Scientists displaced by wars, humanitarian disasters, and political upheaval face common challenges caused by forced migration. According to various data, women are usually a minority among forcibly displaced scientists. For example, data from the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA), a London-based charity that helps academics to continue their work at one of 124 partner universities and institutions in the United Kingdom or other safe locations, indicate that in November 2021, there was a 6:1 ratio of men to women among program participants. This can be explained partly by the low share of female scientists in countries from which scientists left for humanitarian or political reasons (for example, Syria or Afghanistan). The key difference between the wave of forced displacement from Ukraine as a result of the ongoing full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in 2022 and the previous waves of refugees to EU countries is its noticeably gendered nature.
The situation of displaced scientists is relatively better compared to that of the „average“ forcibly displaced person. Scientists have a higher level of social and cultural capital, e.g., knowledge of foreign languages and experience in traveling or working abroad, and they can be included in networks of mutual aid, e.g., university communities. In addition, a large part of them have come at the invitation of universities that have offered different programs for scholars at risk.
According to Ukrainian martial law, most men aged 18-60 are banned from leaving Ukraine during wartime. Accordingly, women make up at least 85% of those forcibly displaced. This context of scholars displaced from Ukraine presents a new challenge and has become a gender issue. Women, who are often accompanied by children and/or other family members, must navigate many challenges simultaneously: adapting to life in a new country, often caring for loved ones alone, making hard decisions, volunteering, and working and integrating into the EU scientific community.
This article is based on the autoethnographic method as its authors are forcibly displaced scholars (a sociologist currently based in Germany and a cultural researcher based in Italy) as well as on a series of pilot interviews and consultations with colleagues from Ukraine displaced to Germany and Italy. The article is part of an ongoing projectthat aims to analyze issues of gendered challenges for academic pathways and identities of displaced women scholars. Here we focus on three topics: everyday life and its challenges, challenges for research work and integration into a new academic/professional environment, and the issue of identity.
“I don’t have any choice”: fatigue, insecurity, and overload in everyday life
This is the story of the forced displacement of one of the co-authors of this article, Mariya Shcherbyna, who left the city of Kharkiv, a metropolis in the east of Ukraine, under bombing and shelling in March 2022:
my own version of so-called academic mobility from Kharkiv looked like this, which compared to others was a privilege: a small car which barely fit two women, myself and a colleague of mine, two of our teenage children, and two dogs including our dog Nero, weighing 60 kilo (he lost 5 kg on the way because of stress). We had exactly as much stuff as we could sit on, and in the trunk were gas cans, food, medicine, and dog food.
What do the everyday lives of our respondents who are forcibly displaced scholars look like? A brief description is workload, workload, and workload again. For those displaced with children, the classic two-shift pattern of paid and unpaid сare work sounds like a dream. When we asked our colleagues how they manage to do everything, the most frequent answers are “I cannot manage to do anything”, “I don’t have time for anything” and “I don’t have a choice”.
In the everyday life of displaced academics, there are challenges common to all war refugees, such as language barriers, financial uncertainty, finding housing, facing an unfamiliar culture and bureaucracy, navigating a new refugee status often involving restrictions on some rights, adapting to new living conditions, lack of control over their lives, decreased confidence, social isolation, feelings of powerlessness, disruption of basic social bonds, mental health issues and trauma caused by war, “survivor guilt” and other problems.
There are some specific challenges for displaced scientists from Ukraine, namely having to continue to work and do their research and having to seek new positions or grants, as most of their academic positions are short-term and precarious. At the same time, they are engaged in different forms of volunteering, such as regular financial aid to foundations that support the army or to specific military and civilian people they know, efforts to collect donations, help with translation for wounded soldiers in rehabilitation programs and for other refugees from Ukraine, participation in Ukrainian diaspora schools and projects, etc.
The most crucial challenge is that many of them are displaced with loved ones who need their care and support.
Care work is especially challenging
Most displaced women scientists with children are forcibly single mothers as their partners stayed in Ukraine. This means that women bear the main and often sole responsibility for family life, for children, and often for elder family members. Additionally, the burden of care work significantly increases both in quantity and in terms of intensity, as loved ones go through an often difficult process of adaptation to life in another country, and their physical and psychological health may deteriorate, which requires special attention. At the same time, the resources that women can rely on are extremely limited: it is often difficult to find places in kindergartens and schools, the everyday logistics of care are extremely complicated due to unfamiliarity with the structure of services and the local language, and the lack of the usual support networks comprised of relatives and friends. A simple procedure, such as a visit to a doctor, can turn into a time-consuming problem:
In order to get the right to contact a family doctor, you must first register at a bureaucratic institution where employees do not speak English. My colleagues are often busy, and I do not want to bother them because the queues are long. My personal ‘quest’ took 4 hours, but it is still faster than getting a residence permit from the police” (Maria, Italy). If a woman is displaced with children and elderly relatives, the number of such challenges naturally increases.
