Despite the increasing feminisation of labour migration, women migrants are understudied in skilled migration research. Some conceptual developments reducing migrant women’s roles to household and/or family in migration studies have contributed to this invisibility of highly skilled women and to the perpetuation of traditional gender roles. As one of these contributions, for instance, the concept of the ‘care drain’ coined as a parallel to the ‘brain drain’ idea brings about these problems. In this article, I give a brief critique of the gendered division of labour over the concept of the ‘care drain’ and its accompanying issues regarding gender justice.
In most societies, the responsibility of care for children, elderly, ill or disabled people is traditionally assigned to women, but the phenomenon has changed since women globally started taking part in paid labour. Since the 1990s, it has been observed that women’s participation in the labour market has significantly increased. The increasing number of women involved in paid labour resulted in a deficit in care workers, which brought about the phenomenon of ‘global care chains’ that increasingly attract women from developing countries who want paid care work positions in developed countries. This issue resulted in not only care deficits, but also a care drain from sending countries. The concept was coined first by sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild in 2002 to describe women's migration across national borders to get care work positions in developed countries. By coining the concept of the care drain, Hochschild aimed to point out the ‘new emotional imperialism’ of the Global North which is the ‘extraction of emotional resources’ from the children in the Global South. However, unlike its intended meaning, the concept raises some issues.
According to many feminist scholars, the gendered division of labour highlights significant issues of gender justice. The concept of the care drain perpetuates a gendered division of labour in migration studies. Regarding its definition, care labour poses an ethical problem for gender justice mostly by attributing domestic/care work to women migrants, often married mothers, from developing countries. Therefore, the definition of care labour not only brings about gender injustice in the division of work created by the gendered use of language in migration studies, but also affirms traditional notions of both gender and sexuality by privileging a heterosexual (mostly) married mother from the third world in the international care industry.
Second, according to Speranta Dimitru, Hochschild’s choice to call women migrants central to the care drain is biased by ‘sexist stereotypes’ since the construction of the care drain concept applies three sexist methodological assumptions: studying women only as caregivers, excluding men as caregivers in studies, and judging women who have failed to fulfil their traditional family roles. The sexist stereotypes assume that women migrate less than men or mainly as wives or domestic workers. Indeed, the concept of care drain is based specifically on women’s, rather than women’s and men’s, migration across national borders, which creates sexist stereotypes. Some scholars emphasise that such an exception in research ‘reifies stereotypical gendered conceptions of domesticity and affect’.
Besides the perpetuation of gendered divisions of labour and ‘sexist stereotypes’, I argue that the concept of the care drain has contributed to the invisibility of highly skilled women’s labour in migration studies. While the emigration of educated people is described as ‘brain drain’, the migration of women who are highly skilled but work in care jobs is described as ‘care drain’. By doing so, the concept of the care drain ignores the skills and knowledge that women migrants, who are working as domestic workers in a host country, possess. Based on their level of education and occupation, highly skilled people are described as those having tertiary education or having extensive experience in a given field. However, Hochschild’s concept does not classify women migrants having tertiary education as highly-skilled migrants, but instead as a ‘loss in carework’ for those left behind in the home country even though more than half of the women that Hochschild interviewed in her work were college-educated, although hired as nannies. This perception in migration research causes women to be regarded only for their roles as caregivers and not for their knowledge and skills, thus contributing to the gendered division of labour. The description of highly skilled women migrants as central to the care drain in Hochschild’s research ultimately shows how women’s professional interests and the discrimination they face are rendered invisible in migration studies.
Furthermore, Hochschild’s characterisation of women’s migration as central to the care drain does not acknowledge women’s efforts to provide ‘children’s food, clothes and schooling’. Instead, it focuses on the ‘emotional deprivation of children'’, specifically how children suffer after their mother’s departure. This view suggests that the traditional way of mothering is necessary for childcare and that the care drain, which diverts attention from caregiving to being breadwinners, is an ‘injustice’ for children left behind. Scholars analysing the care drain should instead focus on parents’ mobility, rather than mothers’. It is important here to note that focusing on such effects of women’s migration across national borders will maintain sexist blame for the problems occurring with their relocation to another country.
Critiquing the concept of the care drain is important to reveal underlying issues of gender (in)justice produced by gendered language in migration studies. Such gendered conceptual developments not only ignore the existence of highly skilled women migrants, but also reproduce the gendered division of labour by assigning women migrants to traditionally ‘feminine’ positions such as care workers in the labour market.
Further reading and resources:
Gheaus, Anca. 2013. ‘Care drain as an issue of global gender justice’. Ethical perspectives, 20(1). https://philpapers.org/archive/GHECDA.pdf
Giannoccolo, Pierpaolo. 2004. ‘The brain drain: a survey of the literature’. Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, Department of Statistics, Working Paper, 02. http://amsacta.unibo.it/4764/1/526.pdf
Michel, Sonya. 2011. ‘Women, Migration and the Work of Care: The United States in Comparative Perspective’. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Occasional Paper Series, 2618. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/Women%2C%20Migration%20and%20the%20Work%20of%20Care.pdf
Yurdum Cokadar holds a BA in Sociology from Turkey and is currently a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the George Washington University. She is conducting her thesis research on highly skilled Turkish women’s integration into the labour market in the United States. Her research interests are included, but not limited to, international migration and integration, brain drain, gender and immigration policies of the United States. She is also currently a volunteer researcher at the Center for Migration, Gender and Justice. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/yurdumcokadar/