When You Want a Job Done Abroad – Send a Female Expat!

Matthew MacLachlan

16 Mar 2017

There is a very little known fact that has been hidden away, but which has the potential to drastically change our attitude to relocation – a female expat is more likely to succeed than her male counterpart.Old News – Female Expats Outperform Male Counterparts

The research is not even new, but it presents a consistent picture: female assignees have better professional adjustment and higher work performance than their male counterparts.

Research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that women leaders are much more adept at developing the four intercultural competencies associated with international success

As has been shown in the Nordic countries, organisations with a balance of men and women perform better. This reflects the research done into cultural diversity as well – more culturally diverse organisations are more productive, more creative and more profitable.

The research into female expats has received less attention, but it is just as convincing. To cite but a few key papers*:

  • Comparing the Success of Male and Female Expatriates
  • International Adjustment of Female vs. Male Business Expatriates
  • Why Do Female Expatriates “Fit In” Better than Males?

Female assignees have better professional adjustment and higher work performance than their male counterparts

Why Are Organisations Failing to Appoint More Women to International Roles?

There are two key factors that underpin the apparent reluctance of organisations to appoint women to international positions.

Institutional Sexism

Firstly, the institutional gender bias of many organisations means that women are less likely to be considered for an international position. Both male and female managers alike fall victim to the assumption that a woman would not want to accept an assignment – even before they have asked her!

Society is changing, and a woman does not need to be married to have her own status; relationships and even our understanding of gender and sexuality are much more fluid

We assume that it is the woman who looks after the family, that the male career is more important – a man would never give up his career to go abroad with his wife, etc.

The stereotype is that women earn less, are more tied to their family and local networks, and will adapt their life to the needs of their husband or partner. Ironically this view has not changed despite our dramatically liberalised views on relationships, sexuality and families.

It is also considered administratively more challenging – what if the woman becomes pregnant on assignment, how do we deal with maternity leave? What happens if a child gets sick? A study among Australian companies found that male executives were required to take up international assignments, whereas women had to apply to be considered.*

Even in the world of intercultural training, it is more often assumed that the accompanying partner or trailing spouse is a woman. As a result, there is very little research or support provided for dual-career male partners.

Many organisations are guilty of double standards when it comes to female expatriates

Misinformed Perceptions

Secondly, there is a perception of cultural challenges facing women. “A woman just can’t do business in Indonesia without a man”; “this post is just too important to send a woman – it would be seen as disrespectful to our Kuwaiti clients”.

The business considers that a woman would have to work twice as hard as a man to be accepted in the local culture. Many organisations are guilty of double standards – while having rigorous and commendable attitudes to gender diversity in their home country, they push all their policies to one side when thinking about appointments in an international office.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Many writers concerned with gender imbalance in work start from the position of looking at what women can do to be taken seriously. This is no longer considered an appropriate position to hold.

Gender equality should be the starting point and at the heart of every organisation – as should ethnic, disability, racial and other diversity agendas. So, let’s take a look at the key factors and examine how they can be addressed.

1. “A woman would not want to accept an assignment so far from home.”

This view has a very clear timestamp from the 1950’s. A woman’s place is in the home. We live in a world where a woman’s career aspirations are not subject to any restrictions that she does not impose upon herself.

To assume otherwise is illegal, patronising, and, if that is not enough, causes your organisation to miss out on 50% of the talent pool – and your competitor may not be as short-sighted!

It also presumes that a woman is married to a man. Society is changing, and a woman does not need to be married to have her own status; relationships and even our understanding of gender and sexuality are much more fluid. Moreover, even in a long term (or short term) relationship, there may be no man at all.

The most important question is not what sex you are but how good you are at your job.

2. “It is harder for a woman to work internationally.”

There is no evidence that, with the same technical qualifications, a man and woman cannot do the same job in a modern organisation.

Many say that a woman cannot work in Saudi Arabia – this is just untrue. While there are many issues around the role of Saudi and/or Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, a representative of a foreign company is treated as an honoured guest, man or woman, in the business context.

The most important question is not what sex you are but how good you are at your job.

3. Cultural Adaptation

Cultural issues may well come into play socially, and behaviour must be adapted, but that is just as true for men. A man or woman cannot behave in Riyadh the same way they would in Frankfurt or Moscow.

This is true to a greater or lesser extent in any cross-cultural setting. In fact, the research quoted above shows that women more readily adapt to new cultural settings and are quicker to develop the intercultural skills required to work internationally.

By 2020, the US will need 25 million more workers…Europe will need 24 million additional workers

In fact, with a desire to learn and good quality intercultural training, men and women can add value not only to their organisations but to their career prospects. There is no question that we need to adapt the way we behave and communicate in an intercultural context, but this is not a uniquely difficult challenge for women.

A Richer Talent Pool

While we are a long way from parity, the data suggests that over the past 40 years the numbers are getting much better. In fact, research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that women leaders are much more adept at developing the four intercultural competencies associated with international success:

  • Self-awareness
  • Conscious imbalance
  • Operating outside your comfort zone
  • Active career management

In order to achieve these targets organisations are going to have to be much more proactive in selecting women to go on assignments

According to the World Economic Forum, there is a significant workforce shortage globally. By 2020, the US will need 25 million more workers, Europe will need 24 million additional workers, and China must more than double its existing talent pool just to maintain current growth levels.

The challenge to talent and global mobility teams is to move past the unconscious bias that aligns the words “expatriate” and “man”

In order to achieve these targets organisations are going to have to be much more proactive in selecting women to go on assignments. This is not a question of affirmative action – this is a question of using all the available resources organisations have.

The challenge to talent and global mobility teams is to move past the unconscious bias that aligns the words “expatriate” and “man” – in many ways, the more modern use of the word “assignee” may well be useful in overcoming the inherent sexism that we have still not quite left behind.

*International Journal of Human Resource Management, October 1999, International Journal of Human Resource, Management, November 2003, Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 2011, Fischlmayr, 2002

 

Female Expat

 

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