Emotional work also increases. This includes psychological support of family members, most often children and adolescents, organizing visits to psychologists and doctors, mediating disputes both between family members and between family members and the host family, and so on. At the same time, women need psychological support themselves because of the separation of families in war, the family problems caused by stress, and the increasing pressure on mothers not only due to an incredibly heavy workload but also to the constant need to make vital decisions under conditions of uncertainty. In such a situation, women lose contact with their own bodies and with their own psychological well-being. One should not forget about women’s stress, which they are trying to suppress.
All these challenges can cause a conflict between professional and family roles, as well as negatively affect the productivity and performance of scientists and affect the search for new positions. In addition, single breadwinner status and the burden of care work limit their participation in active networking, creating additional barriers to their productivity and visibility in local and international academia.
Integration into a new professional/academic environment: from the old precarious position to the new one
The share of women among researchers in Ukraine is 46.3%, which is relatively high in comparison, for example, with the Netherlands (26.4%), the Czech Republic (26.6%), Germany (27.9%), Luxembourg (28.1%) and France (28.3%) (UNESCO, 2019). Fluctuations in the share of women among scientists and researchers in the world depend on the level of wages in science, the specifics of building an academic career, hiring and academic mobility, the ability to combine a career with childcare, gender stereotypes about women in science, and different fields of research.
The high share of women in science in Ukraine is interpreted often in a neoliberal way as evidence of the “high success of women in a society” and their “individual choice”. The mainstream discourse about women in science is represented mainly by “success stories” rather than discussions about the challenges for women in building academic careers. Structural reasons are often beyond these discourses: the high share of women in science indicates the low status of science and research activity in society. Low paid, often forced part-time employment due to funding cuts, short-term contracts, self-financing of scientific projects, trips to conferences and publications, lack of access to good libraries, excessive teaching and administrative workload, the low level of prestige of science and scientific work are all realities of research activity in Ukraine, which has worsened since the beginning of the full-scale war.
After the start of a full-scale Russian war against Ukraine, many Ukrainian women scientists came to the EU and other countries at the hospitable invitation of local universities and foundations as scholars at risk. For many of them, this is a chance for a decent life and for continuing research. However, sooner or later, many women will face the challenge of integrating into local academic markets and pursuing academic careers in a different context and with mostly lower starting positions, as their opportunities for doing research in Ukraine were very limited.
The academic market in many countries is extremely competitive, and often career opportunities are not primarily determined by formal indicators (such as the number of good publications and citations), but by belonging to a certain academic community or network and generally by the „visibility“ of a scientist in the academic world. As a rule, forcibly displaced scientists from Ukraine do not have these resources or such resources are limited, even among those who had a rather „competitive“ academic portfolio. In addition, limited time and resources due to overload with care work, chronic stress and anxiety, and uncertainty about the future significantly reduce the productivity of scientific work.
Many scientists who worked in Ukrainian universities and research institutes have been faced with the choice of resigning from their positions or returning to Ukraine; however, some have kept their positions as lecturers and professors with the possibility of remote teaching. Many of them maintain their ties with Ukrainian universities and academies because they are uncertain about their further plans to return and have a generally insecure position, and it is important for them to maintain ties with their homeland and the Ukrainian academic community. For example, for a long time, Natalia taught remotely at a Ukrainian university for free, because during the long program of academic mobility, the salary at her main place of work was not preserved, and teaching became an opportunity for her to maintain a connection with Ukraine and contribute to the development of the country. Another woman scholar displaced from Ukraine, Tamara, works remotely on a full-time basis at a Ukrainian university while simultaneously working at a German university.
Most of the scientists we know look to the future with anxiety. The lack of financial “cushions”, the continuation of the war, sometimes the inability to return due to destroyed housing or occupied territories, and short-term contracts and scholarships negatively affect scientific work: it is difficult to plan even a medium-term project without understanding where one will be in a year. The cycle of developing an application for funding a scientific project and applying for funding is long. This means that after receiving a six-month scholarship, it is necessary to immediately start forming a new application in order to have any chance of receiving new funding. Remembering the first months of being a refugee with a family and with the enormous stress and challenges of the first months of adaptation, it was almost impossible.
In addition, the reality of the war has influenced the reformatting of research by scholars in the field of social and humanitarian studies: one cannot simply continue their pre-war projects because all structures, institutions, and practices have undergone changes in the context of the war. This requires, if not rebuilding the topics of one’s research, then at least rethinking them and collecting new data. At the same time, the demand for knowledge about Ukraine is great, and accordingly, the load on Ukrainian scientists from social studies and humanities is increasing. Many scholars are overworked and exhausted for these and other reasons, and most of our colleagues work evenings and weekends.
