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Doing Family on the Move

Highly-Skilled Migrants in Switzerland and Germany

Florian Tissot

This book focuses on the coordination between family life and professional career under the condition of repeated mobilities. It analyses the division between the labour force work and the care work of couples of highly-skilled migrants settling in either Switzerland or Germany. A mutually exclusive model provides an innovative understanding of gendered hierarchies in career achievement. The male partners operate three parallel elements: an upward professional career, a family-life implying child(ren), and maintaining their availability to further unplanned relocations. The female partners can only coordinate two of these concurrently. In fact, the male partners combine the three elements by taking advantage of specific, and mostly invisible, care work that the female partner provides.

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1 Introduction

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1 Introduction

This study asks the question how highly-skilled migrants cope with professional careers on the one hand and family life on the other. To answer to this question, I conducted 36 interviews with highly-skilled migrants and seven other interviews with key informants in the Lake Geneva region, Switzerland, and the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region, Germany. The main finding resulting from the interviews is that highly-skilled migration has specific constraints, which are currently not assessed in the scientific literature. It is neither a “free movement in a flat world” (D’Andrea, Ciolfi, and Gray 2011, 150) nor a “frictionless mobility”, but a mobility whose constraints are differently tracked (Favell 2014, 135). When at least one of the partners is mobile for professional reasons, I argue these constraints emerge for the other partner, as a consequence from the mobility of the former. By identifying which partner initiates a move, I developed a framework structured around two types of mover: the “primary-mover” (who takes the initiative of relocating) and the “secondary-mover” (who reacts to it). Through this model, I show not only that the female partners are more often the “secondary-movers”, but also that the “secondary-movers” face unique challenges after a migration. This distinction is a useful tool to understand better the emergence of gendered gaps in achievement and wage. The experience of highly-skilled migration differs between men and women when it comes to combine (1) family life, (2) upward professional career, and (3) mobility (or, more precisely and as we shall see, “motility” (Kaufmann, Bergman, and Joye 2004; Flamm and Kaufmann 2006), which is the capacity to be mobile). While men can have them all, women can only have two of them simultaneously. It is the central insight of this study: to consider the construction of gender inequalities and gender hierarchies not only per se but through a mutually exclusive model.

To come to this result, I examine the decision and the consequences of the partners’ (multiple) move(s) on their distribution of responsibilities between care work and work in the labour force, using the approach of “doing family” (Jurczyk, Lange, and Thiessen 2014; Baldassar et al. 2014). “Doing Family” is an approach which analyses the practical production and organisation of personal and affective relationships between the members of a family. This implies looking at the ways the partners divide the care work and the work in the labour force and the relationships of interdependencies linking different generations; relationships involved in care work such as emotional work or housework. According to this approach, families are (re)constructed and performed daily by ←19 | 20→their members in relation and in reaction to their environment, incorporating the social resources available, such as kindergarten.

As I will speak a great deal about families, couples, and skills in this work, it is useful to propose starting definitions of these terms which I can work on. These definitions are temporary; I shall refine and deepen them further in this work. I refer to highly-skilled migrants to underline either a tertiary educational achievement or a position in the labour force requiring it. Furthermore, what distinguishes a family from a couple are the intergenerational linkages between certain members and the relation of dependency between them. Thus, a family usually assumes the presence of children, implying care work. It raises acute questions of organisation in a mobile context. A couple does not imply the presence of children, but still implies coordination between the partners and care work, such as housework. The present study deals with the families and the couples of highly-skilled migrants adopting the approach of “doing family”. For families and for couples, I pay special attention to the relationships between the partners and the different constraints which hinder and/or favour their mobility.

