore it is also the energy for social change. At this respect, both sexual characteristics and academic mobility may be conceptualized as political matters that affect individual paths, beneficiating from individual’s agency and creativity (Silvey 2004, 2010Silvey, Rachel2004. “Transnational Migration and the Gender Politics of Scale: Indonesian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 25 (2): 141155.10.1111/j.0129-7619.2004.00179.x
Silvey, Rachel M. 2010. “Stigmatized Spaces: Gender and Mobility under Crisis in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.” Gender, Place and Culture 7 (2): 143161. doi:10.1080/713668869. 
).

Bagguley and Hussain (2016Bagguley, Paul, and Yasmin Hussain2016. “Negotiating Mobility: South Asian Women and Higher Education.” Sociology 50 (1): 4359.10.1177/0038038514554329[Crossref][Google Scholar]) establish, for the case of Southeast Asian Women educational paths that ‘the educational and career outcomes and transformations entail complex forms of resistance, negotiation and compromise across intersecting identities’ (2016Bagguley, Paul, and Yasmin Hussain2016. “Negotiating Mobility: South Asian Women and Higher Education.” Sociology 50 (1): 4359.10.1177/0038038514554329[Crossref][Google Scholar], 43). In their view, Southeast Asian women are active agents in changing their life trajectories, by being able to distance themselves from the cultural norms, through a continuous process of reflexivity over cultural and social constraints. Noureen (2015Noureen, Ghazala2015. “Education as a Prerequisite to Women Empowerment in Pakistan.” Women’s Studies 44 (1): 122.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) analyses the case of women in Pakistan, ascertaining that education is for them the only manner to overcome social inequality and get empowered. In other cases, only international education can effectively accomplish that goal.

In fact, much is yet to explore the ways in which women experience academic mobility at countries of reception. One needs also better conceptualization about to what extent is this experience emancipatory. As stated, the purpose of this text is to shed light on the experiences of academic mobility on the feminine side. It aims at excavating some of the most relevant queries that the international academic mobility raises for women in three different moments of this path: before taking place, during mobility and after mobility. These three temporal moments entail the need to experience several types of borders. These are not fixed in time and space. They are rather porous, ambiguous, and constituted in permanent negotiation processes.

In the face of this problematization which crosses different contributions from different fields of study, we are now going to analyse and discuss the information obtained in our study which involved narratives of south Asian women with international mobility. We will show the extent and the deepness of some of the cultural processes taking place. Accordingly, the intention is to provide better knowledge about the experience of mobility for academic purposes, with a view to analysing the extent to which mobility is anticipated by women, and what effects on gender constructions emerge from that.

Methodology

This is a qualitative and inductive exploratory study that gives relevance to women’s narratives. Therefore, as Guerra asserts it is ‘difficult (if not impossible) to define a sample without referencing the object’s construction process’ (2006Guerra, Isabel2006Pesquisa qualitativa e análise de conteúdoLisboaPrincipia. [Google Scholar], 43). Keeping in mind these difficulties, the selection of women was made according to a theoretical sampling method. Diversity was the main criterion directing our choices, with a view to better explore the heterogeneity of experiences lying under the general category of Southern Asian women. In this sense, we tried to include at this stage diverse nationalities sliced from the general category of the ‘Southeast Asian countries’, considering only women who had at least one international mobility of medium and long duration – more than 6 months, with the purpose to know more about their stories. The contacts with women were made following the ‘snow ball’ procedures starting from the contact with colleagues who have also indicate other cases. Of the total number of participants 24, Vietnam (9), Timor-Leste (7), Laos (2), Indonesia (1), the Philippines (1), Thailand (2), Myanmar (1), and Cambodia (1). Eleven of them (or 46%) are married and among them, 5 women took their children with them while doing the mobility (see Table 1).

Table 1. Synthesis and interviewees profiles.

Interviews obeyed to a semi-structured guide encompassing the above-mentioned dimensions: Degree of anticipation mobility represents in trajectory biographical trajectory and socialization with the need to be mobile; importance given to mobility; reasons and difficulties linked to a decision; the experience of mobility and impacts and rewards of it.