The situation is alarming for those who, after short-term scholarships, have not received continued funding and have had to suspend their scientific activities or completely change their profile. It is difficult to quantify the share of such scientists, but there is significant anecdotal evidence of this situation. For example, Natalia, who came to Germany on a research grant, did not receive an extension of the funding and found herself in an uncertain position. Fortunately, she eventually managed to find a new scholarship; however, for six months she lived on her savings.
“Fleeing Professors”: building a new identity
The identity of „Fleeing Professors“ or displaced academics is a multifaceted construct deeply entrenched in the dichotomy of their scholarly role and their status as refugees. It is built around the following senses: a complex sense of belonging on the border between two worlds; a sense of responsibility for representing Ukraine in the world (“Ukraine is judged by us”); reflections on one’s own agency as someone who fights against Russian propaganda, advocates for the interests of Ukraine, and promotes Ukrainian studies in the international academy; and the difficulty of positioning oneself as a professional and researcher, not just as a victim of the war.
Displaced academics often describe their position as a “borderline”, whereby they hold a privileged position among refugees due to their professional identity, which allows them to preserve their intellectual selves and in some cases leads to a denial of the refugee identity. For example, Iryna says that she considers herself a professional migrant who went to Berlin (from Kharkiv which is constantly under fire from missiles) to earn money while Tamara says that if the invasion had not happened, she would still have gone to work at the mathematics department on a grant, but for a shorter period, and in this case it is considered a type of academic mobility. But at the same time, she also believes that she cannot do not call herself a refugee because she is a refugee at the same time. So, it is about conflicting identities on the border between professional and forced migration.
Displaced academics as forced migrants can be described as “scholars from nowhere to nowhere” (McLaughlin et al., 2020). They are in a land “between” the home they left behind and their current place of residence with postponed lives and unclear plans due to the highly uncertain situation they face.
Moreover, many displaced academics feel a particular responsibility for their actions during the war and inwardly feel that they represent the voices of those left behind: they have left their families and friends in Ukraine who are fighting and volunteering and who work and live in a war-torn society. They, particularly those currently serving in the Ukrainian armed forces, are unable to directly communicate about the Ukrainian situation to the European community. In fact, one of the women soldiers, who serves as the head of the battalion’s medical service, openly expressed during an interview for another project that she relies solely on scientists in Europe to be her voice and to discuss the Ukrainian experience and everyday life in the context of the war.
Therefore, the scientists often identify themselves as “ambassadors of Ukraine”, which on the one hand, means promoting Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the everyday level (from cooking national dishes for the host families to talking about the current situation in Ukraine with neighbors and colleagues) and, on the other, organizing specialized conferences and events and doing organizational work also known as academic care work. These practices represent their unique experiences and profound resilience, deeply linked to the broader narrative of the war from which they have fled. For social scientists and humanitarians, the war and displacement necessitate a change of topics or the addition of new topics related to the war and forced migration, embodying the stories of those who could not leave or chose to stay. Their narratives bring a human face to the statistics and headlines, offering nuanced perspectives often overlooked in mainstream discourse. Often scholars speak not only for themselves but for an entire community impacted by the war, bringing light to the lived experiences of their compatriots. They underline their active resistance against the disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda that surrounds the media representation of Russia’s war on Ukraine, leveraging their intellectual capabilities and firsthand experience to debunk unfounded narratives. Their voices play a crucial role in shaping global understanding of the situation, hence shaping policy responses. This part of scholars’ identity brings opportunities to make an essential contribution to a more accurate representation of the Ukrainian situation and the Ukrainian people. But this position is fraught with challenges, such as the possibility of bullying and dangers to their precarious positions at their host universities. For scientists it leads to a new meaning in the sense of otherness that is already present for mobile academics (Kim, 2010). They experience (self-)labeling as “others” who are perceived not on the basis of their professional achievements but rather on the basis of their experience of war and trauma. The marginalized position in the academy is also accompanied by the feeling of professional degradation and the need to re-plan one’s academic career. For example, a person with a doctoral degree may choose to enroll in a PhD program to gain stability for at least a few years.
The interconnection between scientists’ identities as displaced persons and displaced scholars presents a unique dimension that requires further study. As this specific group continues to navigate new environments, further research is needed to understand the complex interplay of these roles and the potential impact on their professional and personal lives. This understanding may help to find ways to better support Ukrainian women scientists in their host countries and academic systems, address systemic issues, and facilitate their overall integration.