Women Abroad – How to Get the Most from an International Assignment

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.