Participants accepted well to participate and were enthusiastic about the interviewed, being disposed to speak up about personal questions, including relationships with their partners and family. Interviews were made through emails and some agreed to be interviewed by Skype and by phone through Viber apps. The interviews were registered and analysed according to content analysis following the coding procedures of Grounded Theory, comparing data. We then defined a set of themes and analysed each interview according to these. In a final phase, we compared all the interviews indicating how each theme was considered and dealt with by each participant. Despite the heuristic potentialities of our initial questions as structured by the interview guide, the process of the content analysis confronted us with emergent themes, showing the weight of circumstances in which we had not thought so much theoretically, as the questions related to intimate relationships. Therefore, at the end of this process we arrived at the categorization of three main themes:

(1) Going abroad as a life project, comprehending the mobility imprint, the motives leading to mobility, planning and anticipation, destination country and type of project (completely individual, or defined in accordance with a funding programme).
(2) Experiencing foreignness, corresponding to the experience of being in a different and foreign country where gender and ethnic features become more socially exposed, as well as the experience and the appreciation of intercultural contacts and ethnic features.
(3) Personal realizations, concerning the outcomes obtained from the academic mobility in professional and personal terms.
(4) Motherhood and intimate relationships, considering the personal and professional experience during mobility, including the relation with the family, children, and host society, in general.

Findings

Theme 1: going abroad and dreaming of a better life

Most women in this research expressed that they had cultivated over the years ‘the idea of having to move abroad’. Their strong belief in the future, and in their ability to conquer it led them to postpone important events in their lives or to delay rewards. In fact, to start up on the path of studying abroad is very challenging; it requires various conditions depending on receiving university: passing the IELTS test with good marks, has excellent marks in high school or university, and work experiences. At the end, among other things, mobility for educational purposes is still strongly elitist. Only a part of the population can respond to the required conditions for applying to a fellowship or to pay their own projects to leave the country to study abroad.

These women recognize that international mobility is a very important means for them to enrich their Curriculum Vitae at internationally recognized standards. For a greater part of them, going abroad is thought to be a manner of gaining recognition and prestige in their countries of origin, considering the deprived economic condition from the origin countries that they experienced, as well as the high competition for winning scholarship grants.

For these women, there is a ‘potential for mobility’ determined by their own awareness of the complex net of variables shaping their lives, ‘as women’ within a context of increased demand for capable human resources to respond to the knowledge-based economy. They must knock out thousands or hundreds of candidates to get a scholarship to study abroad. For scholarships inside the country, women found these hard to get because of the built-in patriarchal structure in the academic institutions which limit academic women to get institutional support to be mobile (Bagilhole and Goode 2001Bagilhole, Babara, and Jackie Goode2001. “The Contradiction of the Myth of Individual Merit, and the Reality of a Patriarchal Support System in Academic Careers.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 8 (2): 161180.10.1177/135050680100800203[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The trend is to be more males catching up the opportunities.

This first approach to the findings is highly relevant from a theoretical point of view, as women, and particularly at the Confucians, Islamic, Hindu and Christian culture, like Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and the Philippines are traditionally and historically considered, under an essentialist view, as creatures of care, attached to the physical space and governed by a constant need to respond to Other’s needs (Kristeva 1979Kristeva, Julia1979New Maladies of the SoulNew YorkColumbia University Press. [Google Scholar]; Leccardi and Rampazi 1993Leccardi, Carmen, and MaritaRampazi1993. “Past and Future in Young Women’s Experience of Time.” Time and Society 2 (3): 353379.10.1177/0961463X93002003004[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Legarreta 2008Legarreta, Maxtalen2008. “El tiempo donado en el ámbito doméstico. Reflexiones para el análisis del trabajo doméstico y los cuidados.” Cuadernos de Relaciones Laborales 26 (2): 4569. [Google Scholar]; Burchill 2010Burchill, Louise2010. “Becoming-Woman: A Metamorphosis in the Present Relegating Repetition of Gendered Time to the past.” Time and Society 19 (1): 8197.10.1177/0961463X09354442[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As Luke (1998Luke, Carmen1998. “I Got to Where I Am by My Own Strength: Women in Hong Kong Higher Education Management.” Educational Journal 216 (1): 3258. [Google Scholar]) argued: ‘cultural values and traditions are important factors that mediate women’s career ambitions and opportunities, and these are always historically situated’ (31). The fact is that women’s narratives underscore how they try to get over those culturally and socially ingrained fences, ‘catching the opportunity’ to leave. This evidence their ideas about the importance and the ability of an open future that needs to be planned and conquered. Besides, it is the presence and the salience of this temporal horizon that makes them develop active actions to enter international programs.