1.1 Relevance of the Study

Research in the field of highly-skilled migration often overlooks the link between mobility for professional reasons and family relationships. This study analyses this gap in the scientific literature. King et al. (2006), Kofman et Raghuram (2005), Lutz and Amelina (2017), Stark and Bloom (1985), and Riaño (2012) all underline the importance of researching on the family while studying migration. Taking the family into account requires embedding “social relations between individuals in kinship groups (e.g. families) [and] households” (Faist 2010, 60) into the study of migration. Such an inclusive perspective allows the study to shed light on a range of topics central to understanding the dynamics of migration. Thus, the way the partners develop specific “family-strategies” (Känsälä, Mäkelä, and Suutari 2014; Ryan et al. 2009; Shinozaki 2014), the way they perceive, present and display their family (Davoine et al. 2013; Finch 2007), and the way they prioritise, for instance, one professional career over the other (Liversage 2009; Meares 2010), acknowledge the centrality of family in order to understand the dynamics of highly-skilled migration. In fact, except for these studies and a few others (Bonnet, Collet, and Maurines 2011; Cooke 2008; Favell 2008; Iredale 2005; Kõu et al. 2015; Levitan, Zittoun, and Cangià 2018; Riaño et al. 2015; Wilding and Baldassar 2009), little is known about the ways highly-skilled migrants divide the work between the labour force and care work. Too little is known about the impact of repeated relocations on the capacity of the ←20 | 21→partners to maintain two professional careers. Equally too little is known about the development of gendered discrepancies during the “second period of life” (Kohli 1989, 2)1 of highly-skilled migrants. The development of the “gender wage gap” (Blau and Kahn 2017; Schmid 2016) and the relationship between “gender and career outcomes” (Reskin and Bielby 2005) are quite well understood in a “sedentary” context, but there is still a lack of knowledge when it comes to understanding them in the context of highly-skilled migration. That is why some migration scholars call for “opening the black box of the family” (King et al. 2006, 254), while others ask to “go beyond the workplace” (Kofman and Raghuram 2005), in order to better understand in what the experience of highly-skilled migration differs between men and women. My work responds to these proposals. I show the heterogeneity of “family-strategies” that highly-skilled migrants develop while being abroad. By this I stress the challenges that mobility and “motility” raise while dealing simultaneously and collectively with mobile professional career(s) and care work.

To assess the relationship between highly-skilled migration, professional career(s), and care work, I bridge two fields of study, migration studies and expatriation studies. On the one hand, migration studies produce research on “transnational families” (Baldassar et al. 2014; Baldassar and Merla 2014, 2013; Bryceson and Vuorela 2002; Cieslik 2012; Kilkey and Palenga-Möllenbeck 2016; Reynolds et al. 2010; Ryan et al. 2009), though barely focusing on highly-skilled migration. On the other hand, research developing knowledge on highly-skilled migration barely focuses on the family (Blitz 2010; Boeri 2012; Chaloff and Lemaître 2009; Lavenex 2007). The bulk of studies dealing with highly-skilled migration do not contextualise the family as they mostly tackle the professional activity of the migrants (i.e. his or her inclusion in the labour force) (Chiswick 2011) or they produce large comparative analyses of migration policies (Mahroum 2001; Triadafilopoulos 2013). In the same vein, researchers in expatriation studies focus on professional mobility and the reasons for expatriation within multinational companies (Avril and Magnini 2007; Azar 2012; Bartlett and Ghoshal 1999; Ietto-Gillies 2012; Millar and Salt 2008; Salt and Wood 2012b, 2012a). While some studies focus on family and partnership, they specifically focus on expatriation (Black ←21 | 22→and Gregersen 1991; Briody and Chrisman 1991; Lauring and Selmer 2010; Mäkelä, Känsälä, and Suutari 2011). Doing so, they leave aside cases which are not technically expatriation but very close to it. Cases of foreign employees of multinational company who decide to stay where they live are left aside, while their colleagues relocating on a regular basis are central to these analyses. The two employees of this example see each other every day and work together but refer to different fields of academic research. When scholars in expatriation studies consider these liminal cases, they use a terminology which hinders a discussion with migration studies (or is it the other way around?). The concept of “self-initiated expatriate” is, for instance, very close to the one of “highly-skilled migrant”, but strangely, except in a few recent studies (Davoine et al. 2013; Joy, Game, and Toshniwal 2018), nearly no one, to the best of my knowledge, combines the strengths of the two disciplines (of migration and expatriation). It is therefore timely to begin this discussion and, another objective of my work, to build bridges between them. Bringing together sociology and management is a fruitful approach that has existed for some time. In 1960, Smith published an article called “Sociology and Management Studies” (Smith 1960). But bringing together expatriation studies and migration studies is innovative, as I am unaware of studies that explicitly combines them together. Thus, my study aims to understand the nexus of expatriation and highly-skilled migration in a single frame.

