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Women Expats -- Shattering the Myths

Two widespread myths are limiting your expat candidate pool -- and the development of your company’s future leaders.

May 1, 1998
Suzanne Danner doesn’t think of herself as a groundbreaker. But the soft-spoken, articulate manager, who is a partner in Price Waterhouse’s Audit and Business Services in Warsaw, Poland, blazes new trails and shatters myths wherever she goes.Not only is Danner a female expatriate in the world of finance, but she’s also a human resources partner for the firm’s Audit Practice, which gives her a crucial role in establishing new personnel and benefits practices for much of eastern Europe. Indeed, Danner, with her three children and working husband in tow, serves as a role model for other expats as well as for eastern European women she meets. She’s such a strong believer in work/family balance and flexibility that she’s trying to forge new alternative work policies that are considered radical in Eastern Europe.

Ask Danner if she believes the notion that there are so few female expats because of prejudice or a global glass ceiling. Ask her if she has experienced negative consequences overseas as a result of being female. She’ll pause, wrack her brain for examples, and then give you an unqualified, “No.” In fact, she’ll tell you that her gender may actually afford her advantages that allow her to be more effective in her job.Danner’s future is bright. According to New York City-based Catalyst’s 1996 study, “Women in Corporate Leadership,” almost 50 percent of Fortune 500/Service 500 CEOs say international experience is crucial to upward movement. But not many women are in a position to take advantage of an overseas assignment to boost their corporate careers.Women comprise only 14 percent of the expatriate population according to the “1996 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report” conducted by Windham International and the National Foreign Trade Council (both in New York City). Why the disparity? It’s more a reflection of the U.S. domestic glass ceiling than anything to do with women’s effectiveness on international assignments or their willingness to go. Expatriates often are selected from upper-middle to senior corporate ranks, where women are still striving to achieve gender parity.Then women face additional hurdles before landing in the expatriate candidate pool. They must challenge two commonly assumed misconceptions. First: Women face overwhelming cultural barriers on international assignments. Second: Women don’t want global postings because of career or family concerns.

Guess what? The world is changing, and while some of the same difficulties remain as they have in the past, it’s time to re-examine assumptions, question why women’s numbers are small and consider ways to make greater use of this valuable labor resource.

The numbers show an upward trend.
The number of female expats is growing. Catalyst’s research shows that only 5 percent of expatriates were women prior to 1993. The “Global Relocation Trends Survey Report” also indicates a positive trend, albeit a slow one. These reports for the last several years show the percentage of international assignees who were women to be: 10 percent in 1993, 12 percent in 1994, 13 percent in 1995 and 14 percent in 1996.

“Progress is slow, but there’s a steady increase in women who are being considered for -- and who are accepting -- overseas assignments,” says Nina Segal, manager of cross-cultural services at Windham International and previously assistant dean for Career Services at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. “If you look at organizations that have made special efforts to recruit and promote women, you’ll see a larger number of female expatriates.”

If people are going to have a difficult time in specific cultures, it’s going to be all of the Westerners, not just women Westerners.

Indeed, according to Nancy J. Adler, a professor of organizational behavior and cross-cultural management with McGill University in Montreal, the global arena may be more receptive to female managers than the domestic one. Global corporations are in such a highly competitive business environment that they must select the very best people regardless of gender. Furthermore, she says in her book “Competitive Frontiers: Women Managers in a Global Economy” (co-authored with Dafna Izraeli, Blackwell Business Press 1994) that the less hierarchical, more inclusive structure of global firms is very conducive to women’s success.So, let’s examine those outdated beliefs.

Assumption No. 1: Women are less effective because of cultural biases against them.
Laura Simeone has a broad perspective on the international experience. As senior manager of human resources in Asia for Palo Alto, California-based Cisco Systems, Simeone has supervised dozens of Asians and Europeans during her tenure at headquarters and is currently an expatriate in Singapore.“There’s an interesting dynamic,” Simeone says. “Western women are in a unique position and are generally well-received in other countries. They’re foreign -- and therefore not expected to conform to the same standards that local culture dictates for women. They get the opportunity to function more in their normal roles because they aren’t constrained the way local female counterparts would be; they aren’t in a subordinate position to men.”Simeone continues, “If people are going to have a difficult time in specific cultures, it’s going to be all of the Westerners, not just women Westerners.”According to Simeone, women have the opportunity to succeed in several ways. “It has always been said that women have to be at least as good as men in order to prove themselves. I think there’s a natural tendency [among expatriate women] to want to do high-quality work and it speaks for itself. Furthermore, if a woman has strong support from senior management in her organization, it lends her credibility. Other managers and employees in the country will take their cue from that.”

While some cultures are more challenging to women than others, most are manageable with flexibility and planning. For instance, many societies conduct business in environments where there’s heavy alcohol consumption. “The tension between a woman wanting to appear to fit in and be on equal footing with local males, yet at the same time not wanting to be viewed in a pejorative way, always brings up tricky dynamics,” says Simeone. “Women are going to have to decide how to handle the situation before they get into it.” Business networking can become a tough cultural issue. But its one that women can handle with predeparture cross-cultural training.