In line with what we had just said, it becomes understandable that the motives presented by women to leave their countries and regions of origin are associated with the fact that they had already assumed mobility as a ‘potential’ event in their life, since early phase in their lives. Most the interviewees answered that the motivation to study abroad was that they wanted to seek for higher education with better quality, to gain further experiences and critical skills. Some expressed that higher education degrees help them to keep their tenure jobs in the universities where they were working on the mobility. In fact, among the 24 interviewees, 21 have already returned, or are willing to do so. All the Timorese women are in this profile.

One married Timorese woman went to Australia to study an honours degree in community development, described in detail her long process of struggling against pull and push factors that led to making an important decision to take up her higher education with her family’s support. She spoke about the ‘opportunity’ which was ‘very important’ for her, and fundamental for her desired career.

Data gives evidence of the difficulties women faced before mobility, at their countries of origin. They need to struggle against several gender misconceptions concerning their position as women in family and society. Five out of the 24 women mentioned these barriers. We had observed more difficulties in the case of women from Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar, than from Timor East. This difference can be explained by the fact that in East Timor, and particularly after the independence from Indonesia, communities have become even more aware of the need their children would have to move to other countries (Portugal and Australia, as well as Indonesia, considering the historical relations). Two women, one from Indonesia with mobility in Thailand, one from Myanmar with mobility in Singapore and one from Vietnam with mobility in Thailand, shared their worries on the possible ‘bad reputation’ she could have in their countries of origin. This happens because people may think that mobility abroad is prone to ‘laid back life style’. Ang (2016Ang, Sylvia2016. “Chinese Migrant Women as Boundary Markers in Singapore: Unrespectable, Un-Middle-Class and Un-Chinese.” Gender, Place and Culture 114.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), notes some Burmese families have conditions to send their daughters to study abroad. However, they do not do so because they worry about the insecurity. They assume that women are more vulnerable than men when they are out of a home. Individual narratives let to realise that women displacements are under high scrutiny. Gender social and cultural expectations urge them to stay around their families performing their roles as daughters, mothers, and spouses. At this purpose, we may quote one Vietnamese woman explains that, after stayed in Thailand for two years, her mother started to worry for her, since she wanted her to be ‘stabilized get married and have children as other common women in our society’. We did not explore further this phase concerning the period after mobility, but it is part of a project being now developed in East Timor.

Theme 2: experiencing foreignness

Wagner (2015Wagner, Izabela2015. “Entre a dupla ausência e o profissional transnacional – o “não dito” da mobilidade científica.” Comunicação e Sociedade 28: 379399.10.17231/comsoc.28(2015).2287[Crossref][Google Scholar]) argues that academic mobility entails a double process of foreignness, particularly in cases where the ‘strangers’ suffer from historical misconceptions that devalue them. A considerable number of women did not mention difficulties in social integration during the stay abroad. However, considering the answers given, we think that it could be more due to their shy posture, when faced with some questions, than to their concrete experiences. In fact, some women mention episodes when they felt discriminated because of their nationality, which is evidenced by physiognomic traits. This happens inside universities (particularly in contexts of collective work), as well as in transport and when in relation to the local communities.

Most of these women do not interact with local communities. They tend to be much related to other colleagues coming from the same countries, or continent. Language problems are, however, the most frequently mentioned barrier. Two interviewees, one from Vietnam and the other from Indonesia, who were studying in Thailand shared that when they did a part time job at the university setting, they got paid differently from their white colleagues. Another situation refers to one Indonesian interviewee to whom it was denied the use of ‘jipab’, when doing an internship, something she considered to be a fact of discrimination. Cultural discourses on gender structure what is possible for these women to articulate and say around gender discrimination, but normally this is understood because of being women and, simultaneously, exhibiting a set of traits linked to their foreignness.

