Women On Foreign Assignment 2015
Rosalie L. Tung is all too familiar with the challenges that women face when it comes to international assignments. As the Professor of International Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Tung has devoted countless hours to researching and writing about these challenges, but they may not be what you think. In her groundbreaking work Female Expatriates: The Model Global Manager?, Tung asserts that women are actually ideal candidates for overseas assignments and the challenges they face have little to do with the difficulties of being in a new country, but rather in the difficulty they experience actually getting the opportunity to work abroad.
The percentage of women in international assignments increased from 3 percent to 16 percent in the late 1990s. Throughout the 2000s, the percentage increased, though very slowly. Most recent studies have either put the percentage of women in international assignments at or slightly below 20 percent. Tung sites three factors outlined by Nancy J. Adler that are commonly provided by companies for the low deployment of women in international assignments: women don’t want overseas assignments (due to family considerations), other countries don’t want female expatriates in business dealings, and women lack the skills or competencies to succeed. These are “misconceptions” and as Tung wrote in Female Expatriates, “As long as women remain under-represented in international assignments, they will continue to lack the opportunity to acquire one of the critical competencies required of global leaders.”
This is more than just being denied one job opportunity; it’s more like being denied vital experience that can drastically change the course of your career. As Tung points out, the continued globalization of industries has led to a quest by organizations worldwide for global leaders who can help their companies survive in highly competitive work environments. In a global economy, people with global experience are pivotal to an organization’s competitive edge and women have often been excluded from promotions and leadership positions because they appear to lack one of the critical competencies identified for such key roles: a global mindset.
Once again, women find themselves in a Catch-22: they can’t move forward unless they have experience working internationally, but they’re not given the opportunity because of unfair assumptions about their competence and willingness to work abroad.
Fortunately, some women are chipping away at these misconceptions – and providing key strategic advice on navigating the challenges of taking an international post.
Myth or Misconception?
About those misconceptions: in her study, Tung discovered that they were outright myths. In a paired comparison of male and female expatriates (i.e., the men and women were similar in terms of age, years of business experience, etc.), more women than men were willing to accept an international assignment, even when their family objected to the assignment. “In other words,” Tung said. “Women knew that they would be missing out on an important career development opportunity if they refused the assignment. Therefore, they were willing to make more sacrifices.”
In regards to the misconception that some countries will not accept foreign women, Tung says that many male-dominated countries are willing to deal with international women for two primary reasons: curiosity (they assume that if they are sent by their company, they must be very good) and foreign women are considered to be different from local women. Adler even implied that foreign women are considered a sort of third gender, containing characteristics of both men and women. Surely these aren’t perfect conditions (curiosity, really?), but it’s clear that there isn’t an overt unwillingness to work with female expatriates in business dealings. “Because women tend to be under-represented in management circles in male-dominated countries, they enjoy the advantage of standing out and getting noticed. Of course, they are also subject to more scrutiny and therefore they really have to be good,” Tung said. Sounds familiar.
As for the misconception that women lack the skills or competencies, Tung sites current trends in education. “The equal representation of women in MBA programs and the reality that two years ago, there were more women enrolled in Ph.D. programs in the U.S. than men, makes it clear that women are certainly possessing the same skills.” In her 2004 study, Tung’s argument is that because women are better able to cope with the isolation associated with overseas work and possess better human relations and listening skills, they are in fact more suited for international assignments. “Human relations and listening skills are particularly important in high-context cultures and three quarters of the world is high context. As such, my hypothesis is that women are really the ideal global managers,” Tung said.
You Got the Assignment, Now What?
Let’s not misrepresent the facts: all of this is not to say that once you receive your first international assignment it will be a walk in the park. There will likely be instances in which your authority is challenged overseas by subordinates, peers, and clients. If your head office doesn’t stand behind your decision and reaffirm that you’re in charge, it could make your job exponentially more difficult. There’s also the stress that may ensue. As Tung mentioned previously, women are more willing to undertake an international assignment even if their family objected. This does put them under more stress; they have to prove themselves at work and come home and do what they can to make their families feel happy, comfortable, and at ease with their move to another country. In short, if women don’t have a supportive family and home office, they may find themselves questioning why it was that they were so eager to take on an overseas assignment.