Nancy Laben is a powerhouse. Based in Hong Kong, she is general counsel for Andersen Worldwide, providing legal support and services to 13 countries in the Asia region. Trotting between Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia and China, she helps negotiate contracts with clients and assists with personnel questions. Laben, who spent part of her childhood in Japan, shows that ingenuity and cultural wisdom can overcome many cultural difficulties.“In Asia, much of the business-generating activity occurs in surroundings where women are typically not accepted,” Laben explains. For example, in Japan it’s on the golf course. Although she doesn’t see herself teeing off as part of a high-powered foursome, she does construct other opportunities. “What I try to do is to arrange circumstances [requiring us] to work late. Then we go and grab dinner. I try to turn it into a team-building exercise.” Others create family barbecues and dinners with couples as a way to network. They take advantage of every occasion that’s gender-neutral to build business relationships.These women acknowledge that cultural sensitivity and awareness are crucial. Women who don’t have that cultural experience may not be aware of how to create opportunities and may become severely frustrated.

Assumption No. 2: Women managers with families aren’t eager for global assignments.
Moving a family internationally isn’t an easy task. And, it becomes extraordinarily complicated for expatriate women in dual-career marriages. This is because typically women -- even working women -- carry the majority of the responsibility for taking care of the family. To emphasize this point, the “1996 Global Relocation Survey Trends Report” shows that of the 71 percent of married expatriates, married men outnumber married women nine to one; but single males outnumber single females only three to one. Clearly, single women have less complicated hurdles to overcome than married women.But this disparity is a changing reality as well, and it doesn’t mean that women who have families don’t want international assignments. Just ask Eleanor Haller-Jorden, managing director of the Paradigm Group, a Zurich, Switzerland-based international human resources research and consulting firm. “With the rise of dual-career couples, companies obviously will need to confront this issue more directly,” she points out. “I think there have been some dated assumptions in terms of the willingness and ability of male spouses to travel.” Line managers and HR professionals need to be more open and direct, speaking to employees about what might be of interest to them and what might get in the way of their taking assignments.

Haller-Jorden, who has two children and a husband who is an international banker, is in the midst of conducting a 10-year longitudinal study on international dual-career families. She’s able to reel off examples of couples who have eagerly sought assignments, as she and her husband did.

Talk with women who have relocated their children internationally, and they’ll wax poetic about the advantages for their children.

And why wouldn’t they be eager? As stated earlier, CEOs want to see international experience in their executives. In the same Catalyst report, 50 percent of senior women said that high-visibility assignments were important, and 33 percent wanted cross-functional job rotations. Adler’s research underscores these findings. As she puts it, there may have been differences in the past, but today, both men and women are equally interested in expat assignments.Despite this interest, many line managers assume women won’t want to move their children overseas. But talk with women who have relocated their children internationally, and they’ll wax poetic about the advantages for their children. They’re thrilled about providing them with new surroundings, the sense of being an international citizen, and the language and educational opportunities. Although it’s not exactly an easy adjustment, most parents claim their children soak up the foreign culture and adapt to it quickly.By contrast, it’s the spouse or partner who has trouble. When Danner landed in Poland she was immediately thrown into a bank privatization. Within three days she was on a plane to Gdansk, working every night until midnight. Her husband and children were living in a hotel. But, she says, even though it was tough for her, it was extraordinarily difficult for her husband. He’s a marketing expert who decided to take advantage of this opportunity and agreed to help the children adjust first before looking for work.“It took him six to nine months to get through the whole shock of language barrier, culture problems and just learning to get around,” says Danner. “He’d never been alone with the children in the same way, either,” she says. Although the family had some cultural orientation, Danner believes it wasn’t enough. “There needs to be more assistance as to what it’s going to be like,” she says.

An overseas relocation isn’t a quick adjustment, and it isn’t an opportunity for everyone. But when women with families come forward and express their eagerness for expatriate assignments, they shouldn’t be faced with managers who had assumed they wouldn’t be interested because of the age of their children or their spouses’ careers.

Don’t assume anything.
Just as the global marketplace changes constantly, so do the individuals who work in multinational firms. Greater opportunities and greater knowledge of the expatriate lifestyle will encourage women to step forward.“I’ve seen how important international assignments have been in a lot of women’s careers in terms of increased mobility and visibility for them in the workplace,” says Segal. “There needs to be encouragement and proactive behavior on the part of the organization to empower female executives to feel they have some control over where their careers are going.” If career management and effective mentoring of women is successful, if sufficient support and education become commonplace, there will likely be more female expats and more women in the foreign work environments altogether.But old assumptions won’t move the corporate culture or the global business effort forward. HR managers, along with managerial women and their line managers, must shatter stereotypes and create an action plan that works toward making full use of all individuals in the workplace.

Global Workforce, May 1998, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 10-14.