Theme 3: realizations

In general, mobility has allowed these women to have better positions and earn higher salaries. This is the case women from Timor (mainly with trajectories involving Portugal and Australia) and Filipinas. Added to the positive perspectives about the chances to get better jobs and be socially recognized for their effort, women also feed the idea that mobility has allowed them to acquire knowledge which can be useful for their home countries development. One Filipino married woman worked in Thailand as English teacher and decided to continue her master’s degree in the tourism business. She chose Pukhet to study because it holds the biggest industry of tourism in Southeast Asia. A single young woman from Cambodia, of 26 years old is studying in Portugal. She expressed her desire to learn journalism to ‘contribute to the development’ of her country. Another Vietnamese woman, 51 years old, who used to work as a lay missionary in one highland minority ethnic group in one up-land province in Vietnam went to study at Asian Social Institutes in the Philippines. Her primary motivation is to deepen her knowledge and learn experiences that can help her to of organizing lay community, to serve better her minority community in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, 3 of the 24 interviewees did not return to their home countries, neither are willing to do so, despite admitting they had difficulties in integration with local host communities. One single Vietnamese women who are doing her PhD in sustainable energy in Portugal expressed her desire to advance her study or work in this or another developed country, and not going back home. She explains that she was studying and qualifying in areas (in the energy policy) that her country did not recognize. Thus, the political restrictions of the country would not enable her to put into practice the knowledge she had acquired. This is one of the cases in which academic mobility turned out to be a bridge for a permanent migration.

Theme 4: motherhood and intimate relationships

As we saw in the literature, gender, ethnicity, and mobility relations are strongly sculpted based on essentialist and naturalized views about the roles and duties of women and man in society, due to their sex. Motherhood is a very structuring variable that we must also consider from the point of view of gender intersectionality approach. In fact, much of the constraints that women feel when as regards mobility are revealed only since they are mothers. In fact, the under-aged children instil great challenges for academic women, once society expects them to fulfil their mothering roles. Data indicates that family support for the mobility of academic women drops significantly when they are mothers and they decide to leave their children behind. These are situations in which women are faced with the need to resolve more tensions, part of these linked to the social stigma they have on them. A Vietnamese woman shared her story. She talked about the guilt she felt for being distanced from their children. In practice, as literature points out, the separation from the children, for most of the academic mothers represents the most challenging issue when they think about medium or long duration mobility (Araújo and Fontes 2013Araújo, Emília, and Margarida Fontes2013. “Mobilidade de Investigadores em Portugal: Uma abordagem de género.” [Mobility of researchers in Portugal: a gender approachRevista Ibero-Americana de Ciência Y Tecnologia23: 943. [Google Scholar]) because they are afraid of leaving their kids unprotected or uncared.

One Timorese participant expressed her sadness when she separated her three-week old baby to continue her study in Portugal. She had to choose between the future of her career or mothering the new born baby. Her university had set up an internal rule dictating that up until 2015 they would not renew the contracts with lecturers holding only an undergraduate degree. To keep the contract, she had to invest on a degree in microeconomics. She stayed one year alone in Portugal. During this time, she managed to create very good relationships with other Portuguese people and have their help with the legal papers. Eventually, she took her 3-year-old son to Portugal. She says she could write-down, while her child was in a day-care centre. The youngest was under the care of her aunt.

In fact, five of the women interviewed had their children with them during the accomplishment of their courses (three Timorese, one Filipino, and one Vietnamese). We observed that this decision may bring about other tensions. In fact, the care for the children is demanding and it can enter conflict with the academic demands made in the host countries (Rohde-Abuba 2015Rohde-Abuba, Caterina2015. “‘A Real Woman Has to Do It All – With the Kids and in the Office’: Doing Femininity in the Transcultural Context of Russian-German Migration.” Gender, Place and Culture 23 (6): 753768.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Plus, these women must cope with the fact of being normally alone and probably with difficulties in terms of money. They may also experience difficulties relating to another people due to their foreignness condition.

Nevertheless, most of the married academic women interviewed decided to leave their children to their home countries with their husbands and partners. This is more likely when they are sure that they can count on the relatives or on a trusted domestic helper. In these cases, women face the need to be long-distance mothers. Therefore, they try to organize their time in the receiving country in a manner that they can be actively present in their children life. Some women talk to their children and accompany them eating or studying, by using skype, as well as other forms of digital communication. In fact, we found that the digital means contribute to the mothers a secure base to feel empowered and incentivized to go abroad, but they need to be sure of its costs. In some countries, the internet access is still expensive and the connection is still weak. Then, they must deal with the bulk of difficulties related to jet lag conditions, as well as with the daily routines of their children, that is not always compatible with their schedules.

