Advancing women in academia: geographical mobility and the path to success

Hypermobility has brought opportunities for career advancement in academia, but it comes with expectations and gender-based barriers, writes Lily Kong, especially when international events are focused on the Global North

Lily Kong's avatar
29 Feb 2024
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Some years ago, I undertook a project to document the journeys of senior women academics in Singapore at a time when there was but one university and its mission was largely teaching-oriented. The stories they told were representative of a time nearly half a century ago.

It was a world similar to and yet different from academia today. It was similar in that they had faced issues familiar to women academics today – juggling work and family demands – but also different in that some of the expectations of today had not been there at all, or at least not to the same extent. At a time when universities were principally teaching institutions, the expectations of research and cross-border interactions were absent or not onerous.

Today, academics live in a world of hypermobility and are expected to evidence that themselves. Comparing my own experience of academia over the past three decades with their experience some 20 years before me, one key point of differentiation was the contribution of geographical mobility to career advancement. 

Geographical mobility and career advancement

Regardless of geographical location, academics face pressures to meet “international” standards of scholastic excellence. There is, of course, a geography, sociology and politics of knowledge that is at play here, with gatekeepers principally located in the Global North determining international standards. Without getting into a discussion about the decolonisation of knowledge here, the reality is that the expectations of international standards and the geographical mobility that supports such achievement affects academics in so many parts of the world, and unevenly so.

Geographical mobility takes myriad forms. For aspiring academics in much of the Global South, a ticket to academia often entails securing a PhD from an esteemed university in the US or Europe or perhaps Australia. PhD in hand, an early-career academic needs to share their work at “international” conferences in order to gain visibility, the major association platforms often being held in the Global North.

For more senior academics, a mark of recognition and standing is the invitation to speak in keynote or plenary sessions, again, in the major conferences often hosted in the Global North. For those whose research entails primary data collection in the field, or research in key archival holdings, travel is inevitable. Collaboration and co-authorship, positive in themselves for the cross-pollination of ideas, are also increasingly recognised as beneficial in utilitarian ways, in upping citation counts. Together, geographical mobility would seem to be a sine qua non for academic success.

Gendered challenges of mobility

For female academics, such mobilities are challenging. Our experiences are often shaped by a complex interplay of social and cultural factors, exacerbated by systemic barriers. In most, if not all situations, support structures such as childcare provisions are insufficient, and women might choose to defer or forgo such international opportunities. Elder care poses other challenges. For example, if childcare provisions could be made possible, it is not an option to bring frail elderly family members along to an international conference.

In a 2019 study of qualitative insights gleaned from interviews with Chinese women academics, the participants’ geographical mobility decisions made during their doctoral education phases were significantly influenced by gender norms within their cultural context. Despite recognising the benefits of international doctoral studies for their career trajectories, some participants felt compelled to prioritise familial obligations over professional aspirations. They willingly forfeited international opportunities to remain in proximity to their partners.

Relocation aspirations aside, female academics who are in situ must also contend with a host of challenges. Should they wish to travel more frequently or further for international conferences and collaborative projects, they might cause significant disruption to family life and schedules. Losing quality time with loved ones or missing out on developmental milestones for those with young children are very real sacrifices.

Even within one’s own university settings, female academics can face logistical challenges. For instance, those working in universities with distributed campuses require travel time of several hours to attend face-to-face events such as meetings or professional development programmes. If scheduling is inflexible, this might conflict with carers’ responsibilities early or late in the day, or during school holidays. Such occasions require coordination and support mechanisms, including arrangements for carers and adjustment of family schedules, often with financial and emotional costs.

Harnessing digital scholarship

Arguably, today’s hyper-connected world has bridged some of these gender inequities. Digital scholarship, through virtual and collaborative platforms, is available to help transcend traditional modes of knowledge dissemination and audience engagement. Innovative practices such as open-access publishing, data visualisation and online collaboration enable researchers to enhance their work and participate more extensively in knowledge creation and dissemination. Scholars can leverage digital platforms to disseminate their research findings to global audiences and enhance their visibility and impact within and beyond the academic community. In turn, further opportunities for collaboration with researchers from diverse backgrounds are generated.

However, as is so often also recognised, virtual platforms cannot fully replicate the networking opportunities, serendipitous encounters and collaborative dynamics inherent in face-to-face interactions. Female academics therefore face limitations in building successful careers if they are constrained in their ability to exercise similar degrees of geographical mobility as their male counterparts.

Fostering inclusive institutional cultures

Fostering inclusive institutional cultures is paramount in addressing the persistent gender disparities prevalent in academia. As underscored by the European Commission (2019), despite the growing number of women achieving PhDs and completing postdoctoral studies in the past two decades, the representation of women in senior academic and decision-making roles within European Union countries remains disproportionately low. This is true in other parts of the world, too.

Mitigating these disparities demands more than technological interventions. While virtual platforms and remote networking offer pragmatic solutions, they do not address underlying systemic inequalities.

Instead, institutions must implement comprehensive support mechanisms that prioritise gender equity. Best practices range from implementing family-friendly policies such as flexible work arrangements and childcare support to cultivating mentorship networks that champion the advancement of women scholars.

A vibrant, diverse and impactful scholarly landscape is one where every voice is heard and every talent is nurtured, irrespective of gender or geography. Academia is a long way off from that utopia.

Lily Kong is president of Singapore Management University.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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