Furthermore, many private consultancy groups and international organisations produce, in the wake of management studies, reports which underline the gender gap in multinational companies (Johnson 2017), and stress the discrepancies between men and women in composition of the management boards (Shilling 2017), thus calling for a better understanding of the main factors leading to gender inequalities in the labour market (Hausmann, Tyson, and Zahidi 2009). All these studies could benefit from a sociological perspective explicitly studying the relationship between labour force work and care work in the context of highly-skilled migration, for researchers show that understanding the “gender wage gap” without acknowledging the arrival of the first child, for instance, overlooks the central factors that explain it (Kleven, Landais, and Søgaard 2018). My thesis tackles the dialectic relationship between care work and work in the labour force and offers deeper insights on the reasons leading to the discrepancies between men and women in the context of highly-skilled migration.

Thus, in the context of highly-skilled migration I focus on the ways the partners reconcile private and professional lives. The incentive of being mobile in highly-skilled careers is increasingly present in almost every professional field. This incentive combined with the rise of the overall qualifications of the ←22 | 23→workforce leads to an inflation of highly-qualified individuals moving for professional reasons. Conjointly, the political liberalisation of mobility in Europe renders highly-skilled migration smoother on the legal level. However it is, I argue, certainly not frictionless as other challenges emerge. Therefore, it is central to understand the dynamics surrounding highly-skilled migration as they become a frequent experience of contemporary life. The sociological approach invites us to focus on the social and family consequences of mobility and migration. It suggests questioning the power relations within families as well as the external support they receive and the environment they live in. This study pushes forward the scientific knowledge around this topic with an approach using the key concept of “initiator of a relocation”, initially used to differentiate several forms of expatriation. Expatriation studies distinguish the “assigned expatriate” from the “(intra or inter) self-initiated expatriate” and the “drawn expatriate” (Al Ariss 2010; Andresen, Biemann, and Pattie 2015; Biemann and Andresen 2010; Cerdin and Selmer 2014; Suutari and Brewster 2001); showing the differences between a move initiated by the migrant, the employing company or a competing business. I develop further this distinction from a sociological perspective acknowledging the family and the couple, distinguishing the “partner-initiated mover” and the “partner-coordinated mover” (6.3 Conceptualising the Professional Careers Coordination, 125). These types underline the various ways the “secondary-movers” react to the migration of the “primary-movers”. Doing so, I am able to tackle contemporary issues which still remain out of the scope of the scientific literature as they lie between migration studies and expatriation studies, so to speak.

Studying family and highly-skilled migration also helps to understand why the “secondary-movers” – most often the female partner – give up their professional career. It is a central concern because people, who are out of the workforce increasingly risk precariousness; especially migrants. They are less likely to have access to the same social welfare protection systems. Frequent professional mobility is challenging for families and divorces are not rare. Divorce and separation rates are apparently not higher amongst highly-skilled migrants but their social consequences are much more complicated (McNulty 2015). Therefore, it is essential to comprehend under what conditions one career is prioritised while the other is subordinated or even sacrificed, in order to develop policies which can counteract these effects when one partner loses her (or his) financial independence. I develop a better understanding of the process of subordinating or sacrificing one’s career – this is also a grey-zone in scientific literature. For it is important to take into account in more depth the role of gender within the negotiation processes of mobility and settling. Besides, this may make it possible ←23 | 24→to prevent one central aspect of the shortage of skilled manpower, as a result of women giving up their careers. Certainly, there are other factors contributing to the shortage of skilled manpower in Europe, but – to some extent – improving the access to the labour market of female highly-skilled migrants, who are already in place, is one step forward to diminish the shortage and to use the available potential. This is not only a central topic for Switzerland and Germany which is strongly dependent on foreign (skilled) workforce, but also for other European states.

1.2 Structure of the Study

The present study is structured around four main parts: the theoretical, the methodological, the empirical, and the discussion parts. The two first parts are divided into two chapters each. The theoretical part deals with the review of the literature (Chapter 2) and the theoretical framework (Chapter 3). The methodological part outlines the research design (Chapter 4) and provides a contextualisation of the conditions of production for the study (Chapter 5). The empirical part focuses on three facets of “doing family”: the consequence of a migration for professional reasons (Chapter 6), the narratives portraying family (Chapter 7), and the “family-strategies” (Chapter 8). The first chapter of the discussion part stresses the theoretical and empirical insights of this study (Chapter 9), while in the second I gives recommendations for practice (Chapter 10).