We have just said that gender condition reveals itself more strongly when women are mothers. But, we also say, following the intersectionality approach, that being or not married (or with a relationship with someone else), is as well a revealing factor. This study shows that children are sometimes viewed as means of securing intimate relationships, during women-s mobility. Women see their children as a chance for generating compromise from their husbands and maintain their relationship as a couple. One academic mother shared her thought about the mutual benefit of leaving her children at home, because they may prevent their fathers from being unfaithful. Data indicate that some women end up divorcing sometime during the academic mobility, or after that. A Timorese woman who is now a tenured lecturer at one university describes that her husband started another relationship with other women, while she was in mobility, and so she got divorced. Another Timorese woman shared her story of terminating her relationship with her boyfriend. She is happier now with her new relation, and she felt no regrets or worries because her path is rewarding. In other cases, women let transpire that the feel now different persons and that their expectations are now higher. Therefore, they feel they are intellectually advanced in relation to their partners, what makes them feel uncomfortable and willing to break the relationship. In any case, we are again in presence of strong cultural fences that inhibit women from going abroad alone and leave their children or their spouses. Analytically, this behaviour can only mean (to the community, as well as to the other women) that women are by their own free will refusing the main socially and culturally determined roles, and thus, they are supposed to be aware of the consequences that this quasi heretic act can bring about.

The experiences of academic married women with children or women in a relationship speak loudly about the complex internal struggles from within their mind and their strength to overcome these challenges. Some of them determinedly turned to another life path and accept it as an unavoidable part of their academic journey.

Conclusions

In this article, we argue that gender is a structuring factor determining the mobility trajectories of the women and shaping the ways in which they deal with their urged needs for being mobile and improving their career prospects. At its core, a theory about academic mobility and gender tends to follow the assumption that education and science are terrains of free circulation and understanding, that is, transnational spaces of interaction and collective development.

We have supported the analysis with a range of literature reviews addressing academic mobility and gender. This qualitative study focuses on distinctive and unique experiences of Southeast Asian women, contextualizing their mobility within successive colonialisms and dominations, including competing patriarchies (domestic and colonial). We arrived at the conclusion that academic mobility plays a very important role in these women’s lives. Even though, it demands on them the adjustment to several important life events and activities that are potentially conflictive with the project of going abroad. The analysis shows that these adjustments are culturally bounded and become only realizable once respecting a set of norms imposed on them due to their gender condition. During the analysis, we have looked mainly at the links between the gender and the experience of mobility. We highlighted that there are several points in women’s decisions concerning mobility that is mildly associated with their socially expected roles. We also looked at the most common features of their stories, bearing in mind some basic dimensions of mobility, most of these referring to personal and family worlds.

Compared with several pieces of literature that studied on Western academic women, we can find some similarity in term of the constraints that both women faced during their mobility projects linked to their condition as women regarded as naturally and attached to place and family. Despite these similarities, our data can evidence more strongly about the fact that these women are conscious about the strength that international academic mobility can provide to improve their CV and get enough prestige and recognition, to overpass the social disadvantages of their gender at home countries. This leads us to an important conclusion, that is, academic mobility means different things for women with distinct characteristics, such as age, social class, marital status, motherhood status, and nationality.

Our data shows that gender issues emerge prominently when women are mothers, or married, exacerbated by the fact that some of them are living in post-war, post-conflict environments, where the struggles for recovery and reconstruction, both internal and external, could mean opportunities for more mobility, or the opposite: limitations. The impact of these factors is to shape their paths and varies according to cultural and political contexts in which they live. On the other hand, it was demonstrated that cultural patterns dictate how women should behave, and until what extent are they allowed to go abroad, and this appears be rather similar to what happens across the western world, even in low intensity. Particularly relevant and demanding further study is the way mobility can be incompatible with stable intimate relationships, when considering the effects and modes of expression of male-dominated culture patterns that tend to ‘jail’ women to fixed spaces and territories, whilst men are much more socialized with mobility and displacement.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Therese Nguyen Thi Phuong Tam is a university lecture and researcher in Community Development, Faculty of Social Science of National University of Timor-Lorosa’e. Nguyen holds a PhD in Sociology from Uminho, Portugal. Her main research areas are gender equality, women mobility, women and innovation, women’s rural livelihoods, women in Southeast Asia, and community participation.

Emilia Araújo is teacher at the University of Minho, Department of Sociology, and researcher at CECS – Research Center in Communication Studies. Her main research interests have been time, science and culture. Over the last years she has developed studies on gender and academic careers, with a focus on time experiences, mobility and networks.

Acknowledgements

We are very grateful to the all the academic women who were willing to share their stories and experiences that can contribute to building new knowledge on the mobility study in South East Asia. We would like to say special thanks to Dr. Marie Jacqueline Siapno from State University of California for her thoughtful comments and careful proofreading of the draft.

 

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