There are benefits, however. In Asian countries (where many are sent for their first assignments), live-in assistance is quite common and much more affordable than in Western countries, which frees many women up from the domestic responsibilities they’re often saddled with back at home. This is something Wendy Stops discovered shortly after giving birth and then moving to Malaysia for her first international assignment. Stops is Accenture’s global managing director of Quality & Client Satisfaction for the technology practice. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Stops is currently on her third international assignment is New York and as Tung suggested many women do, Stops took the assignment despite objections from her family. Her eldest son, who is a high school senior, decided to stay back in Australia so that he could stay on the rowing team and graduate with his friends.
“This time around it’s been very difficult. My son is very intelligent and independent and he’s doing great in boarding school, but I had so much apprehension about leaving my son behind and my husband feels guilty about not being there for him,” Stops said. “It’s been particularly hard on my husband, who’s been playing Mr. Mom since my first international assignment in Malaysia. After Malaysia we were based in Singapore, and Asia is much different than New York, obviously. It’s taken us all about a year to adjust.”
Stops and her husband make use of current technology to keep tabs on their son and remain present in his life with weekly Skype session, not to mention endless phone calls and frequent trips back to Melbourne. Despite the initial hardships of all three of her international assignments, Stops knows that she made the right decision by accepting them.
Tips for Making it Work
“If you’re given the opportunity to take on an international assignment, there’s no question as to whether or not you should take it. It gives you much-needed exposure and the experience of working in a different country with a different culture. You can move up the ladder more confidently because your hands-on experience illustrates your willingness to be flexible and adapt,” Stops said. “If you’re going to uproot your family, you just have to make sure that your assignment will actually enhance your career.”
Stops also asserts that it doesn’t matter what level you’re at in your career. If you’re being asked to work abroad, your bosses obviously believe you’re capable of the responsibility. If you’re high-ranking, Stops says, it’s more advantageous because it exposes you to broader leadership. If you’re young and not very far up the ladder, the move overseas will be easier for you because chances are you don’t have children to worry about.
There’s a lot to wrap your head around when moving abroad and sometimes it’s easy to forget that upon arriving at your desired destination you won’t know the basics, like where to go to furnish your home or where to cut your hair. This is exactly what happened to Stops. In Malaysia, she had no idea where to purchase furniture for her home. It took her six months before she could find a hairdresser that could properly deal with her fine, blonde, curly hair in a place where all of the women have straight, thick, dark hair. There are also bigger questions like how your healthcare will work in your new home or how to navigate through cultural differences.
Many countries have large expat communities and Stops suggests tapping into those resources for help, advice, and guidance. The mother of two also suggests having a serious talk with your company about what support structures will be in place for you once you arrive so that you can navigate the medical system and perhaps even undergo some cultural training to ensure you get off on the right foot.
“Assimilating into the country is very important and so is taking the necessary steps to make sure as much is in place as possible,” Stops said. “If you can make a pre-move visit rather than landing on the doorstep kids in tow, that would obviously be ideal. Go ahead of your family, find a place, get it furnished, and figure out some basics like where to shop for groceries. There’s nothing harder on an employee that an unhappy family, so any steps you can take ahead of time will really help you.”
Written for The Glass Hammer by Tina Vasquez, 2012-05-31.
International experience is crucial for attaining senior leadership roles in multinational organisations. Currently, only one in four outbound expatriates from Australia are women. This situation might be unintentionally limiting women in their career progression.
Despite the increasing focus on gender equality in the workplace over the last 10 years, progress in female participation in offshore work assignments has been slow. Data from international consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for more than 10,000 workers assigned overseas from 2005 (see figure below) shows no discernible upward trend in the percentage of female expatriates.
Trends of representation of men and women in international assignments
Melbourne University’s Centre for Ethical Leadership and PwC Australia joined forces to explore this issue in depth. We used data from interviews with HR leaders, online surveys, academic literature and PwC’s expatriate tax client base. We found women’s lower representation in international assignments was driven by gender bias.