The theoretical part starts with the chapter presenting current thinking and debate (Chapter 2). The goal is not only to present the relevant literature, but also to develop a conceptualisation of highly-skilled migration, which I will rely on for the rest of my study. I show how the conceptualisation of highly-skilled migration, which starts by acknowledging specific patterns corresponding to migrants with a tertiary education, ends up creating a world view (Weltanschauung) which encompasses unquestioned assumptions. As such it is not problematic to differentiate a highly-skilled migration from a lower-skilled migration, as “thinking is comparing”. The problem lies more on a set of unquestioned assumptions, which allegedly contribute to the differentiation between highly-skilled and lower-skilled migrants: the notion of skill becomes a proxy to import other forms of categorisation. The review of the literature stresses that highly-skilled migration studies and expatriation studies develop binaries opposing these unquestioned assumptions: economic versus social, temporary adaptation versus permanent integration, frictionless mobility versus controlled migration, productive versus reproductive, us versus them, and, ultimately, male versus female. I will refer to these binaries as the “migration binaries” (King 2002, 91) and the “gender ←24 | 25→binaries”. These two binaries are the main theoretical insights of the review of the literature. They lead to my critic of some studies (though not all) and I shall show studies which reflect on these assumptions.

The second chapter of the theoretical part (Chapter 3) develops the theoretical framework itself: I propose a “decentred approach” based on the ideas of Derrida (1978). I present three “methodological premises” and show the biases each of them could entail, if they are not reflexively conceptualised. These three “methodological premises” are the “methodological individualism” (Mises 1999 [1949]), the “methodological nationalism” (Amelina et al. 2012; Amelina and Faist 2012; Chernilo 2006; Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002, 2003), and the “methodological economism”. The “methodological individualism” warns against the risk of conceptualising the migrants as individuals outside the social context they live in, pleading for a collective and dynamic approach of “doing family”. The “methodological nationalism” refers to the risk of ignoring or naturalising the nation states, that is, through conceptualisation either forgetting the nation states or overemphasising the link between a territory, a state, and a culture. I stress how a method based on the “cities as entry point” (Glick Schiller and Çağlar 2010) can overcome this. These two first premises are already known and conceptualised in the literature. I propose a third one, the “methodological economism”, to complement them. Through the term of “methodological economism”, I stress the risk of opposing a “frictionless mobility” and a “controlled migration” (Favell 2014, 135). The former implies a “temporary adaptation” and the latter a “permanent integration”. Such a conceptualisation fails to acknowledge various forms of “(im)mobilities after migration” (Wieczorek 2018).

The methodological and contextual part corresponds respectively to chapters 4 and 5. Based on the three “methodological premises”, I show the research design in chapter 4 in which I emphasise my methods and the concrete way I construct this study. I review chronologically the whole process of creating the present study.; explaining how I accessed the field, what kind of interviews I carried out, who I interviewed, and how I analysed the transcripts of the interviews. In chapter 5, I propose an in-depth contextualisation of the study, that is situating the position of the researcher in the study and contextualising the two regions where the study takes place. As we shall see, chapter 5 is central in overcoming the “methodological nationalism” by acknowledging the nation-states without naturalising them.

The empirical part focuses on “doing family” and is composed of three chapters. The first chapter (Chapter 6) deals with the coordination of two professional careers abroad. I develop a “collective approach” acknowledging the specific situation of both partners after a migration. Through this model I establish the types ←25 | 26→of the “primary-mover” (giving the initiative for the move) and the “secondary-mover” (reacting to the move), each partner facing specific challenges. I show the negotiations between the partners and their impact on their daily lives and their professional careers. While the challenges that the “primary-mover” faces are quite well-known in the literature, as it refers to the whole literature of the “adjustment of expatriates” after a relocation; the challenges that the “secondary-mover” faces are understudied, except a few exceptions (I dedicate a section in the review of the literature on studies dealing with the adjustment of the accompanying partner). Thus, the second part of the chapter focuses on the different reactions that a “secondary-mover” may adopt after the “primary-mover” takes the decision to migrate. I especially focus on the factors that favour or hinder the inclusion of a “secondary-mover” in the labour force. Doing so, I present several types of moves corresponding to different types of reactions given by the “secondary-mover”.

In chapter 7, I analyse the discourses of the respondents when it comes to “display their family” (Finch 2007) and show two narrative stances shaping how the partners divide the care work and the labour force work. Chapter 7 deals with the representations and the discourses of the respondents whereas the chapter 6 focuses on the practices and the decision-making process. If one wants to understand the process of “doing family” in depth, it is central to study the two of them. “Doing family” is not only about how the partners, for instance, divide the care work daily but also how they portray it. In this context, the concept of “motility” is key to understand why some partners develop a traditional and heteronormative organisation of the family while others are able to maintain a more equal division of the household tasks and care work. While displaying their family, some respondents stress the importance of being “motile”, prioritising their professional career and its importance for the well-being of the family. Others underline the necessity to develop arrangement in which they can both have a position in the labour force, implying reduced availability to further migration. In other words, the ones developing a “motile” narrative stance usually follow a traditional model of the family which contrasts with those developing an anchored narrative stance. Furthermore, I show a discrepancy between the narratives and the practices, implying that the model of the traditional family, even though practiced, is not completely acknowledged by many of the respondents.

The last empirical chapter (Chapter 8) combines the insights of the two previous chapters of the empirical part to propose three types of “family-strategy”. These three types are the main empirical insight of my work. I distinguish the ←26 | 27→“motile family-strategy”, the “local family-strategy”, and the “mobile family-strategy”. I underline that these forms of “family-strategy” are flexible and can change or switch during the life course of the respondents. Each form of “family-strategy” corresponds to a specific way of “doing family” on the move. It is through these three forms of “family-strategy” that I stress the development of a “mutually exclusive model” of gender inequalities. I distinguish three elements which form the model: the capacity of the partners to raise children, the capacity to be mobile, and the capacity to maintain a dual career partnership. Each strategy favours only two of the three elements. I did not witness any empirical case in which the partners manage to combine all three simultaneously. Briefly, the “motile family-strategy” favours the “motility” and the children but not the dual career. Here only the male partners (as they are in most of the cases the “primary-movers”) can have the three elements simultaneously because the female partners (the “secondary-movers”) do the bulk of the care work. Collectively, the partners do not develop a dual-couple career, which enables the male partner to have a successful professional career. In fact, it is in the case of the “motile family-strategy” that I notice the most successful careers in terms of advancement in a company. Following this strategy, the “primary-movers” can reach the highest position in the company as they can focus solely on their professional career. The “local family-strategy” favours the children and the dual career couple at the expense of “motility”. It corresponds to a controlled narrative stance towards “motility”. The partners prefer to maintain their current position in the labour force, as they are both employed. This process happens at the expense of being ready and willing to take advantage of another opportunity abroad, which hinders their capacity to advance in their career. The partners tend to stay middle managers in their company, yet they are both employed in the labour force. The last type is the “mobile family-strategy” which favours “motility” and dual-couple career but at the expense of the children. The partners continue to work in the labour force and coordinate their family life through mobility; emphasising the type of the split-families. It is a type of “family-strategy” common at the beginning of the professional careers of the partners as they (still) do not have children.

I discuss in depth these results in the last part of my work: the discussion part. In Chapter 9, I propose a summary of the main theoretical and empirical insights, by answering the research questions and proposing implications for further studies. In Chapter 10, I give some recommendations for practice focusing on three aspects: the partners, the “local policies”, and the employing companies.

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I have shown in this introduction that more knowledge in the fields of highly-skilled migration and expatriation is needed as there is still a lack of understanding of the processes influencing family life and professional careers while migrating. Thus, my work raises the question: How do couples of highly-skilled migrants cope with professional careers on the one hand and family life on the other?


1 For Kohli (1989) the life course is a social institution. He distinguishes three periods of life: the period of training, the period of activity, and the period of retirement. Each period corresponds to a specific set of welfare social protection, respectively and in broad outline education, unemployment insurances, and pensions.