On Teaching Fashion: Academic mobility (for women and mothers)

To move or not to move, this is the question of an academic – and a woman. Image source here.

Have you been studying fashion and decided to move to another university? Or do a term abroad?

Are you a researcher or lecturer and have changed institutions, and perhaps countries, throughout your academic career?

Do you feel that there is a better career opportunity waiting for you at a different university?

If you answer yes, you are experiencing “academic mobility.” The definition of this term is nicely summarized by the trivial source Wikipedia, and at the risk of being thrown at tomatoes and eggs by fellow academics, I will use their words here:

“Academic mobility refers to students and teachers in higher education moving to another institution inside or outside their own country to study or teach for a limited time.”

This sounds very sensible as for students a term abroad or a post-graduate degree abroad is a highly prized experience. And in fact in academic careers, one is almost expected to be a nomad and hop from one university to the next, either in pursuit of career progression or because research funding is limited to a 3-year-turnus, on average. You can actually omit “for a limited time” as you are unlikely to return to your previous university. But most likely your time at the next institution will be limited as well and you will progress to the next destination.

One might argue that, many modern careers require a contemporary form of a nomadic lifestyle, especially so after the 2007/8 economic crisis.

Ok, so now we know what this term roughly means. But the unscientific definition of Wikipedia continues:

“In some cases, it is chosen for positive reasons, usually by young students with no family commitments; however, for most researchers, it is a form of casualization, which can blight their whole careers and break up their families. Academic mobility suffers from cultural, family, socio-economical, and academic barriers. “

This description brings the purpose of this article right to the point as it juxtaposes scholars without family commitments and – lets call the mature – scholars with a career track record and families. Whereas it might be a great adventure for single people to roam the world and learn something at the same time, the fun diminishes when you are an adult who has a partner, children, pets, property and elderly parents.

It gets even worse if you are a woman.

What I have observed (as a woman and mother) is that many universities have great policies in writing which promise to provide for a so-called work-life-balance, support working mothers and even help with childcare, it looks less attractive when you actually ask about it during job offers or negotiations.


Illustrative image of professional woman feeding her baby while using laptop

The working “academom” – Illustrative image of professional woman feeding her baby while using laptop from here.

To put it more into context, let me explain with specific examples. Have you ever tried saying: “I would love to take this role with your institution, so how can you help me to move my children to this country, find daycare and a decent international school and make sure my work-hours let me tend to their needs?” or “I have an elderly parent who I take care of. Would you be able to provide visa sponsorship so that I can bring him/her along to your country for the next x years?” or “I have a house back home and excellent childcare. Would you allow to do research and lecture preparation at home so that I can commute from your city to my home city? This way I will not have to give up my house, nor tear my child out of its beloved environment and all excellent childcare and school arrangements?” (Nota bene: The easiest options are to bring a cat and perhaps a spouse but it is best to be a single person.)

I write this out of my own experience as a working mother. And so far, most universities have been less than enthusiastic about such requests. Unless you are in a top position where either your status or salary (or both) give you the power and freedom to arrange your personal life the way you see it fit, you are likely to run into a brick wall.

As a woman, a mother, and a working academic you have only two choices: Risk rejection by asking straight-forward questions and raising the topic of your family needs or stay silent and somehow make things work. The silent type of working mothers in academia which I have met have resorted to all sorts of contortions of their personal family lives:

Some left their small children with their parents in Europe, whilst they went to work at a university in China, hoping to find a full-time nanny there and bring the child over after 6 or 12 months. Once the child was there, it went to a Chinese kindergarten and school only to have problems when re-integrating into a European school after the return from China.

Other women gave up their partners, sold their properties and put their careers first, ending up lonely and childless after 40.

Some others decided to use all Machiavellian tactics to secure a position at one university in the hope of never having to leave.

Another decided to commute between London and Paris because of the bad public secondary schools in London.

This is clearly a social iceberg and just the tip of endless stories, which are quite disheartening, often negatively affecting the women, their children and their personal lives.

So my question to you, dear readers, is: What do you think of academic mobility? What is your stance on working women (and mothers) in academia? Have you had any experiences with this? And what do working “academoms” really need?

I welcome your thoughts!


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  • Kelly Cobb February 24, 2017 06.16 pm

    Hallelughia! Thank you for meshing 2 critical discussions into 1. As an Academic mama who commutes 4 hours daily to work I can empathize. As I sit here staring at the chasm between my institutions “work/life balance” facade/language and the realities of “work/life” chaotic mash up/human ping pong tournament. Really no empathy from tenured faculty who did it barefoot up hills both ways with more kids! Solidarity.

  • Sarah Scaturro February 25, 2017 07.29 am

    “Lonely and childless after 40”?! Are we really treading down that tired path by insinuating a woman is only complete and satisfied is they have children and a partner ….preferably before they are too old at age 40? I expected more from you WT.

  • Olga Mitterfellner February 26, 2017 03.27 am

    Dear Sarah, you are absolutely right: There is happiness in any form of life-style!
    But please see this phrase in the context of this article. Here I am specifically recalling personal accounts of women who considered a partner and children a very important component of their lives.
    In this particular case those women had to make a hard choice of abandoning their heartfelt wish to start a family in lieu of moving for the sake of career progression. They have told me how sad they are and how they are missing that part of their life, which is very difficult to regain, especially once you reach an age where you can (almost) no longer have children.
    I hope this clarifies this section!

  • Olga Mitterfellner February 26, 2017 03.32 am

    Dear Kelly,
    Solidarity indeed! 4 hours deserves a medal.


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