We identified two key sources of bias that hinder female representation in international assignments.
Assumptions about female candidates
Both home and host country managers appear to expect a lack of availability, suitability and willingness from women to take international assignments. These assumptions may result in women being overlooked before the selection process has even begun.
Interestingly, these assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. Women are no less interested than men in international assignments. Also, 69% of female employees want to work outside their home country during their career, while 63% saw international experience as critical to furthering their career.
Lack of formality in international assignments management
The use of formal or structured candidate recruitment and selection in global mobility is surprisingly low. When we asked expats how they knew of their current international assignments, 35.6% of respondents (both male and female) said they initiated the opportunity themselves.
The second most common means of securing the international opportunity was through personal networks and informal communication (17.8%).
This closed and informal approach to candidate selection negatively impacts female candidates. Women in management are often denied information about policies, opportunities, contacts and social support. This limits women’s ability to be “in the loop” about international assignment opportunities.
When there is a pressing need to fill an overseas role, managers will typically select someone on their immediate radar, and someone similar to them. Given the imbalance between males and females in both expatriate positions and leadership positions, this approach to candidate selection will perpetuate the gender imbalance via the selection of a “mini-me”.
Similarly, lack of formality in support provided to expats means those who are more likely to negotiate, typically men, will get a much better deal.
Finally, when there is no definite process for repatriation, those with stronger informal social networks in the organisation are more likely to be taken care of. Interestingly, women are more likely to reject an international assignment because of fear the repatriation process might negatively impact their careers.
Work on governance
International assignments should no longer be isolated projects assigned in a hurry. It is crucial to formalise recruitment and selection processes. Organisations need to start openly advertising international assignments to all employees.
International assignments are a developmental task. They should be factored into the career plans of workers with high potential. Strategic human resources planning will allow organisations to identify with enough time what resources are needed in each specific location and select people accordingly based on competencies.
Timing is everything
Women are more likely to take up assignments earlier in their career, before the age of 40. Organisations should identify high performing females at junior levels, allocate short-term secondments to give them experience working overseas, and increase their likelihood of accepting a longer term, more strategic role later on.
The more committed a female employee is to her employer, the more willing she will be to accept an international assignment. The opposite is true for men. Making accelerated development programs available to female employees early in their career can increase commitment, and improve both the quantity and quality of female assignees.
Focus on location, not duration
Many HR leaders hold the view that short-term secondments are more attractive to female employees, this might impact candidate selection.
The level of development in the host country, cultural differences, and political risk are of greater concern to female assignees than males. Working with candidates to identify suitable host locations will have a greater impact on female participation than focusing on short-term mobility.
Champion your role models and social networks
High profile, successful female leaders with international experience should be made available to play mentoring roles to potential and current female assignees.
A home country mentor can help manage unrealistic expectations, enhance organisational knowledge. A host country mentor can help navigate the new context and help the assignee develop a relevant network.
Tackle the dual-career issue
Our survey shows a higher percentage of spouses of female assignees work full-time in the host location than do spouses of male assignees (78.3 vs 51.1%).
Including spousal support (e.g. help to find jobs and learn the local language) as a core, non-negotiable benefit in assignment policy could be a first step. Fixing the gender pay gap could also give women more leverage when negotiating with their partners potential international assignments.
Focus on repatriation
Around 40% of repatriates leave their companies within the first year of returning. Given the current focus on the return on investment of global mobility, this problem needs to be addressed, irrespective of gender.
Planning repatriation at least 6 to 12 months prior to the return, organisations can mitigate this lack of stability and resultant flight risk.
Formal fixes required
Our research suggests many multinational organisations need an overhaul of their approach to global mobility in order to address unconscious bias in candidate recruitment and selection.
However, this will not be enough. Formalised mentoring, support for trailing spouses and repatriation processes are important if organisations want to use international assignments as developmental tasks for men and women.
Jonathan Dunlea, Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, co-authored this article.