Zhou, S. & Song, J. (2022). From Female Graduates to Female Insurance Agents: Educationally Channeled Labor Mobility from Mainland China to Hong Kong. Journal of Chinese Women’s Studies, 171(3). Available at: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/kopLQ74k-9n8I3ShrZtwWA
In the increasingly interwoven global trends of educational mobility and labor migration, a growing number of young women have obtained higher education and acquired greater labor mobility, and have been involved in service work that is more professional and with higher job status. Nevertheless, educational mobility and labor migration are commonly regarded as two independent research fields. Education migration is often related to a promotion of employment opportunities for young people, which provides chances of social upward mobility for men and women. For labor migration studies from a gender perspective, female migrants are often found to concentrate in labor-intensive and low-paid service work. Little attention has been paid to the field where the two topics are related. In Hong Kong, due to the cross-border expansion of the insurance industry in recent years, many female graduates from mainland China have benefited from their cultural capital and cross-border social connections and have been recruited as insurance agents. This study examines the gendered experiences of cross-border labor mobility of these atypical skilled migrants and professional service workers.
This study adopted a qualitative research approach based on in-depth interviews with 32 female graduates who had mainland backgrounds and worked as insurance agents in Hong Kong. The study also draws on participant observation of their work and life, as well as online ethnography about how individuals and companies presented such cross-border labor mobility on social media. To examine women’s educationally channeled labor mobility, this study focuses on how they were recruited and why they chose to become insurance agents. The findings indicate that Hong Kong’s cross-border insurance business tended to recruit highly educated women with mainland backgrounds as professional, independent, and elite women, meanwhile with an emphasis on their patient and empathetic femininity. Such narratives restructured and reinforced gender stereotypes prevalent in service work. These highly educated women were able to utilize human capital and cross-border freedom to pursue greater autonomy in career choice against the control of natal families in places of origin. Nevertheless, these young women also faced a double marginality in the host labor market regarding gender and geography, and they still needed to balance family obligations and career aspirations over the life course. Women’s cross-border mobility helped them to pursue individualistic aspirations and negotiate new career pathways, which challenged traditional gender stereotypes in low-end feminized service work, but their professional and independent workplace images were still constrained by the gendered division of labor and structural inequalities in public and private spheres.
By focusing on female graduates in the cross-border insurance industry, this study demonstrates how the intersection of educational mobility and labor migration can provide new employment opportunities for highly educated women. To some extent, women’s cross-border participation in professional service work has undermined traditional gender role expectations, but their personal choices have not formed a fundamental challenge to gender and structural inequalities in the labor market and domestic spheres. Bridging the two research traditions on educational mobility and labor migration, this study suggests incorporating women’s education-based resource and horizon into the study of their working experience in the host labor market, and linking women’s diverse career choices with their evolving gendered self-positioning processes. The new perspectives can add to a better understanding of how women’s migration brings about new economic opportunities as well as social pressure, and contribute to a more comprehensive reflection on the gender and social implications of women’s evolving career choices.
Ms. ZHOU Siyuan (周思媛) is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies Programme and the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include gender and work, migration, and female entrepreneurship. Her doctoral project is about “doing gender” and “doing business” between Hong Kong and mainland China among female IANG insurance agents (Email: email@example.com).
Dr. Jing Song (宋婧) is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies Programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and an Associate Researcher (by courtesy) at Shenzhen Research Institute, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include family, gender, work, urbanization, migration and China’s market transition. She has published in China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, Urban Studies, Journal of Rural Studies, Work Employment and Society, Population Space and Place, China Review, Journal of Sociology, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Housing Studies, Asian Anthropology, and so on. Her book Gender and Employment in Rural China was published in 2017 by Routledge (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian