The rise and rise of female expatriates

Women`s participation in international mobility is on the up. Today, just under 17% of expatriates are female. Sue Shortland charts their progress in the international arena, and outlines what companies might do to increase gender diversity yet further.

Back in the early 1980s, very little was written about female expatriates because there were simply too few to write about. Nancy Adler1, a North American academic, set the scene by studying women's perceptions and desires to take international assignments. She estimated that only three per cent of the expatriate population of the early 1980s was female. Research conducted in the UK by ORC2 a decade later indicated that the number of women expatriates stood at only five per cent.Nancy Adler's research looked at MBA students and found that, despite the fact that organisations assumed women did not want international careers, the women themselves were certainly as keen to participate if not more so than men. Organisations also claimed that the foreign location would not be receptive of women and that assigning a woman to an expatriate position would signify lack of respect for it. Nancy Adler set out to debunk this myth by interviewing a sample of women working in Asia3. She found that they were very successful and attributed part of their success to their gender the foreigners thought that they had to be very good indeed, otherwise the company would not have sent them!

Women on international assignments perceived as too high a risk

Yet organisations were still unwilling to send women and Adler`s research found that the potential risk was considered too high for organisations to bear. Single women were thought to be subject to harassment and security issues; married women had the trailing male spouse to cope with and those with children presented even further obstacles to successful mobility. Research over the next decade reinforced Adler's early findings. Hilary Harris4 in the mid-1990s researched the impact of selection criteria and processes on women being selected for expatriate assignments. It seemed that networks and informal links, when used as part of the selection process, did discriminate against women. The old-boy network` favoured, not surprisingly, old boys. However, where clearly articulated and published selection criteria were in evidence, women managed to get on the international assignment track.The 1990s saw important developments that aided women`s participation. Concerns over the demographic time-bomb and a focus on competitive advantage sharpened employers` actions. As Adler remarked, companies could not overlook talent simply because it wore a skirt. The 1980`s drive for equal opportunities following on from discrimination legislation of the 1970s was given a further boost by the diversity movement in the 1990s. The continued decline in manufacturing and rise in services also favoured women`s entry into the labour market, and rising achievement in further and higher education for women helped them to gain increasing footholds on the managerial ladder.However, the take-up of international assignments by women in the 1990s remained low. It seemed that organisational barriers remained.

Globalisation paves the way for more expatriate women

The 1990s also saw another major change in the business environment globalisation. The competitive edge was needed at international level, and as women rose up the corporate ladder they naturally entered the pool from which potential leadership could be drawn. Their participation in international mobility began to rise reaching around 13 per cent by the end of the decade, reflecting Granell`s5 view of, `integrating differences, putting together our strengths, building from the differences and being able to join efforts for a win-win process.Research carried out at the end of the 1990s by Margaret Linehan6, based on interviews with 50 senior female international managers in Europe, still showed that women faced extraordinary pressures in gaining an international assignment, juggling their domestic lives with their careers and in overcoming gender barriers.
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Linehan found that covert and overt barriers to women`s participation still existed. These included male spouses; trading an international career against relationships and children; lack of female role models; exclusion from male networks; insufficient women mentors and the negative impact on gender on international careers. In effect, the barriers to senior management at home were similar internationally, with the image of successful male manager predominating in Europe. Women believed they had to be as well-qualified, if not more so, than men with senior experience, be more ambitious and be more mobile. They had to be persistent in requesting their next career move, convince management of their worth and be better at simultaneously balancing a number of functions than men. They claimed that sacrifice of personal life was needed to reach the top, whereas men did not have to make such sacrifices. Of the 50 women interviewed, 47 said you can`t have it all` career, relationship and children. They felt that married men were viewed as assets; married women as liabilities little change, then, from the research findings of the early 1980s. But, interestingly, the respondents said that organisations could no longer assume the male career would take precedence. Women can and will succeed in international assignments, they predicted.In the early years of the 21st century, that prediction seems to be coming true. Today, women`s participation stands at just under 17 per cent of the expatriate population7. As organisations come under increasing pressure to quicken the pace at which they internationalise and complete projects, at the same time reducing operational costs to ensure competitiveness, so traditional expatriation is giving way to alternative mobility strategies. The changing nature and quickening pace of the internationalisation of business is reflected in the changing nature of international assignment purposes and types, associated competency requirements and more flexible approaches to assignee deployment. Long-term postings in which the expatriate (usually male) is accompanied by partner and family are increasingly being replaced by alternative assignment types, such as short-term, commuter and frequent flyer assignments.

Gender balance in international assignments

Significant implications arise from these changes in terms of gender balance. Dual career issues are taking on a new twist as increasing numbers of women have male spouses who need to be considered in the relocation process. Pressure is already being brought to bear on governments via organisations such as the Permits Foundation8 to relax work permit restrictions for accompanying spouses.Career paths have traditionally been viewed along the lines of the male career model, not taking into account women`s career patterns that typically involve periods out of the labour market for child-rearing. However, careers in organisations are no longer linear and boundaried` and the so-called boundaryless` career, comprising portfolio working, interim management combined with spells of more traditional employment, is becoming more commonplace. This, surely, must favour women, as linear career tracks become less the norm and men too are seen to dip in and out of the traditional labour market.The expatriate package is also no longer the rich ticket it was when men dominated the expatriate scene in the early 1980s. Trimming back policy elements has resulted in a leaner offering and, combined with uncertainty of job prospects on repatriation, has made the expatriate experience a less attractive one for the stereotypical male breadwinner`.

What employment practices will support greater numbers of women working on international assignments?

Research into feminisation of the labour market during the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service economy in the 1980s proposed a model based around the notion of queuing. Put very simply, employers preferred men, and men preferred high pay/high status employment so they were at the top of the queue and got first pickings of the plum jobs. Women wanted the pay and the prospects too and, as conditions favoured more women entering these roles, so the consequent feminisation led to the roles being less desired by men and pay levels typically fell, the status of the job reduced and men no longer put these jobs at the top of their queue. The theory as described here has been highly simplified, but could potentially be applied to the expatriate experience. In the 1980s expatriation was a key to success and was financially rewarding. By 2006, the package has reduced and the rewards are less predictable in terms of career success. Perhaps this gives women their entrance ticket? However, if this were so, we should have seen a dramatic rise in women`s participation and this has not been the case.The nature of expatriation has changed, with increased emphasis on collaborative purpose (eg, via international joint venture, mergers and acquisition), developmental objectives (eg, training and development gaining in significance against the more traditional function of plugging skills gaps), and flexibility in deployment (eg, via short-term, commuter and frequent flyer assignments). Have these initiatives helped to support women`s participation? Women are stereotypically known for their collaborative and democratic leadership styles, their communication skills, which could be applied to training and coaching others, and their requirement for flexibility to balance their domestic and career concerns. Whether these assumptions about women reflect the new-style international assignment requirements and whether these can be addressed through international assignment policy initiatives has yet to be researched. Nevertheless, underpinning all of this is the role of wider employer policy and practice. Understanding of the role of policy initiatives is therefore required. Areas to be tackled include:
  • Equal opportunities/diversity
  • Work-life balance
  • Dual careers
  • Management development
  • Mentoring/networks/sponsors/role models
  • Career management
Research has shown that legislative interventions have not really aided women`s selection for international management roles, although diversity initiatives seem to have had some limited success. Society`s gender expectations of women`s role in childcare and family maintenance lead to work-life balance pressures and role conflict when managing a career as well. Whether work-life balance organisational initiatives can be translated from the domestic scene into the world of international management is perhaps debatable. However, if women`s participation in expatriation is really going to expand, support for management development initiatives to help them break through the glass ceiling and border is likely to be critical, backed with initiatives to mentor and sponsor women, to further their links into networks and to enable them to take inspiration from female role models. Career management requires a female perspective moving away from traditional male approaches and recognising that success in the international environment may take new and different forms.There is no doubt that women have made significant progress into the male-dominated expatriate world. Historically, research has looked at the more negative aspects of the challenges and hindrances to women`s careers. The time is ripe for research with a positive outlook that demonstrates actions that support and promote women`s mobility both organisations and women themselves should then see the benefit.References1. Adler, N.J., 1984. Women do not want international careers: and other myths about international management. Organizational Dynamics. 13, pp. 66-79.2. ORC/CBI, 1992. Update on survey on spouses/partners and international assignments. London: ORC Europe and CBI Employee Relocation Council.3. Adler, N.J, 1987. Pacific basin managers: a gaijin, not a woman. Human Resource Management. 26 (2), pp. 169-191.4. Harris, H., 1999. Women in international management why are they not selected? In Brewster, B. and Harris, H., (eds.) International HRM contemporary issues in Europe. London: Routledge, pp.258-276.5. Granell, E., 2000. Culture and globalisation: a Latin American challenge. Industrial and Commercial Training. 32 (3), pp. 89-93.6. Linehan, M., 2000. Senior female managers: why so few? Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.7. ORC, 2005. Dual careers and international assignments survey. London: Organization Resources Counselors, Inc.8.© 2007. Article taken from pages 8-10 of the winter 2006 edition of Re:locate magazine, published by Profile Locations, Spray Hill, Hastings Road, Lamberhurst, Kent TN3 8JB. All rights reserved. This publication (or any part thereof) may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of Profile Locations. Profile Locations accepts no liability for the accuracy of the contents or any opinions expressed herein.

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