The International Conference on Gender and (Im)mobility in Uncertain Times, held on March 11-12, was hosted online by The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). The conference was organised by the WUN research group Women’s mobility: negotiating work and family spheres in Asia, and focused on issues of workplace dynamics, family relations, gender norms, and social inequalities in public and private spheres across societies during the pandemic. Gender equality, diversity, and inclusion were dominant themes across the three featured panels.
COVID-19 has shaped the focus of the research group in unforeseen ways. “We realised that our research focus on gender and mobility has been greatly reshaped by the new global socioeconomic changes and the pandemic, and that we now needed to talk about immobility as well as mobility,” said Jing Song, who is an assistant professor in gender studies at CUHK and the academic lead of the research group.
Many of the presentations demonstrated ways in which people’s gendered experiences of (im)mobility had shifted as a result of the pandemic. Ling Han, an assistant professor in gender studies at CUHK, discussed the gendered implications of Singapore’s pandemic mobility regime for male migrant workers, who were relocated to centralised dormitories as part of state efforts to control the virus’ spread in April 2020.
“While various studies have pointed out that [Singapore’s] country-wide lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated female foreign domestic workers’ already-precarious working conditions,” said Han, “there has been much less examination of how this government-sanctioned immobility regime has contributed to the vulnerability of male migrant workers.” Han’s work explored this gendered vulnerability in detail, which included a surge of mental health crises – including suicide attempts – among members of this group.
“While men are more likely to die of COVID, it is women who are bearing the brunt of the socio-economic consequences of three periods of lockdown interspersed with a range of other restrictions on freedom of movement and social interaction.”
University of York Professor of Gender Studies Stevi Jackson discussed how the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 crisis had exacerbated women’s social and economic vulnerability – particularly of women already negatively affected by inequality based on class, race and age. “While men are more likely to die of COVID,” she said, “it is women who are bearing the brunt of the socio-economic consequences of three periods of lockdown interspersed with a range of other restrictions on freedom of movement and social interaction.”
Jackson explained that despite government measures to mitigate the worst economic effects, women were more likely than men to “fall through the cracks in these provisions or end up losing their jobs – consequences of an already gender-segregated labour market and women’s responsibilities as carers.” Public- and private-sphere care work had also disproportionately exposed women to health risks and negative effects on emotional wellbeing, she said.
The work of Jing Song, with CUHK doctoral candidate Siyuan Zhou, demonstrated the post-pandemic resilience of the women-dominated family hotel industry in coastal China. This challenges gendered norms of who is – and is not – resilient. The researchers found that despite traditionally patrilineal inheritance of residential land in the area, women tended to dominate the establishment and operation of family hotels there. In the post-pandemic context, many of these ventures benefited from the government’s inter-provincial travel package and were able to survive through a challenging period for the tourism industry as a whole.
Some women entrepreneurs also gained official recognition for their market success during this period, which was “eagerly welcomed” by the government in the pandemic recovery context. “The resilience of family hotels as a female profession illustrates women’s adaptive mobility under the pandemic, and their fluid agency within families – although this is still constrained and undermined in uncertain times,” said Jing Song.
Certain presentations are or will be included in two special issues of academic journals: one on Chinese family life, individualism and familism, and another on gender and geographical/social mobility in Asia. “We also plan to organise more research group activities and advance our understanding about gender and mobility across societies and over time,” said Jing Song.
The WUN ‘Women’s mobility: negotiating work and family spheres in Asia’ group includes members from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Massachusetts Amherst, National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), University of York, and Zhejiang University, as well as WUN+ partners. For more information, see their WUN page.